A call for the acceleration of businesses towards purposeful authenticity

A paper presented by Chris Houston, Director of The Change Alliance

Toronto, Ontario

November 2011



The events of the past few years suggest that we need a fundamental re-purposing of our business enterprises.  Such purpose-full and authentic businesses are indeed emerging. We should have more, many more.  The institution of business is needed for leadership, perhaps as never before, and the time for the re-emergence of a simple form of business is now.  The businesses we need know why they exist and authentically live out this purpose in action – their culture – and in the identity they claim – their brand.  This paper argues from the perspective of a fully engaged witness to the last 25 years of corporate transformation, researched like the embedded journalist through the lens of experience, that we must cultivate purpose-full businesses as the new meaning makers.  We need them. Business is a uniquely able form of organization. If the institution of business fails to respond to the harsh test of authenticity, it will lose not only commercial success, but also any moral credibility that it once possessed.  It is time for business to lead.

My perspective is that of the skilled observer-participant, and now I look back on 25 years with the businesses that I have served as a management consultant. As the Spanish philosopher Unamuno expressed it, “there is the way viewed from the balcony, and [there is] life on the road”. Both are needed, and I have found myself an observer of radical change from within the change itself. An observer, not from outside or above, but from within, on the road, like the embedded journalist who is as much engaged, threatened and triumphant as the troops along side whom she serves.

I grew-up in post war-time Britain.  The war had released unprecedented use of science and technology to defeat Germany and Japan.  After the war, the same technology was re-directed to create a consumer society fueled by the myth of self-fulfillment, the artful creation of the “Mad Men”, as the TV show portrays.  This binge seems on its last legs, at least in the west, not because of absent capacity but because the ‘rational consumer’ now seeks more meaning to life than mere consumption. Our collective hangover, with its crushing accumulated debt, demands change. But who will lead?  Essential  leadership has passed from government and traditional religious and educational institutions and we wait for someone to pick up the torch.  This is the new role for business, to claim IMF Chair, Christine Lagarde’s prospective “lost decade” of consumption as a  constructive decade of meaning.  From market-merchant to meaning-maker, business is on the cusp of a new social function: it is needed, business is capable and business has no option.

The Scottish philosopher John MacMurray used to affirm: “Knowledge is meaningless without action; action is meaningless, without relationships”. For we do not live in an abstract universe, but in a human environment of social beings. We have moved into a postmodern world, where the Cartesian dictum, “I think therefore I am”, is enriched and even replaced by “I relate, therefore I am”. Business leadership is far more flexible to enter this new post-modern paradigm than political institutions, which is why I want to claim new responsibilities for our business boards of directors, for business leaders and for leadership teams.

We are all struck by the extraordinary turbulence of these times.  We listen to rather facile commentary opining on whether the recovery will begin in the next quarter or not, yet we sense something more fundamental is at work.  The Dickensian promise of both best of times and worst of times seems to be lacking much of the more favorable conditions, for business, at least.  Growth, ever more illusionary and hard to find, is in many businesses simply not being realized.  Some of us know that a great deal of the earnings performance we have enjoyed over the last decade in many businesses has really come by extracting cost from ever-more squeezed value chains and not from new ideas. The search for innovation is now a relentless mantra.  But to cheer on consumer consumption with current levels of personal indebtedness seems irresponsible, which it is.  If real growth in scale is limited, then we will need other forms of growth and dynamism. Such is the role for the purpose-full and authentic business.

The mood of these times is not emergence or vibrancy but caution and preservation. My own son, aged twenty-nine, to whom I had expressed the realization that I would either be in a radically different business in a few years or in no business at all, listened carefully to the ideas in this paper and remarked rather gravely that perhaps I should be more careful to keep the business I have!  This is the mood of the times. Hang on. Be safer. Seek less.  Conserve more and above all, hoard cash. Billions and billions of it, stuffed in corporate warehouses just in case the worst happens, which, given that diminishing mindset, will of course be the future we bring upon ourselves.  No, now is not the time for caution; prudence and wisdom to be sure, but now is the time for business to lead.  It must.  It can, and it had better!



