January 20, 2020 //

Creating a Purpose-Driven Team – Introduction

Agilists believe in the power of self-organizing/self-managing teams.  But the tricky part is often keeping team members motivated.  In 1943, Abraham Maslow asserted (through his famous “Hierarchy of Needs” motivational theory) that, once basic physiological, safety, social and emotional needs are met, humans will eventually aspire to “self-actualization” (which is essentially the need to “become everything they are capable of becoming”).

So, what can we…as Agile Leaders…do to satisfy that “higher-level” need in our team members?  Because if we don’t, I would argue that they will eventually lose their desire (and ultimately their abilities) to maintain the level of personal accountability it requires for self-organizing/self-managing teams to thrive.

For me, the answer to that question lies in the leader’s ability to “lead with purpose”.  Or, in other words, to create a purpose-driven team.

Joe Robles, CEO (from 2007- 2015) of the US Automobile Association (which offers banking, investing, and insurance to people and families who serve/served in the United States Armed Forces), famously stated that “a leader’s most important job is to connect their people to their purpose”.

And it is Roble’s premise that will be the focus of this Blog Series called “Creating a Purpose-Driven Team”.

To be clear, and keeping with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, making this “purpose” one of “economic incentives” is inevitably short-lived.   Rather, the kind of purpose I will be addressing in this Blog Series reflects something much more aspirational.   It is a purpose that is designed to show our team members how they are “making a difference”…to give them a sense of meaning, and thereby inspire them to be…and REMAIN… much more fully engaged, collaborative and creative team members.

At USAA, Mr. Robles had every single employee (over 20,000!) undergo an immersive four-day cultural orientation, and made a promise to provide extraordinary service to members of the military and their families.  Its lessons were continually reinforced through town hall meetings and other forums where people at all levels asked questions and shared ideas about how to “fulfill their purpose”.

Watching from the wings at that time was Gerry Anderson (president of Detroit Edison/DTE Energy from 2004-2010, CEO in 2010, and Chairman from 2011 – 2019), who did not originally believe in the power of “higher organizational purpose”.  As such, he likely would have rejected Robles’s statement about purpose as simplistic rhetoric.   But having run into a dead end in figuring out how to make his own organization thrive (particularly after the 2008 recession), Anderson began re-examining some of his basic assumptions about management, and gradually became more open to what Robles was saying.

Eventually Anderson returned to DTE’s Detroit headquarters, and made a video that articulated his employees’ “higher purpose” (also an idea of Robles’).   It showed DTE’s truck drivers, plant operators, corporate leaders, and many others on the job, and described the impact of their work on the well-being of the community—the factory workers, teachers, and doctors who needed the energy that DTE generated.  The first group of professional employees to see the video gave it a standing ovation.  When union members viewed it, some were moved to tears.  Never before had their work been framed as a meaningful contribution to the greater good.  The video brought to life DTE’s new “statement of purpose”: “We serve with our energy, the lifeblood of communities and the engine of progress.”

What happened next was even more important:  The company’s leaders dedicated themselves to supporting that purpose, and wove it into onboarding and training programs, corporate meetings, and culture-building activities such as film festivals and…believe it or not…sing-alongs.  As people judged the purpose to be authentic, a transformation began to take place.  Engagement scores climbed.  The company received a Gallup Great Workplace Award for five years in a row.  And financial performance responded in kind:  DTE’s stock price more than tripled from the end of 2008 to the end of 2017.

Anderson openly admits that he had previously tried to shake things up by providing training, altering incentives, and increasing managerial oversight, with disappointing results.  It turned out that his approach was to blame—not his people.

Because the hard truth is, if like many leaders, you view your team-members as self-interested agents — and design your organizational practices and culture accordingly — you won’t get the self-managing/self-organizing teams you seek.

Still, many leaders avoid working on their teams’ purpose.  Why?  Because it defies what so many of us learned in business school and, perhaps, in subsequent experience… that work is fundamentally “contractual”, and that employees will seek to minimize personal costs and effort.  And those are not necessarily faulty assumptions; in fact, they describe the behavior in many environments reasonably well – particularly it the short-term.

However, this viewpoint often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy:  When leaders see team members this way, they create the very problems they expect.  The team members choose to respond primarily to the incentives outlined in their contracts, and the controls imposed on them.  Consequently, they not only fail to see opportunities, but also experience conflict, resist feedback, underperform, and personally stagnate.  As such, leaders — believing that their assumptions about employees have been validated — exert still more control and rely even more heavily on extrinsic incentives.  Employees then narrowly focus on achieving those rewards, typically at the expense of activities that are hard to measure and often ignored, such as mentoring subordinates and sharing best practices.  Overarching values and goals become empty words.  People do only what they have to do.  Results again fall short of expectations, and leaders clamp down further.

So you…as Agile Leaders…now face a choice:  You can double down on the traditional “management” approach…based on the assumption that you just need more, or stricter, controls to achieve the desired impact.  Or you can align your team(s) with an authentic higher purpose that intersects with your business interests and helps guide your decisions.  If you succeed in doing the latter, your team members will undoubtedly try new things, move into deep learning, take risks, and make surprising contributions.

But HOW do you “lead with purpose”, you ask?  Well, in this “Creating a Purpose-Driven Team” Blog Series, I will propose a multi-step framework that I hope can help leaders break out of the “traditional management” self-fulfilling cycle…and lead with purpose.

Stay tuned for TIPS for Creating a Purpose-Driven Team……J

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