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Brave New Law: Finding purpose - Linking individual, team and organisational purpose

13 May 2021
In this article we look at the different nuances of purpose at work. Purpose is a basic human need, for in-house lawyers, your purpose may be a defining metric for your role in your organisation.

Finding Purpose

During lockdown, the stress of the convergence of home, work and schooling meant there was also a sense of being adrift without many of the reliable certainties of how we were used to engaging with the world. It’s during times like this that purpose becomes more important than ever. 

Employees with purpose are more likely to cope with change and are more resilient. This is one of our essential human desires – the imperative to look for purpose in life and what we do with that life. This fundamental importance of purpose has meant that it is increasingly being used in business as a starting point for a number of different journeys: the cultural journey; the customer journey; the design journey; the profit journey.

All of these come back to this same starting point – why? 

Starting with 'Why'

Thinking about what your individual purpose is may be challenging depending on where you are in your career and how inspired you feel. When trying to get to what really drives you, it can be helpful to have a conversation with an imaginary five-year-old in your head – they won’t be fobbed off with stock answers: they will keep asking why and you will also need to simply define why you do what you do!

Once we have considered what our individual purpose is, how does that link to where we work and who we work for? Some organisations have a very strongly defined sense of purpose and have had this as an implicit or explicit part of their brand for many years. 

Some of the most iconic purpose statements have also not overtly referenced the organisations’ product: Apple: “To empower creative exploration and self-expression.”

Patagonia: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” Patagonia’s purpose statement references what is now an additional nuance of purpose in business - that of being purposeful.

Purpose in business has taken on, or perhaps rediscovered, its connection with a greater purpose or doing the right thing. Increasingly that’s not at odds with success in business but seen as a defining factor – contributing something to the world beyond just making a profit. As the ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) focus becomes more central to all businesses, the notion of both being purposeful and having a purpose is going to be more important. ESG also brings in the idea of being able to benchmark your purpose against recognised metrics.

Plugging into 'The purpose'

An impactful sense of purpose has to be more than a statement and has to be truly authentic: it’s that authenticity that will allow the corporate purpose to link to the individual’s sense of purpose. Too often purpose as an exercise can feel like it’s something that executive teams undertake as part of a brand refresh without really engaging in what this might mean to the wider workforce. Can you really relate to purpose if you’re on a zero hours’ contract or on minimum wage? It’s certainly possible but the organisational purpose has to also really speak to you as an individual. 

Building an inclusive purpose doesn’t preclude starting with a consultant driven purpose statement, but the key is aligning individuals and their own sense of purpose with this organisational purpose. Making the purpose inclusive has to be the purpose of every purpose! The best example of this is the anecdote about JFK touring a NASA facility, asking the janitor mopping the floor what he was doing, to be told: “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr President!” That’s inclusive purpose in action.

Legal departments and purpose

How does this impact in-house lawyers and their advisors? Legal departments have become more focused on not just legal advice but advising on risk events of all sorts and having an organisational operating environment where negative risk events are less likely to occur. Purpose more broadly also offers a great benchmark for all employees as to the validity of a business decision and its risk implications. As the in-house lawyer’s role moves from being reactive to a more proactive one, understanding how lawyers can help drive the corporate purpose forward is a metric which may have more legs that the rather reductive focus on ‘adding value'.

How can lawyers link what they do to the wider corporate purpose and should the legal department have its own purpose? It can be helpful but it’s not necessary – what’s fundamental is finding a way that the legal team and all the lawyers within it can see the way in which they can align with that greater purpose. The purpose can have a different nuance to the team or the individual, but it’s got to amount to a ‘George Bailey’ moment. In the 1946 film 'It’s a Wonderful Life’ the hero Bailey (James Stewart) is shown by his guardian angel, Clarence, what the difference would be in the world if he had never existed. The film’s end is Bailey rediscovering his purpose in the wider world.

Author: Dr Catherine McGregor

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