It was Einstein who first convinced us all with his theory of relativity that the characteristics of a subject observed is in part a function of the position and perspective of the observer. And so it is with this paper, the ideas and stories I want to bring are a function of their observer and so to make sense of this material, I need to explain the perspective.

I walked for 17 years with my clients in Kodak through the cataclysmic technology substitution of digital photography.  For nearly twenty years, I have lived with the hearts and minds of executives as they navigated the transformation of advertising.  I was there when the five ogopolistic Canadian banks tried to merge and stayed in one that is still trying to upset the stable competitive equilibrium and grow faster than its rivals. I was there when Marsh, one of the worlds leading insurance brokers, nearly collapsed, just as Arthur Anderson had before in a post-Enron apocalypse of lost confidence.  And when Eliot Spitzer’s purge extended to other industries, I was there, walking with my client, as his wife spent eighteen months in jail, caught up in perceived fraud issues.  When the aggressive stock trading acquisition by the young bucks of a quintessential dot-com business, met eroded confidence of that burst bubble, I was there as their latest acquiree turned and bought them instead, turning acquirer into acquiree overnight and then as the business clawed its way to profitability the old-fashioned way.  When the gulf war broke out, I was in Atlanta helping Coca Cola sell brown fizzy sugar-water while the world seemed to be going to war.  When a board turned to oust its CEO, I was there as seasoned veterans lined their pockets with options and the Board split in a reverse coup.  When massive consolidations struggled to yield benefit and one of the largest mergers in US business history failed, I walked the hallways, walked with the leaders, and have run what I often describe as ‘field hospitals’ for the walking wounded of the corporate battlefields.

This then is the perspective of this paper. Not the perspective of the heroic leader who has succeeded or failed and so has cautionary tales or certain formulae. Not the perspective of the seasoned academic who with the benefit of objectivity and robust theory can describe the subject studied and opine on what should or should not be. This paper is the synthesis of personal stories of human triumph and failure in the midst of some major business upheavals – dispatches from the trenches, as it were, letters from the front.  But as I look through the fog of recent events, from the Arab spring, the collapse in 2008, a struggling western recovery, BP’s gulf disaster, rising inflation, earthquakes, Facebook, cloud collapses at Amazon, IBM’s “smarter planet”, something fascinating, compelling and transformational is just beginning to emerge.  It is the early birth pangs of a better way of business.



For many years, as I worked simultaneously on some of the large global accounts of an advertising business to develop global brands, and on the internal issues of cultural change in other clients, I realized that these two essential elements of any business, brand and culture, were inseparable.  Brand needed to be coherent with culture, culture needed to be coherent with brand.  Who would not have wanted a glorious green and yellow sunburst logo and “Beyond Petroleum” claim to counter the post Exon-Valdez skepticism about an oil industry that was now facing its second resurgence of green consciousness.  But what happened in the gulf served to illustrate the catastrophic consequences of dissonance between brand – an identity we claim – and culture – the identity that is real.

There is a beautiful form of Chinese embroidery that comes from one particular centre where their craft has reached such a high art that a single cloth is embroidered with a single set of threads to create two different images, one on each side. And so this beautiful piece of art is displayed not on a flat surface, but standing up so that the unique but intimately interconnected images, can be appreciated.  So it is with a business brand and its culture, two distinct but intimately connected identities, fashioned from the same elements, reflected in different language, but authentically the same as each other.

The genius of Kodak’s brand which was so brilliantly crafted to support the demystifying of complicated silver-halide chemistry and became an Ease-of-Use brand with hidden complexity, that was complemented by a culture of information secrecy such that the chemicals passed from building to building in Kodak Park changed names to reflect George Eastman’s conviction that “patents expire but secrets last”.  Yet this harmony was to be the undoing of a brand that was relevant in a way that was no longer the basis for competition in the pixel and zoom mad market for digital imaging.  Coherence between Brand and Culture had become irrelevant to the market; something other than just consistency was needed.

