Startup founders and CEOs need to harness a sense of purpose for multiplier effects in productivity, innovation and customer delight, according to this bestselling author.
Kevin Murray is an author and coach on communication and leadership. His books include People with Purpose: How Great Leaders Use Purpose to Build Thriving Organisations (see my book review), The Language of Leaders and Communicate to Inspire. He has consulted for Airbus, Adobe, Fujitsu, BSkyB, Gazprom, Lloyds TSB, Emirates Airline, Marconi, British Gas, and SABMiller.
At early and scale stages of organisational growth, a sense of purpose drives engagement, trust, credibility, enthusiasm, ownership, and mutually beneficial partnerships, according to Kevin. He joins us in this chat on the key role startup founders and business leaders play in ensuring long-term success by clearly articulating a sense of purpose.
YourStory: Why do people still tend to confuse purpose, vision and mission?
Kevin Murray: One of my favourite activities with senior leadership teams is to ask them to write down what their purpose is on a blank sheet of paper without conferring with their colleagues. I then asked them to write down what their vision is, and then ask them to write down what their mission is.
I always get the same result – there is very little alignment among people about what those three things are – and my point to them is that if they aren't aligned, how can the rest of the organisation be aligned? It doesn't matter what words you use, you just have to agree what you mean when you use this word. Only then can you truly craft something very compelling.
So, for example, you need to articulate clearly what you mean by the word purpose and what you mean by the word vision. In my templates I've explained what I mean by these words and most companies who work with my template wind up using more or less the same meanings. However, I have seen companies change the meaning to suit their own needs and that's fine by me – so long as they all understand clearly what they mean by it.
YS: Can leadership really be formally taught?
KM: I truly believe that leadership can be taught, but we need to start by changing people's mindsets very early. I think back to the days when I was at school and I saw fellow pupils organising trips to a concert, for example. I always marvelled at how they were natural leaders. It was only later that I realised they were leading because they had a passion to achieve something.
That's what leadership is about – taking the initiative to achieve something that needs to happen. So if we can ignite that attitude in people – to take ownership of problems and to solve them wherever they are in the organisation – then you have more leaders.
There are many skills of leadership, and I believe all of these can be taught. Whether it's helping people to communicate better, to listen better, or whether it is helping them to think more strategically, or understand project management – all of it can be trained.
Obviously those who have a natural talent will perform better, but anybody can be good if they get some fundamental training. The only problem is that I don't think organisations spend enough time or money on providing this training.
YS: At what stage should startup founders be looking at your framework of purpose, vision and mission?
KM: I believe that the sooner they think about this the better, because if they articulate it very clearly it helps them to market and sell their products and services much, much better. I argue that a great purpose statement is one that is all about fulfilling customer needs, so the more clearly articulated that is the more it will help with boosting revenues and cashflow, one of the most urgent priorities for any startup.
YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company? How can these challenges be addressed?
KM: I think the biggest challenge entrepreneurs face as they scale up is delegating to the people they hire. It was their passion and their hard work and their sweat, blood and toil that founded the company and got it up and running so they naturally tend to think that only they can do things well.
Great leaders know that they're only going to scale up and grow if they get great people working with them, people who have skills that the founder will never have but which are necessary to fast track growth and success. Getting the right people on board is no good if they aren't all aligned to the same common purpose, with the same set of values and the same understanding of strategic priorities that they need to deliver. I believe that a lack of alignment is the number one cause of failure in any business.
YS: How would frameworks of storytelling fit into your framework?
KM: Storytelling is one of the most underdeveloped skills of leadership. I have seen a single story change the performance and morale of an organisation at a critical time, and I've seen leaders use stories to inspire, to change cultures, to show people how better to live the values of the organisation, but especially to tell them about why customers need their products and services, and how those customers have benefited and changed their own lives because of what the organisation does.
Storytelling, as proved by neuroscience, has a massive impact on people and is always better than a PowerPoint presentation. We are hardwired to appreciate stories and they will always grip us if those stories are well constructed and well told.
YS: What is your current field of research?
KM: I am increasingly fascinated by the idea that a lot of economies in the world lack the soft skills necessary to deal with the digital revolution and improve productivity for the benefit of everyone who lives in that country. Many studies show that there is a lack of soft skills training in schools and universities and in organisations and, yet, increasingly it is hugely necessary for employees to have the soft skills that will enable success in the future.
At a time when the digital revolution is bringing artificial intelligence and robotics to the fore, this is going to threaten many jobs in the future. If those jobs are taken then humans need to rise above into the territory of value creation and creativity, which I believe will be beyond the realms of artificial intelligence for some time to come.
But that creativity and problem-solving ability can only exist if people have all of the right soft skills to enable teamwork, innovation and collaboration to drive growth and enable organisations to thrive. I'm looking into what kind of skills will be most necessary to help people future-proof their careers and to help organisations prosper.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions?
KM: Extremely positive, is how I would describe the reaction. Many businesses are using it as a catalyst to help create their own purpose, vision and values statements, which is hugely pleasing for me.
I believe so much in the power of purpose that to be able to help others think clearly about it helps me fulfil my own personal purpose. It is especially pleasing to see the book starting to appear in languages other than English, as my first two books did as well.
Many people have talked about getting that "aha" moment when they realised that the most important part of having a vision is embedding it deep into their organisations with every individual that they employ. That's what the book is really about – not only how to craft it, but how to align everyone in the organisation to achieving the vision.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
KM: I very much want to write my next book on the subject of super skills – the combination of soft skills and attitudes (that can be learned) that will drive the organic growth that every organisation so badly needs to thrive in the future.
YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
KM: Real growth at scale will only come if you have the right people on board, and those people will only perform if they are aligned to your vision. Although your life will be dominated by the operational demands of starting up a business, I believe the place start is to truly articulate your purpose and vision and values in a way that is compelling to your customers.
By doing that you have something you can use to sell to customers but also to align every new employee to your cause. Two birds with one stone.