leadership

You need a ‘chief purpose officer’ (but it’s not who you think)

Michel Hogan /

In today’s overhyped purpose climate, where the question ‘why?’ reverberates through the hallways of company offices everywhere, the question of who should carry the mantle of ‘chief purpose officer’ is an open one.

Scant agreement exists on the best approach; there’s the knee-jerk default of the chief executive officer, a newly created C-Suite role, and the mantra of ‘everyone’, just to name a few.

I’m not a fan of a new seat at the already overcrowded executive leadership table. I think while the chief executive certainly needs to carry the message and walk-the-talk, they are not the best placed to bring purpose into the day-to-day actions of the organisation.

And while ‘everyone’ gets closer, it’s a tall order if how the organisation does things throws up terrain that would keep an adventure racer on their toes. So who?

First, let’s take a quick look at the role of purpose. I talk about it as what you care about or what’s most important. I deliberately avoid asking ‘why’, because while that’s what you want to understand, it’s a terrible question to get you there. Whatever the entry point, the purpose is meant as a single unifying idea to both guide and ground the organisation.

To learn more about why you shouldn’t start with ‘why’ click here.

When purpose does the job as intended, you get a healthy and aligned sense of who the organisation is and what they stand for. It shows up in unexpected places, not just in communications about culture and the ‘who we are’ page on the website.

A powerful purpose is one of action, not only talked about but used to make decisions in the beating heart of the organisation — operations. So my suggestion for ‘chief purpose officer’ is the chief operating officer.

I’m sure more than a few organisations reading this don’t have a chief operating officer role. And if that’s the case, think about who drives the ‘how we do things’ in your company — it might be a general manager or a similar function.

A quick look at chief operating officer recruitment sadly shows a complete absence of purpose. I’m not sure how many chief operating officers are reading, but I’d love to know if any of them have ‘implement the purpose’ in their role duties. I’m not even looking for it to top the list — somewhere in the top five would be a start.

The chief operating officer is often seen as the second-in-charge, the chief executive’s right hand, tasked with bringing the vision to life and charged with oversight of how the organisation will do things. There’s a good article here about why chief operating officer roles are fickle and difficult to describe.

And the ‘how’ is the missing purpose link. Wrappers of language and meaning surrounding what purpose is attracts seemingly endless energy. Yet scant regard is given to how to weave that purpose into the daily operations which enable everyone’s thoughts and actions.’

Someone has to bring it to life in the block and tackle of everyday ‘how’. Saying ‘everyone’ is fluffy nonsense that just avoids the issues. Putting purpose into action is the opposite of the big picture the chief executive needs to take care of. Simply pushing it off to people and culture to ’embed’ won’t and can’t do the trick, and a new role will only serve to fragment the already jigsaw composition of leadership teams.

So, my nomination for the job is the chief operating officer.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Stop hoping to find your purpose: It could be time to start building it

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Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is an independent brand thinker and adviser dedicated to helping you make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com.

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