How to spread purpose from the frontline to the CEO

During a recent TED Talk, purpose expert Ashley M. Grice explained how communicating authentic purpose requires buy-in from execs, managers and frontline employees.


A well-articulated company purpose can be understood and communicated by every member of the workforce— whether they sit in the C-Suite or stand on the frontline. This February, purpose expert Ashley M. Grice spoke during a TED Institute event in partnership with BCG about how employees in all tiers of a business play critical roles in championing their organization’s purpose.

Grice began by describing an early-morning Delta flight, when she pocketed a pack of almonds given out during food service. While chatting with a flight attendant, Grice said she would not have time to eat lunch that day. Upon exiting the plane, the flight attendant handed Grice a bag of 30 almond packs. In the bag was a note thanking Grice for showing the flight crew kindness. It read, in part, “a little kindness goes a long way.”

“This little note on this little napkin was purpose in action, specifically that airline’s purpose, and I know because I’d helped to articulate it over 15 years before,” said Grice, explaining how she helped Delta redefine its purpose in 2003 as part of a strategic transformation after 9/11.

“It may be that (the flight attendant) never saw that purpose line rearticulated, but no matter —she didn’t need to, because purpose was alive and well at Delta,” Grice said. “It had become muscle memory. It had become culture norm.”

Why purpose is different from your mission and your vision

Grice stressed that a company’s purpose was different from its mission — what it does every day — or its vision, which refers to where it is headed.

“Mission and vision will change with changes in leadership, corporate contacts, competitive landscape, merger and acquisition,” she said. They are temporary and can change every three to five years.

“But purpose is your ‘why’ — it is found at the intersection of who you are at your very best and the role in the world that you are meant to play.”

Communicating purpose should be uncomfortable

While many studies connect purpose to business value, Grice acknowledged how efforts to increase performance, employee engagement, retention and higher levels of productivity come back to a belief that those companies are communicating their purpose authentically. An organization’s purpose is commonly considered as authentic when it is rooted in an ethos, relevant to all audiences and consistent with your values.

“I tell CEOs that they must be critical in excavating purpose from the inside out,” Grice said. “Purpose is uncomfortable. It should be, because you are introducing a tension between idealism and realism: Who you want to be and who you are capable of being today, and in the future, based on competencies and ethos.”

Executive, manager and frontline employee roles in communicating purpose

Grice also broke down the role of executives, middle managers and frontline employees in communicating and championing their organization’s purpose.

“Purpose at the C-Suite level should be a unifying construct that brings together mission and vision and influences your strategic agenda,” said Grice, adding that it should inform how CEOs think about redefining metrics for success and how they can stay accountable.

“Purpose at the middle-management level is about much-needed clarity and authority,” she continued. “The middle-management layer of any organization is often the most difficult to motivate because they have so many different stakeholders to please. But by bringing clarity with purpose-driven expectations and guardrails, it allows middle-managers to understand which battles to pick and that the micro-decisions they make on a daily basis affect the company as a whole.”

Grice added that communicating purpose to frontline employees properly lets them know that they are seen. “When purpose is excavated and executed top floor to shop floor, those on the shop floor understand that their work matters and how it adds up to the overall value for the company.”

Check out the rest of Grice’s TED talk here.



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