Board Performance & Metrics

Unleashing the Power of Purpose

Published: November 30, 2015

Read Time: 5 minutes

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In Aaron Hurst’s book ‘The Purpose Economy’, he says “purpose comes when we know we have done something that we believe matters, to others, to society, and to ourselves.” Hurst believes that the nature of purpose is often misunderstood, a point of particular relevance to leaders of for-purpose (not-for-profit) organisations both at board and executive level. Our suggestion is that there is untapped potential in connecting to the power of purpose – both at an individual and organisational level.

We know that understanding personal purpose and capability is the most effective driver for successful board contributions. We also know that a well-defined and clearly communicated organisational purpose is a key contributor to organisational success. But what is the relationship between personal and organisational purpose? Why is it so important? And how do you make it an appropriate and powerful part of the way you operate?

A form of currency in the for-purpose space is one’s ability to trade one’s powerful story centred on purpose. Consider the following scenario:

A CEO attends a networking event with a room full of successful business people. She shares the stories of the people whose lives are touched by her organisation’s work. For some it’s hard to keep back the tears. The energy in the room shifts as people connect to themselves and their own situations. She explains the link between her personal story and the work of her organisation. Audience members are struck by the vulnerability and courage being displayed. It’s hard not to turn inward and wonder what it would be like to have that kind of alignment in one’s own life.

Many of us in the for-purpose space have seen the power of this scenario demonstrated on many occasions. We realise the power of story-telling in ‘selling the cause’ and have invested in communication and campaigns to this end. Perhaps less obvious to us, is the power of communicating our own stories internally, including to fellow board members. Can they allow us to function more effectively as a board?

Sharing personal stories and insights is an effective way for board members to more deeply connect and contribute to their organisation’s cause, and to each other. This type of openness also facilitates the ability for board members to better understand and support each other, and allows them to get the most from their experience.

The reasons for joining a board are varied, including a personal connection to the cause, seeing an opportunity to offer your expertise in an area of need, or simply wanting to add diversity to your career contribution and build your resume. In sharing your story, cover off all of your motives including the altruistic, and the more self-serving reasons for joining a board, both of which are real and legitimate. A willingness to give others an insight into your personal and professional experiences and drivers, will allow people to better understand your perspective and provide context to your contribution.

Having an understanding of personal purpose and circumstance creates a foundation for useful and meaningful communication and prioritisation when the going gets tough. How important is this decision for the board? How much time does it need? What will it take for the fundraising event to succeed and how can everyone best contribute? What is our commitment to each other? How can we work to make the magic of personal and organisational purpose alignment happen?

Given this context it is surprising that we don’t interrogate the relationship between personal and organisational purpose more strategically. Subconsciously, we know it matters but we aren’t in the habit of thinking about it. The good news is that more and more boards are focusing on organisational purpose and their reason for existence. We typically see one of three scenarios on for-purpose boards:

  • Purpose remains a hidden driver. Evidence of its power is felt but not discussed explicitly. There is often insufficient clarity about the organisation’s purpose and this is coupled with directors failing to share the full gamut of reasons for being on the board. A range of unhelpful behaviours tend to arise as a result: poor communication including avoiding conversations, shirked responsibilities, disrespectful conflict, inefficient decision-making and poorly aligned hires.

  • Purpose is addressed but in a limited or intermittent way. New directors often have engaging conversations about why this is a move that matters to them, but after the initial glow, purpose falls into the background. It’s not all that clear how purpose could be used more effectively but there is positive regard for it, and openness to using it more.

  • Purpose is explicit. It drives the organisation and mechanisms exist to continually sharpen everyone’s understanding of what the organisation has set out to do, and why this matters to the people around the table. Misalignments are ‘outed’ and resolved. As the organisation changes in response to internal and external forces, everyone knows that personal and professional alignment matters and must be consistently addressed and communicated.

Integral to the ‘purpose is explicit’ concept is a belief that the for-purpose boardroom is a place to share not only our talents, expertise, and professional insights, but also the thoughts, vulnerabilities and experiences that have shaped us and often led us to join the board. It invites us to question the boundaries we are conditioned to erect between our personal and professional selves, and challenges us to share more with others around the boardroom table. As we work towards getting clearer on our ‘personal why’, we have the opportunity to perhaps get more from our for-purpose board experience than we had previously considered possible.

This article was previously published in the 2014 Better Boards Conference Magazine, July 2014.


Executive Director & Founder
Leadership Space

Elise Sernik is the Executive Director and Founder of Leadership Space. Elise launched Leadership Space to assist social purpose leaders, and executive and Board teams to succeed in times of change. Elise draws on a deep and varied knowledge and expertise base that is a product of a 20-year career in the commercial and social purpose sectors in Australia and globally. Leadership Space works with some of the most well known names in the sector, as well as social entrepreneurs, and innovative change agents across the commercial-social purpose spectrum. Their vision is a thriving social purpose economy.

Executive Director
People for Purpose

Melissa is a specialist governance advisor working with Boards and Directors on governance performance improvement for for-purpose organisations. Melissa brings her cross-sector knowledge and expertise to support Boards to consolidate their foundation and purpose, align stakeholders, and improve their risk management and governance practices. Melissa has a depth and breadth of sector knowledge having worked with close to 100 organisations across diverse cause areas, large and small, on improving leadership and governance across strategy, risk, purpose, impact and processes. Melissa is well respected for her blend of energy, passion and ability and regularly presents on aligning people and purpose, and good governance. Melissa has presented for Better Boards Australasia, Australian Institute of Company Directors, Philanthropy Australia, and Third Sector People to name a few.

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