As I wrestled with this demand for coherence and consistency, so that what we as businesses laid claim to be (brand), is in fact what in reality we are (culture), a second dimension appeared essential. For what must infuse both Brand and Culture is Purpose, meaning, intent, and a transcendent reason to exist. As Simon Sinek has said so well in his recent writing, we have to “Start with Why”.  But it is not enough to have Purpose, we have to find how this purpose is to be expressed and that takes the form of identity, an inner reality – culture – and an outer manifestation – brand. These three elements can be shown in simple relationship to each other.

It is important to note that the correspondents to Purpose, that is Brand and Culture, are not mechanical notions like “How” and “What” – the elements of thoughtful strategy – but are the relational elements of personal and collective identity.  This model argues that “Why” must come to life in “Who”, not just expressed mechanically as “How”.  The essential new meaning must come not from what we do as a business but from who we are.  Here we will find the bankruptcy of pure professionalism and brilliant strategy. It is no longer enough.  For many years, as I have helped my clients craft their strategy or hone their professional leadership skills, each with focus on goals and mechanisms and their organizational derivatives of systems, process, skills etc.  There was always something inherently dissatisfying about the intellectually robust work that we had done together.  Certainly, we had given people context and clarity of focus and helped many to decide what to do, but it failed to yields insight on the identity so essential for relationship.  True relationship emerges not from technique but from personhood, from the honest interaction of people.  If post-modernism is to demand a post-rational business response, then the business must focus as much on “who we are” as on “what we do”, perhaps more!  This, as we will see, will have profound impacts for those who would dare to lead.

The relationship between Brand and Purpose, a public identity infused with meaning granted by why the business exists, yields relevance for the customer.  A business exists when, for a good or service, revenue is received that yields profit greater than the cost of capital employed to generate the good or service. It is self-evident that businesses must have customers and for those customers to remain loyal to the brand, the brand must be personally relevant to them, above all.  Relevance is the essential expression of a Purpose-infused Brand.  Some have observed in this model that relevance is all. One of the paradigm-shifting realities of Internet publishing is that if you achieve great relevance, then distribution will follow. Demand seeks relevance and not just transactional relevance but deep, personal relevance in which the customer so identifies with the Purpose that it becomes or already is their purpose.  Brand then enables in tangible ways, the customers ability to engage in the Purpose.  The transaction and purchase is not just the end, it is simply the means of shared engagement in the Purpose.

My friends at Ogilvy & Mather know that the genius of a brand is realized in what they call the “Big Ideal”, the intersection between a brand’s “best self” and a social tension that reflects a real, unmet human need.  When Dove soap engaged real women and the campaign for real beauty emerged, and with it the self-esteem fund, the world noticed – Oprah had them on her show!  But the culture within both Unilever and their agency was insufficiently consistent behind that soaring brand.  It took another path, it could not be sustained and with it relevance slipped. And when relevance slipped, so did loyalty.

At Loyalty One, the marketing services company that provides the coalition reward currency of Air Miles to its Partners, they recognize that lasting loyalty is not transactional and thus rather fickle, but is emotional, much deeper and so reflective of a much closer bond between the customer and the brand.  It is meaning, derived from Purpose that infuses such a brand.

The company that Jack Taylor founded that is now Enterprise car rentals is infused by one purpose – To be the best transportation service provider in the world…and every week I hear the stories from my son, a manager, of how his ambition for profit maximization and so his reward, is daily held in tension by the customer experience results he must also deliver. At Enterprise, they live their purpose-infused brand and their growth in recent years would suggest they are getting something very right.

