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Connecting People to Purpose - The Ultimate HR Mission

  Purpose. It is a word we are all no-doubt familiar with. I am sure each and every one of us has, at some point, thrown out the question “What IS my purpose?” into that great ether. Probably even more so in the year that has been 2020. And if you are lucky enough to have received an answer back from said ether or even worked it out for yourself, that is super – you, of course, want to make sure you achieve it. To do that, you must work out what it is going to take.

Organizations, too, have a purpose. Whether they are for-profit or not, government or agency, large or small, new or established, there needs to be a defining intention for their existence, a raison d’etre that propels them forward. This purpose is the reason that Every.Single.Employee. of said organization is theoretically there – to help them achieve this purpose. But this is where the disconnect lies.


You see, connecting people to your organization’s purpose does not happen by chance. It requires conscious thought, planning, work. Sure, your employees can be committed personally, believe in your vision and be your #1 biggest fan ever. However, to truly ensure that your workforce is enabling the achievement of your purpose, it must must must have the right capacity and capability to do so. Or, the reality is, you just won’t get there.


“Yes, Alicia. You are so wise and we believe every word you are proclaiming” I hear you saying (or maybe that is just my own motivational recording playing in my airpods?!?!) but I know you are really wondering “What does this actually mean? How do we actually do this?” Well, lemme tell you. Underpinning the connection of people to purpose is my BFE – Strategic Workforce Planning. Cue eyerolls. I know - #mostannoyingcorporatephraseever


My poor SWP friend, still so misunderstood. I even started to pen it a letter last year [here if you want to witness one of my low points in awkward personification]. But it really is THE only way that I have seen organizations successfully connect their people (i.e., their workforce = the execution vehicle) to their purpose (and strategy), so that they can achieve it together. I will let “a picture tell 1000 words” and will not step through each aspect of the extremely clever graphic accompanying this article. Its compelling-ness should illustrate my point exactly - although if you do want even more juicy detail on SWP you can also check this out.


This is HR’s mission by the way. No-one else’s. Because HR is the custodian of the workforce. HR understands the intricacies of the employee lifecycle and knows that the $$$ numbers on a financial statement actually have a human attached to them. HR functions are the people for the people. But they need to step it up and step aside from the standard “HR Toolkit” and its laundry-list of best practice items. SWP distils that laundry list of what HR could be working on, into what really should be prioritized in order to make that connection of the workforce, the people, to ensuring the organization is achieving its mandate, its purpose.


Let me be clear. There is no other way. As an illustration, let’s take our three favorite, most popular HR programs of late and run them through the stringent “People to Purpose Test” – I just coined this phrase, feel free to borrow as I know it’s super catchy:

  • Employee Experience/EVP – your people can have the absolute best experience as an employee of your organization in the whole entire world, universe, galaxy

  • Leadership – can be the most inspiring, effective, talented and driven managers ever

  • Culture – may be so supportive, conducive, inclusive, enabling, empowering

. . . buuuuut, if your organization does not have the right capability and capacity in its people, they are still not gonna get you where you need to be. Which is . . . ensuring you can execute your organization’s purpose through the execution vehicle of the workforce, your people. Engaged? Yes. Enthused? Yes. Good teammate? Yes. Capable? Not necessarily. The above programs can be great, but you have to get the fundamentals right for them to even matter. There is no point creating the world’s best employment branding video if in the next instance you are undertaking one of the reactive measures listed three paragraphs below.


Waste. Of. Time/Money/Effort/Energy/Film/Lattes (circle all that may apply)


So what about ensuring you can achieve purpose in the face of external dynamics?


Reskilling for the future and all things Future of Work are really hitting the radar these days, which is great. Watching the emergence of forward-looking practices relating to the workforce is so cool and, I must say, long overdue. However, the “robots are coming” rhetoric has gotten fairly fatiguing. We know technology is here and here to stay. The problem with the myriad of FoW stats is that they are often detached from an organization’s reality. For sure, you need to understand technology trajectories, but there must be the right equilibrium between tech and people which means there must be contextualisation into your org’s unique dynamics. Think things like customer journey, critical success factors, competitive advantage, risk appetite, regulatory environment, to name but a few. Otherwise, all you know is what might be possible in the face of tech, but not what you need to do to achieve your purpose (singing from the same songsheet yet?)


Of course, I cannot ignore the (very large, aesthetically displeasing) elephant in the room – COVID. External shocks are, well, shocking. Unplanned, disruptive, surprising. We know from this year that it is all up for grabs as the who, where, how, when of all things work is completely shifting and shaping. However, the organizations that are effective at navigating external shocks and planning for emergence, are the ones that are truly agile. Btw, “agile” doesn’t mean we just react to whatever the latest order of the day is. Being truly agile means you have the right baseline in place and know where you are trying to get to and how you might get there, so that as unforeseen change invariably occurs, you can respond in a way that is sustainable, cohesive and usually much much much more socially responsible.


On that - so you think you are socially responsible??? Has your org ever made short-term decisions that may have damaged its longer-term viability? What about . . .

  • Hiring freezes – tick

  • Blanket headcount reductions – tick

  • Quick Org Restructures that don’t address the fundamental disconnect so end up happening again in another month or so (and again . . . and again . . .) – tick tick tick!

These usually reactive measures undermine the very premise of “social responsibility” (not to mention often remove some of the capability that the recovery business model is actually dependant upon!) Because the organization has failed to holistically create a clear (strategic workforce) plan for the future, they have been unable to ensure what is, arguably, the greatest measure of responsibility for their people – sustainability in employment, either with or without them. In doing so, they are actually disconnecting their people from their purpose. This hits the ones that stay almost as much as the ones that go – damaging measures as in the list above not only immediately impact people, but impair the culture, EVP, employee experience, productivity, and so on for years to come, often irreparably. Remember, your people are the community, are society, are the “social” for which we must be “responsible”. Yes, you may have shifting workforce requirements – but imagine you could let employees know well in advance, help them prepare for transition in a compassionate and honest way. Or even better - identify that they actually have 60/70/80% of the capability you need in a growing/emerging role and bring them on the upskilling/reskilling revolution with you! Talk about really aligning people with your purpose :)


By now you may have noticed that this article was not about connecting people to profit (yes, the old accountant in me is withering inside). This is about purpose – this is higher order, meaningful, collaborative, achievement. Togetherness. It is not just me by the way – I love this recent report from WEF (also see graphic below) which completely made my heart sing – it goes to exactly what we have been espousing. We are entering worldview 2.0 - there is a raising of corporate consciousness emerging, the old-school "people are just costs" is done and dusted, it’s time for a new paradigm in every organization.


No longer can Harry from Strategy sit in his corner office creating a detached 200 page ppt deck, or Meghan from Finance set lofty revenue targets – and then just assume the right workforce will materialize to deliver this (even after we have frozen everyone’s budget). I mean, c’mon Harry and Meghan, get with the times! This is about creating that inherent link of our people to our purpose, of recognizing that we can’t do it without them, that they are our organization and that our organization is them. Purpose without people is just a theory.


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