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Is Director of Purpose the next big thing?

Is Director of Purpose the next big thing?

Over the course of its three seasons, the BBC’s self-deprecating mockumentary series, W1A, introduced us to a number of interesting job titles – Head of Values, Director of Better, and in its third and final season, Director of Purpose.

The hit satire is centred on the BBC’s fictitious Head of Values, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville), and his mission to clarify, define, and re-define the core purpose of the corporation.

As well as poking fun at itself, W1A highlights the funny side of a number of present-day HR-related issues, such as the growing demand for organisations to establish and embed a purpose.

Quote Ian Fletcher

So, what is a Director of Purpose, and is it really such a silly idea? We explore:

What is purpose? (A quick explanation)

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, there’s a growing need for organisations to establish a purpose for being – answering such questions as “why do we exist?” and “why are we doing what we’re doing?”

Essentially, purpose is about making a contribution to something greater than your organisation. It’s about making a difference to your customers, community, industry or the planet in general.

But unlike CSR initiatives, which are more often than not about ticking a few boxes and continuing with business as usual, purpose infiltrates all aspects of your organisation: its strategy and structure, decision-making, recruitment and employee development, as well as customer and stakeholder relationships.

And answering the big ‘why’ question comes with a huge competitive advantage. Purpose-driven organisations are more likely to have higher employee engagement, increased brand awareness and customer loyalty, and stronger financial performance by a factor of 12.

Take Nike’s statement as an example: “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. *If you have a body, you are an athlete.” While this statement is motivational for Nike’s customers and employees, it also has a major impact on all aspects of the brand, including its marketing and communications campaigns, the people it chooses to hire, and the products it creates and sells. (Note: Nike were the first major sportswear company to create a hijab designed for female Muslim athletes – a move that directly aligns with its purpose).

What would a Director of Purpose actually do?

In the last few episodes of W1A’s final season we saw the disestablishment of several senior executive roles, including the Head of Values and the Director of Better – a role occupied by Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish), who is in charge of making everything “better”. 

Quote Anna Rampton

The new post on offer at the BBC is the Director of Purpose position, which Ian Fletcher contemplates applying for. Generally speaking, what would a Director of Purpose actually do? Hypothetically, the role would be in charge of helping an organisation determine and define its purpose, then putting this message into effect across the board. 

This would include leading workshops, conducting extensive customer and competitor research, gathering information and opinions, and ultimately, crafting a purpose statement. This person would then be responsible for embedding this purpose into all the many aspects of an organisation and measuring its overall impact.

Research by management consulting firm McKinsey found only 30% of significant change endeavours at large-scale organisations succeed – and purpose is no different.

For organisations that do attempt to create and entrench a purpose, there is a high-risk that it becomes a half-baked idea that fizzles out, or worse, is executed but without any actual impact. Therefore, having someone in your organisation that is in charge of establishing and embedding purpose is by no means a silly idea.

Can one person be responsible for purpose?

Purpose isn’t a marketing project, nor is it a learning and development initiative; it’s something that needs to come from the very core of your organisation and be backed by senior-level stakeholders with enough pull and power to make a difference.

And while the Director of Purpose is an interesting idea, practically speaking, placing the responsibility of establishing and embedding a purpose onto the shoulders of one person (or even one team) is a bold move.

Change on this scale and magnitude doesn’t come down to the work of one person - it comes into fruition when all the different cogs of your organisation are aligned and moving together in there same direction.

Appointing a Director of Purpose to lead your organisation through this process would definitely have its uses, but there would also be huge value in establishing a purpose-related steering group or project team that is collaboratively responsible for seeing your purpose is rolled out across all the different departments within your organisation. 

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