On the other side of this model is the relationship between Culture and Purpose.  We know from much recent research that economic performance is associated over the longer term at least, with employee engagement and satisfaction.  But we need to go beyond the transactional engagement of employment.  The transaction of flexible benefits for employment or opportunities for input is not enough.  Why is my client in Silicon Valley having such a hard time recruiting the best software programmers?  Because they would rather work for Facebook and build “an open and connected world”.  [I am sure Mr Mubarak would rather they had made other employment choices!]  When faced with the opportunity to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, these same engineers and polymaths would prefer to work for Google than other less ambitious places.  Amongst a group of millennials recently, I asked what made them glad to be in their place of work and they said, “because we are doing something important!”.  One rather articulate young woman, noticing our age disparity no doubt, said, “Chris, we are not like you, we don’t want to wait until we retire to give back, we want to be doing something meaningful now”.

It has been well known for decades that the best employees are not conscripts but volunteers.  One client annually assesses an “employee commitment index” only to find that the data collected does not really yield insight into the true motivation – the words in the hallway do not match the data – and another instrument was developed as a “pulse check”.  As I have interpreted these data with leadership teams, one consistent and fundamental pattern arose; the managers did not actually know their people.  To be sure, they knew a lot about them, but they did not actually know them as persons.  The volume of work was often cited as the reason, there being far too much to do and too few resources to build real relationships.  Yet the brand positioning of this financial institution claims an empathetic intimacy with the customer that is not matched within the enterprise.  The frequent personal remoteness of some of the business leaders exemplifies the antithesis of the brand – distant facts, not a personal empathy.  Brand authenticity demands much, much more of leaders and as we shall see later, may be personally costly.

Here then are the three elements of this simple model. (1) A compelling purpose that transcends mere transaction and (2) expressed visibly in an external identity in what we call the business brand (3) is and expressed visibly in an internal identity we can call the business culture.  A purpose-full and authentic business. Now is the time for business to lead. It is needed, business can and it had better. But why?


Rationale – three reasons

Why this model and why now? I offer three reasons: (1) Purpose and Authentic Identity is needed, (2) business as an institutional and organizational form is uniquely equipped to be successful and (3) there are serious business risks to failure.



There are few institutions left in the west that we trust any more and from which we can derive meaning and clarity of purpose.  Ever since the emergence of science in the late seventeenth century, rationalism has steadily eroded our willingness to embrace mystery and fueled our sense of human autonomy. We humans are the master now, even though our capacity to manage our technology-fueled power has always looked rather shaky.  With data-enriched analysis and perceived intellectual authority we have abandoned our churches and from our perch of superior reason, we look down on their almost quaint adherence to the ineffable.

Universities, despite their foundation in logic, reason and the humanities, now fail us if they do not immediately satisfy our demand for employment and utility.  Furthermore, we have terrified our youth into the Faustian bargain of trading in the joy of discovery for the mitigation of unemployment risk.  Pragmatism rules.  And the universities have too often sold their souls and lost their capacity to lead us.

Even major arts organizations reflect the tragic social embrace of the pragmatic, losing their capacity to speak truth.  In a recent strategic planning process that I led, we wrestled to move “breaking even” from a central role of ambition to subservient necessity.  A major Shakespearean Festival will offer more economically attractive musicals next season than the works of the bard himself – and dance dangerously with the loss of its own artistic soul.  If the arts cannot “afford” to speak truth into our culture because it will not sell enough tickets, then who will?

Now, political leadership and the institution of the state seems on the brink of shedding its last vestiges of credibility for they have fully privatized profit, socialized debt and left us gasping for any political leadership in which we can put much, if any, lasting confidence.  We are left searching for something beyond the boundaries of mere individualism for some collective social purpose that transcends the limits of personal preference and engages us in greater and more collective purpose.  From where will such Purpose come?  Now is the time for business to lead, it must, it can and it had better.



