One of the things I do in my spare time is to volunteer as a Council member for the RNLI which is a charity that has no difficulty in explaining why what it does is important. And this was obvious on a recent trip to a wonderful new lifeboat station in St David’s in Pembrokeshire where it was very clear how committed the team is – volunteers and paid staff- to their local community and to delivering the rescue service often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. But I have been thinking that when it comes to creating meaning or purpose it is often easier for organisations like the NHS, or a charity like the RNLI, to be clear so that their frontline people know exactly what they are there for and what they want to achieve. But what about the corporate centre and how they behave and how do they make sure that they don’t go off in all sorts of different directions that take the organisation away from what the frontline and the core purpose is all about? If this is hard for a public service or charitable organisation it can be even more challenging for others who need to work harder to clarify purpose in the first place.
It seems to me that where organisations sometimes go wrong is when the senior leaders forget what the real purpose is all about even though they know it logically. Sometimes it can feel as if people are looking for something new or different to do (one common symptom is lots of initiatives and projects running simultaneously without a clear thread) when probably it would be more productive to go right back to basics. Is what you are delivering on the frontline and in support of the frontline the best it can be? Because that’s what the real purpose of the ‘corporate’ organisation is and that is what people on the frontline want you to deliver for them as a senior leader. And they want you to keep reminding them why they are there and why it’s important.
Senior leaders forget what the real purpose is all about even though they know it logically
They don’t want to be involved in loads of stuff that is really irrelevant and sometimes apparently done for the benefit of the people at the top who would like to show they are delivering a new initiative or making a name for themselves; that’s not what it should be about. Some people call it sticking to the knitting – that’s an old -fashioned expression perhaps but it’s probably true. It doesn’t mean lacking innovation or fearing change but it does mean making sure that anything you do leads back to core purpose. So, I would say to you if you are in a senior leadership position, have you talked lately with your top team about what your core purpose really is and what is it that gives meaning to people in your organisation not just for you but for the people on the frontline who are the ones who deliver it for you? And if you don’t know the answer to that go out there and talk to them and find out, and then check everything you are doing against that basic premise of why we are here. It’s easy to say and harder to do. I bet if you go through all of the initiatives you have going at the moment you will find that the vast majority of them are far distant from where you started.
Keep reminding them why they are there and why it’s important