Making life meaningful in corporate structures

25 Jul 2019 By Dr Christian Busch

Businesses need to ask why they do what they are doing, and what this means for their employees, says Dr Christian Busch

Shifts in needs and mindsets, rapid technological change and increasingly urgent and complex societal challenges require companies to navigate unknown waters. To make matters even more challenging, key stakeholders – particularly millennial employees – increasingly expect a healthy combination of money and meaning in their careers. How can companies make life meaningful in corporate structures?

Over the last decade, our research at the London School of Economics and at Leaders on Purpose has focused on how we can develop businesses that are fit for the future. Our research on impact organisations – organisations that do well and good at the same time – has surfaced actionable insights on how we can create productive environments for people to thrive:

1. Integrating a tangible purpose and genuine values across the organisation

Our research with 15 of the world’s top companies points to the importance of asking: why are we, as an organisation, doing what we are doing – and why should people care? What does this mean for our employees when they come into the office on Monday morning?

Many leaders recognise the importance of a ‘meaningful company purpose’, but there is often a void in terms of how to develop and integrate it across the organisation. Companies increasingly learn from impact investors how to measure social and environmental impact, at scale – given that we often only value what we measure.

Organisations such as Ikea, Danone, and Mars have started tying processes such as performance reviews and recurring meetings to non-monetary indicators and/or principles in an attempt to align employees with the business’s purpose. Tangible values can bind people together; for example, by using ‘champions’ that help to embody and integrate core values across the organisation. Companies increasingly use simple alignment exercises; for example, asking employees to reflect (and act) on how their own purpose relates to the business’s purpose.

2. Implementing agile structures and processes

Advances in technology and business models allow us not only to develop organisations based on flatter structures, but also to enable and hold people accountable within and across organisations.

There is a strong connection between purpose and agility. By promoting a culture of engaged-purpose, leaders can help employees move with more agility through the life cycle of new projects and initiatives, balancing between traditional hierarchical processes that were designed for scaling and adaptive processes that help foster engagement and creativity.

Leaders should note this shift from ‘managing’ to ‘inspiring’ networked structures and communities within and beyond the organisation. Rather than having (or pretending to have) all the answers themselves, organisations such as Reconstructed Living Labs identify existing core capabilities of employees and leverage those. Innovation communities such as Sandbox Network show how close-knit networks can be developed at scale to enable people to contribute.

3. Developing a serendipity field

Many leaders are adding new leadership functions to their role, such as fostering psychological safety, reducing fear of failure and activating collaborative group processes. One of the most surprising findings coming out of our research is how receptive purpose-driven leaders are to gleaning unforeseen insights. Successful companies increasingly foster cultures where serendipity and sense-making spontaneously emerge.

By celebrating the art of the unexpected and developing processes such as project funerals (celebrating learning from failed projects) and user-centric intrapreneurship, they promote innovation and secure long-lasting organisational success in a world in which we can rarely predict what will happen tomorrow. This also redefines the unexpected as a source of uncertainty to a source of joy and fulfilment.

But a serendipity mindset can also add meaning in a tumultuous world. Take Turkcell, Turkey’s leading mobile provider: when the political upheavals in Turkey in 2018 led to violence across the country, Turkcell decided to give free access to the internet across the country. Whenever ‘unexpected’ crises such as earthquakes or terrorist attacks happen in areas that the company covers, it responds with similar measures. With this serendipity mindset – being ready for the unexpected – companies do the right thing while making their employees proud.  

Organisations can develop meaning in corporate structures based on realising that the days of a ‘hierarchy of needs’ – in which employees aimed to first earn lots of money to then later donate it to their passion projects – are over. Rather, companies increasingly accept that an ‘enlightened circle of needs’ requires providing an environment in which employees can pursue money and meaning, at scale.

This requires a real commitment to meaningful change. 

There is certainly a big opportunity for businesses to play an active part in shifting to an enlightened self-interest based model of capitalism, of which we can proudly tell our children and grandchildren.

Dr Christian Busch is a lecturer at the London School of Economics and co-founder of Leaders on Purpose and the Sandbox Network

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