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The Power of Purpose: Why It’s the Key to Effective Leaders and to Retaining Women in Leadership

Issue 94— May 20, 2019

Tis the season for commencement speeches. We all remember those with themes or phrases that stick in our minds. Wear sunscreen. We are the wolves. Find your purpose.

I venture to say that last theme has been used in more commencement speeches than any other. But cliché though it may be, it’s also the most trenchant.

Several years ago, at my daughter’s graduation from nursing school, the speaker repeated “find your purpose” over and over in a mellifluous voice. I don’t remember a single other thing the man said, but I can still hear him saying that. It resounds in my mind as both an exhortation and a prophecy: If only you can find your purpose, you can do anything else you want in life.

Certainly for anyone in leadership — and by my definition, that’s everyone in any role — identifying, articulating, and staying true to your purpose are essential to long term success.

This is easy to say but not necessarily easy to do. No wonder we talk so much about it.

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It can be scary to define and articulate your purpose out loud to yourself and others. That’s why I love this quote from the late Carrie Fisher: “Stay afraid but do it anyway.”

Quartz Insights and WE-Worldwide partnered on a paper titled “Leading With Purpose in an Age Defined by It.”

Full disclosure: I was honored to be among those interviewed for the paper, which looked at the importance of purpose to the success of brands and the qualities that make a strong purpose leader. One of their key points likens leadership driven by purpose to creating a movement that enables others in the organization to share the purpose in a visceral way.

As one of my mentors used to say, a great leader enables people to see themselves in the story and become part of it emotionally as well as intellectually. That is the essence of movement building, the Leadership Power Tool #7 that I teach participants in my 9 Leadership Power Tools workshops and other corporate trainings, such as 50 Women Can Change the World.

Here are four key findings from the Quartz Insights — WE study:

DEFINE YOUR PURPOSE

Identify the core strengths of your original business mission.

Draw a brand purpose from this foundation.

DIALOGUE WITH YOUR STAKEHOLDERS

Convey that what you stand for connects to your customers’ needs and values.

Build an exchange with local communities, including your employees.

ALIGN STORY AND ACTION

Align communications and action in service of your brand purpose.

Adapt your communication style to address changing societal issues and needs.

ACTIVATE AND BUILD A MOVEMENT

Deploy your brand purpose at relevant, necessary moments.

Evaluate purpose strategy at key milestones to ensure it has lasting impact.

Why is purpose especially important to recruiting and retaining female talent?

I’ve found over years of leading organizations and the research I’ve done for books and articles that women value relationships that align with their higher purpose. Though that may vary from woman to woman, most are looking to work with companies that express their own higher purpose or values in their actions. From the companies’ program design perspective, this may influence the framing of their mission statements or alignment with charitable causes.

In fact, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Women were more likely to stay with their employer for these reasons [the opportunity to make a difference] over what might be considered more concrete, traditional reasons such as pay or benefits. Moreover, when women wrote in their personal answers to the question, “What are the most important things that organizations could do to make you want to work for them?” many talked about having personally meaningful work that connects to their values, purpose, and work-life balance.”

Filmmaker dream hampton knows the power of her purpose and lives it through her work such as the documentary “Surviving R Kelly.” I had the pleasure of meeting her last week at the New York Women’s Foundation annual breakfast #celebratingwomen.

Now a wildly bestselling author, Gretchen Rubin describes the “call” to purpose that caused her to leave her law career:

“I certainly felt a call to writing. It took me a while to hear it and follow it, but I remember thinking, ‘Well, at this point, I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.’ I remember quoting Juvenal to my father, ‘An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.’ I didn’t want that to happen to me.”

Since many of the smartest companies are realizing that gender diversity makes business sense in addition to being the right thing to do, they need to be able to articulate and live their purpose throughout their organizations to retain women through the leadership pipeline.

But this has to be authentic, not just fine words on a company website.

It has been said that you will be found out if you sing a song that is not your own.

Alignment and integrity between purpose and values stated, and purpose and values acted on, is critical. It will always come home to roost if your company is not living those values. People follow people with a point of view, so don’t worry if not everyone agrees with you. But above all, be authentic and true to what you say is your purpose as a leader.

So here are three questions you can ask to help clarify, define, and harness the power of your purpose. These questions work for individuals and for organizations of any kind:

  1. When you look back from 10 years into the future, what do you want your work during that time to have meant to yourself? To your family? To the organization? To the world?
  2. What values do you believe in so strongly that you would walk away from an otherwise good job rather than violate?
  3. What is the intersection or sweet spot of what you think the world needs and what gives you personally great joy? What’s the source of energy for you?

Tell me, what is your purpose? How do you define and articulate it? I’d love to know your thoughts about the power of purpose.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.

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