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Defining the essentials of purpose

The 10th annual RSM Leadership Summit, held at the historic Van Nelle Fabriek in Rotterdam, explored the fundamental power of purpose for people and organisations in the context of leadership, business and management.

Story by Lesa Sawahata. Photos: Geert de Jong/cheeseworks.nl



What does it mean to live, lead, and conduct business with a sense of purpose? How can purpose be defined – is it different from a mission, a passion, or a sense of responsibility? Why is purpose so important for organisations and people? Is it generational? And above all, how can one know one’s own purpose? These were the topics that were presented at the RSM Leadership Summit on Friday 12 October 2018.

Moderator Dorothy Grandia, communication faculty of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations, seamlessly wove together many layers of ideas, ideals and actions as presented by the speakers and audience during the day. After RSM Dean Steef van de Velde welcomed the capacity audience, the keynotes began.

Michiel Muller

The first keynote was presented by Erasmus University alumnus and serial entrepreneur Michiel Muller, who has launched such industry-changing, consumer-empowering businesses as Tango, the network of unmanned filling stations, and Route Mobiel roadside assistance, and now, online grocery store Picnic.

How disruptive can groceries be? ‘We started Picnic with a clear purpose: the food system needs to be changed. There is a lot broken in the world of supermarkets because it was invented 50 years ago,’ he said. ‘Food waste, food miles, unfair trade, wasted time and air pollution from vehicles is creating big human problems, and big business can’t solve them.’

With Picnic’s app-only shop, a fleet of electric trucks, overnight order fulfilment, and free delivery at a pre-determined time, the firm is doing more than satisfying customers’ needs: it is boosting sustainability and busting the outmoded business model of the grocery store. Further, it offers an unexpected factor of nostalgia.

‘Remember when the milkman used to come to your street? It was quite convenient, the milkman was familiar, and they had what you wanted every time. We thought – let’s replicate that model for Picnic,’ he said. As Picnic continues to grow throughout the Netherlands and Germany, Muller’s purpose for the app-based shop is clear: ‘We want to be the best milkmen on Earth.’

Professor Daan Stam

With his academic keynote entitled A science of purpose: a leadership perspective, Daan Stam, professor of innovation management at RSM, provided insights gleaned from recent research into leadership, goal-setting, and communication. ‘Here’s a spoiler: I’m going to say a purpose is a goal, but not every goal is a purpose,’ he said. Discerning between high-level, long-term, abstract, self-defining goals, for example, I want to transform my industry, and low-level, tactical, concrete, short term, get-the-job-done goals like I need to finish this tonight, Prof. Stam said ‘I don’t think the low goals or the high goals are purpose. I actually think that purpose is in the lines that run between these high and low goals, and that everything done in the organisation needs to be linked to the high goals in order to be purposeful.’

For leaders who want to influence their teams, Prof. Stam told the audience: ‘There is an “I” in team: because effectiveness depends on individuals. And individuals need to be hooked by your purpose.’ Research shows that there are two things leaders can do to get their teams talking about organisational purpose and making it their own. First, the frequency of talking about the purpose or vision: ‘Don’t just mention it once and go away; communicate the purpose or mission statement over and over,’ he advised. And second, make purpose about the people you are talking to. ‘If you are a leader, you make a purpose, release it into the organisation, and let it go. If the individuals are connected to that purpose, then they become its owners. They create a shared vision together.’

Marlies Dekkers

Marlies Dekkers, creator of the eponymous brand that has been shaping the world of lingerie since 1993, added a crucial element to the discussion of finding personal and organisational purpose: the cultural and societal context in which one lives. Dekkers, the originator of the Feminine/Feminist movement, discussed the difficulty that women have had in finding individual purpose because, until recently, their purpose was almost wholly dictated by society. She described herself as a prime example: sent to housekeeping school by her parents as a teenager, she rebelled. ‘I knew that wasn’t my journey, but I still didn’t know what else was out there,’ she said, adding that she was driven by an “inner fire” that eventually led her to art school and to found an award-winning lingerie brand designed with the intention of giving women confidence and a sense of power.

Dekkers told the audience that it is essential for them to follow their inner fire along what is not always a clearly marked road. ‘It’s not easy, but people who follow that road, who follow their purpose, shine from within. If you dare to dream, to grow, to be, you will have a life that burns with this inner power,’ she said.

Vincent van den Boogert

‘Banking is not popular. Type “Why are bankers....” into Google and look at the results. If there's one industry that needs a purpose, it is banking,’ said Vincent van den Boogert, CEO of ING Netherlands, during his keynote presentation. What is the purpose of a bank, he asked. If you’re as big and diverse as ING, you have to find a shared purpose. ‘ING’s purpose is empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business,’ he said. ‘If people are in control of their finances, their quality of life improves. Money matters.’

However, implementing purpose is hard work, he said, akin to restoring trust after a bumpy ride and requiring “a thousand little steps”. ‘Let’s add some theory now: how can I translate my experiences into a theoretical framework? How can I make purpose into practice?’ he asked. He proposed five key factors:

  • a purpose should also include a vision for society
  • it should support the business model – not a trade-off, but reinforcement
  • fits the future, but is rooted in history
  • appealing to customers and employees
  • the company must organise itself to deliver this purpose.

Shaun Tomson

‘We find our purpose or our purpose finds us,’ said Shaun Tomson , world champion surfer and entrepreneur who found his purpose – helping others to know, own and activate their own purpose – through personal loss: the tragic, unnecessary death of his son in 2006. Tomson has written several books, including The Surfer’s Code and The Code: The Power of “I Will”, the latter offering a simple tool for connecting with one’s purpose. He showed it to the audience of the RSM Leadership Summit: a personal code of commitment comprising 12 key statements beginning with the words “I will”. ‘This is a tool which helps distil and frame one’s purpose into an actionable 12-line mantra for positive change,’ he told the audience.

After a final wrap-up by Dorothy Grandia and closing words from Dean Van de Velde, the audience of alumni, staff, corporate relations and students took the opportunity to enjoy cocktails, tapas – and great networking – under the industrial ceilings of the Van Nelle Fabriek.

More information

The next RSM Leadership Summit will be held on Friday 4 October 2019.

This article was first published in the winter 2018 edition of RSM Outlook – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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Companies , Parttime Master Bedrijfskunde , Executive education , Faculty & Research , International , MBA , RSM Outlook , Sustainability , Technology and Operations Management , Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations , Positive change , 2018 Winter RSM Outlook