Why, when and how to renew your sense of purpose

18 February 2016 -


CMI Companion Sue O’Brien looks at why it is important to have purpose-driven people, not just purpose-driven organisations

Sue O’Brien

There’s a lot of talk right now about purpose-driven organisations but, for me, purpose-driven people are just as important.

My observation from 20 years as a headhunter is that the most successful people always focus on their purpose for the next two or three years, making sure they are driving towards the future they have planned.

If your purpose is to secure a senior leadership or board position in the future, then you’d better secure a line management role and P&L responsibility pretty soon. If you’re in finance but crave general management duties, then you’ll need to secure a broader operational role.

In my experience, people are seldom driven purely by a financial purpose. It is thinking about, planning and transacting your purpose that tends to lead to financial success, not the other way round.

Everyone’s sense of purpose will need reigniting occasionally.

The annual appraisal, which I think should be rebadged as an annual ‘engagement meeting’, is a good forum in which to do this. Unfortunately, too many people prepare for their appraisal as if they’re preparing for confession, picking out their misgivings.


Instead, they should be thinking deeply about where they want to be in two or three years, and focus time and investment into making it happen.

Just as important, companies should invest time and resources into understanding people’s motivations.

One company that really gets this is Bupa.

The CEO there, Stuart Fletcher, was appointed in March 2012 and swiftly identified that the healthcare company’s core purpose is enabling people to live “longer, healthier, happier lives”.

It is not just an insurance company.

This purpose now informs every decision the company makes and, indeed, its hiring and recruitment strategy. Managers must want to sign up to that cultural identity.

Stuart spends inordinate amounts of time encouraging his people to think about how best to utilise their skills for the business and to embrace Bupa’s new sense of purpose.

The new year is another good period to review your purpose.

You wouldn’t believe how many calls headhunters get at this time of year, running through until April.

When I was approaching 50, I scheduled in time to consider whether my purpose was still aligned with the company that I led.

A CEO’s purpose has to be the driving force of the business she leads. If I couldn’t honestly engage with that for the next three years, then I needed to make way.

You have to really want it.

In the end, I decided that my purpose was to work more closely with individual business leaders and board members, so I passed on the mantle to a new CEO and joined Ridgeway Partners as an equity partner.

That episode begs the question: how long should a leader stay in a role?

Historically, you’d join an organisation as a graduate and then work there until you were 50. Now, I think that seven years is a good rule, and in that time you’ll witness a full business cycle, allowing 18 months to groom your successor.

In fact, the length of tenure is probably shortening. Certainly, as the pressure at the top mounts and the executive pipeline swells, there is an increased sense that a tenure of five years will become the norm for a CEO.

Give yourself the time and invest some thinking into how happy you are, plan where you want to be and accept the outcome as your choice!

Sue O’Brien OBE CCMI is a partner at Ridgeway Partners and chair of CMI’s Women in Leadership network

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