OPINION: Seeking leaders with purpose

Employees that are engaged and empowered are also the most productive people, says Sally Bailey.

One of the key attributes that I seek in leaders is the ability to bring the outside in to the business – to be able to listen to and engage with a wide range of internal and external audiences that have a stake in the way they operate.

I’m a passionate advocate of ‘triple bottom line’ accounting – giving consideration to people, planet and profit. I used to think it necessary to minimise time spent outside of an organisation in order to maximise productivity.

In fact, the opposite is true. The more time we spend in situations outside our natural habitat, the more we can draw upon different approaches. Whereas leaders used to be valued for their deep yet narrow industry or professional expertise, these people may now find their insularity makes it harder to engage and adapt within increasingly complex social and economic systems.

Good leadership is not well advertised in the UK. I was once in discussions with a TV producer about filming a White Stuff leadership team helping to turn around other businesses through working on their business culture. It didn’t proceed to commissioning for various reasons but would have been an antidote to other programmes in this genre. One only needs to watch The Apprentice for a few minutes to despair at the promotion of individualism and ruthless competition over the collaboration and respect that should be valued in real-life businesses.

In a similar vein, we need to think of our customers as people – not just consumers. In companies that I run, I have customer panels to help me understand which issues – be it illness, childcare, erratic income – are affecting them, and how we can help. At White Stuff, our store staff’s connection with their communities helped us to form local charity partnerships with organisations that addressed issues our shoppers cared about.

Learning from others
As a chair and non-exec, I crave professional development but it’s difficult to find the right learning – you’d be hard pressed to get me into a classroom but I love learning from other people and bursting out of my day-to-day bubble.

Last year, I joined a team of senior execs from several large corporates to help a charity in need of strategic coaching, through the Pilotlight Programme. Before starting out, I worried; would they be too traditional to teach me new things? Quite the opposite – each person had different talents and ways of working, which left a lasting impression. Together, we helped the leader of a charity supporting the victims and survivors of domestic abuse to develop her organisational strategy. And I learnt a lot about leading with purpose from that charity’s leader. Charities have been mission-driven organisations long before purpose became a business movement, after all.

Purpose shouldn’t be monolithic
Speaking personally, I get fired up by feminist empowerment. It’s not the driving purpose of the organisations that I work for, but it does often colour the way I ask questions or propose solutions. People’s individual purpose tends to differ from an organisation’s purpose, but it signals their motivations, which is why I always explore this with interview candidates. I’m never looking for people who’ll violently agree with their colleagues – one of the reasons why diversity in all its forms is so important, is that it presents businesses with different, valuable perspectives.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable talking about personal purpose, but there are other ways to learn what makes people tick. I often ask what makes them happy. Or I’ll prompt them to explain which is their favourite room at home. It’s amazing what this can tell you, and there is genuinely no single right answer.

A current focus of mine is the ethical fashion industry, and I’m always keen to find multi-dimensional people who can talk about more than their bottom line. Can they tell me how they determine staff reward, and why? When I ask them about their company’s social and environmental policies, am I being told about set-piece initiatives or are they lived and breathed on a daily basis with staff input and backing?

Purpose is for all of your people
Purpose-driven culture can’t exist only among senior leaders. It needs to be role-modelled and shared. Those involved in employee brand, L&D and organisational development are key drivers of business purpose – ensuring that all their people feel purpose through a business’ structure, processes and culture.

The hallmark of purposeful leadership is caring for people and relationships. Too many businesses get confused between formality and professionalism. But we can and should aim to be professional, human and happy – in fact, there’s plenty of research to show that the employees that are engaged and empowered are also the most productive people. Doing good and doing well shouldn’t be mutually exclusive concepts. The best businesses today do both.

Sally Bailey is the chair of Pilotlight. After a long career in retail, most lately as CEO of White Stuff, Bailey is now a portfolio non-executive, board adviser and mentor.

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