The Power of Purposeful Engagement

A strong sense of purpose is essential to effective leadership. For 12 years we have been challenging managers from global companies to think critically and forge their own conclusions about purpose, in relation to their business and their own leadership roles.

Leading and engaging with purpose requires a broad, empathetic view and an appreciation of diverse narratives. Conventional stakeholder engagement too often discounts the circumstances of others or is motivated by a narrow agenda. Relationship-building must go beyond simply promoting one's own view, or superficially validating the views of others. The aim should be understanding and internalising how others see the world, in order to build truly inclusive and constructive outcomes.

Purposeful Engagement sits at the heart of GIFT’s experiential learning methodology - a key element in developing successful outputs for multi-stakeholder projects and promoting the powerful personal realisations that participants gain through the process.

    Why Purpose?

    On a personal level, a strong sense of purpose improves effectiveness, satisfaction and overall well-being. On a professional level, it enhances productivity, resilience, and employee retention. It promotes a sense of ownership of one’s role and responsibilities. Among leaders it is undoubtedly one of the intangible qualities that draws others in and inspires commitment, hard work and results.

    The suggestion (increasingly debated), that Millennials seek greater meaning in their work has been well-publicised. Millennials value “opportunities to learn and grow” in evaluating their career, according to Gallup (2016). Over half of millennials would avoid working in a particular sector if they believed it had a negative social impact, according to a PwC poll.

    The absence of clear purpose can lead to corporate misbehaviour, low job satisfaction and increasing labour turnover. This paper from the Brookings Institute argues that the focus on shareholder value as the sole purpose of business has encouraged corporate misbehaviour. The chief economist for employer-review website Glassdoor writes that “one of the most striking results we’ve found is that, across all income levels, the top predictor of workplace satisfaction is not pay: It is the culture and values of the organization…”

      Business, Purpose and the Creation of Social Value

      Not all businesses have noble, awe-inspiring purpose. Yet the potential to dramatically improve lives while also generating a healthy profit is perhaps the most compelling motivation for businesses today.

      Businesses are increasingly recognising the vast opportunities to engage in meeting the world’s unmet needs (water, food, housing, sanitation, healthcare, education, etc) while simultaneously advancing their own commercial objectives. Sadly, much of this discussion is still side-lined to the realm of CSR or sustainability, and thus not prioritised at the level of business decision-making.

      The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), formulated by the United Nations, is one significant attempt to engage the international business community more directly into purpose-driven commercial activities. Yet progress toward achieving results on the SDG's has been slow and sentiment is largely pessimistic as highlighted in this two-year anniversary review by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

      This year at the United Nations General Assembly week, "Purpose" seemed to be a buzzword for corporate attendees. As reported by the New York Times, the invitation to business leaders was to "galvanize a movement of businesses with purpose at its heart." Though it was not clear that many knew what that meant in practical terms, beyond the public relations value.

      Leaders who ignore these trends however are not just missing out on potential business opportunities, they risk alienating or driving away the best talent. In our experiential leadership programmes, we have seen countless times how a genuine sense of purpose can be the critical turning point for teams working through difficult periods and seeking to secure commitments from others.

        Participants on our Global Leaders Programme (GLP) regularly produce a 100-page business plan in 5-6 days. How do we get them to work so hard and remain so productive? By tapping into their innate sense of purpose and commitment to practical outcomes for partners.

        Over the course of the field project, participants establish a relationship with our partners, often including emotional experiences in the community which are highly motivating. It allows them to break through the tendency within business to supress emotions based on the assumption that showing emotion represents weakness or vulnerability. Emotional responsiveness however indicates a sense of ownership and ownership is necessary for a realising a sense of purpose.

        The business projects at the centre of GIFT’s action-learning programmes are framed around the creation of tangible social value and internalising externalities through innovative business models. Local stakeholders, too often discounted by conventional corporate business models, are considered as central to the business rather than costs to be minimized or subjects of charity work.

          Examples from GIFT’s recent work include:

          The Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) applied during an experiential leadership learning project on Safe Food Production in China (Changchun, 2016), the outcome of which was a business plan detailing the expansion of a nationwide National Farming Alliance. China’s 230 million smallholder farming households across countless villages have a critical role to play in helping meet the country’s need for increased food production without compromising quality or safety: an issue making unfortunate headlines in recent years.

          A new model for scaling up access to micro-home loans in India (Tamil Nadu, 2017), to reach the 65 million rural families who need financing for critical housing upgrades. While India’s rural housing finance is expected to be an $80bn market by 2020, the personal impact on individuals helping to facilitate access to safe, secure homes is paramount.

          GIFT has worked with partners to develop and scale projects in healthcare, housing, micro-insurance, rural electrification and other sectors which highlight similar inclusive practices and new approaches to achieving balance between financial and social returns. As leaders realise the need to promote prosperity, mitigate the consequences of inequality and renew ecological systems, policies will inevitably shift to support new business models.

            Anchoring the behaviours of Purposeful Engagement

            Purposeful Engagement can be strengthened by focusing on the three pillars of our experiential learning methodology:


            • Having a well-rounded understanding the key issues, drivers and trends shaping the future
            • Having the ability to "connect the dots" from macro-trends to practical realities and projects
            • Knowing what you don’t know


            • Being able to understand and have your message understood by others, while learning to use new techniques and tools
            • Being able to speak effectively without PowerPoint and ensuring that you actually “say something” when given the opportunity and not waste it
            • Communicating effectively across cultures, functions, industries and socio-economic backgrounds


            • Commonly understood to mean the ability to feel what others feel
            • Increasingly becoming a prerequisite for 21st century business leaders
            • Being cognizant of the impacts of your decisions on others in the business, in society and on the environment

              The Purposeful Engagement Quotient

              We believe that Purposeful Engagement is such an important part of effective leadership that we created a personal assessment tool — the “Purposeful Engagement (PE) Quotient” — as a means to internalise its principles and apply it within one’s team.

              The assessment is done privately by participants on the first and last days of our programmes. We do not require participants to disclose their results, but we do make time for participants to share what they thought and felt. The PE Quotient makes conscious the behaviours and habits that foster a broad knowledge base, effective communication skills and a deeper sense of empathy.

              Participants are asked to rate how strongly they feel in alignment with each of thirty statements (ten for each of the above pillars). By mapping participants’ scores both at the beginning and the end of programmes, participants and facilitators can identify gaps and thus where participants should focus when planning their personal development.

                The journey of Purposeful Engagement enables current and future leaders to:

                • Understand the realities of the world
                • Anticipate policy shifts
                • Become a more empathic individual
                • Adapt business models to serve society’s needs while sustaining and growing profits

                This concept has resonated so deeply with participants and companies that many have asked us to adapt the PE Quotient into briefings, interactive workshops and other formats beyond our flagship Global Leaders Programme (GLP).

                Contact us to learn more about the Purposeful Engagement Quotient and how it can be deployed for benefit within your teams.

                  Photo credit: Chris de Bode for The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs

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