Secondly, business must lead because it can.  There is no other organizational form that is as adaptive and agile.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter may have chastised the elephants for their inability to dance, but at least they look at performance every quarter rather than explore only the potential for real change every four years or often even longer in a parliamentary democracy.  Winston Churchill may well have been right to describe our political heritage as “the worst form of government, except for all the rest” but change comes so slowly and greater movement is required.  The writer about elephants now writes, “great companies identify something larger than transactions to provide purpose and meaning”.  The very characteristics that yield short-term gain for long-term pain – the dreaded ‘short-termism’, can be harnessed to yield highly adaptive performance against a Purpose.

In a favorite book, John Argenti argues that two questions are fundamental to any organization. First, “Your organization, what is it for?” and the second is “And how are you getting along?”  To answer this second question on measurement, some businesses have followed Bob Kaplan’s advice with balanced scorecards. Many stick to just one quadrant – financial, yet sustain the illusion of the other three. What really gets measured matters profoundly and while we have often messed up measurement, it remains a useful capacity if focused correctly.  Businesses know instinctively how to define and track tangible progress. This capacity can be harnessed.

The agility and responsiveness of business as a type of organization has been honed through its focus on customers and so relevance.  It has a capacity to measure and reward behavior both extrinsically and intrinsically and it can mobilize and align large groups of people in common cause.  No other institutional form has this responsive capacity, when it is exercised without coercion. So powerful are these devices that left unchecked and under-led, they have the capacity to drive us to economic self-immolation, as we witnessed in 2008/9 and may witness again before too long. If we don’t think economic levers are powerful to shape social perceptions, we need only consider how the inconsequential Greek economy risks bringing the world to its knees.  Commerce has mighty tools at its disposal indeed, so mighty perhaps that not a few are afraid that they should never be trusted again. Which is precisely why we need to move quickly.

I remember vividly working in Moscow in the late 1990’s with one of the Russian economists who had completed the economic analysis for Gorbachev of a Soviet response to Reagan’s star wars initiative.  His fear was that the new-found rules of western capitalism would yield a business elite so corrupted by their power that the emergence of commercial enterprises would herald the arrival of deeply amoral entities.  Applauded in the west, but without some kind of ethical framework, such entities would engulf Russia in a new hegemony of commercio-crats.  His was a prescient fear.  So often, decay happens faster than creation, hence this call to action and not patient evolution.



In the last few years a new word is emerging in the business culture – authenticity.  In a milestone paper written by the Arthur Page Society for the PR industry entitled “The Authentic Enterprise”, the authors argue that authenticity is no longer optional but essential.  The power of social media to serve as a vehicle for the exposure of the lie of inconsistency is immense.  The truth will out and we now live in the West, at least, with emerging generations that demand not conformity to norms and standards but authenticity to claim. Uniqueness is welcome, deception and duplicity is not.  Two voices stand ready to both affirm and to deny the claim of Brand, consumers and employees.  Businesses cannot fake authenticity; they have only one option, live it!  Let that which you claim be that which you are. All else, if not relevant, will be outed. And as numerous CEO’s, middle-eastern leaders and the Chinese communist party all know too well, the world is increasingly open and connected, just as every engaged Facebook employee intends.

In a recent conversation with the CEO of a very large pension fund, I asked why he thought that the focus on authenticity was growing. “Fear; sheer terror!” came his unequivocal reply.  A CEO client, returning from two recent world business forums, declared, “one word is on everybody’s mind – authenticity”.  While inspiration may be a more preferable motivator than fear, the latter will suffice.  Fear in this context has emerged due the new and almost complete lack of control of the message.  Such loss of control is irrevocable and perhaps one of the most monumental “blessings in disguise” to descend on Western businesses. It will make compliance much easier. There is nowhere to hide.  Since authenticity cannot be faked, best embrace it!

It is time for business to lead, purposeful authenticity is essential, business is well adapted to lead and it had better, for its own survival is at risk.  Shakespeare, as usual, spoke more eloquently and succinctly…

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.


Action – the four points of focus

Inspired or terrified, either will do, where do we turn for action? I would like to suggest four important domains where each of us can and must make a difference to, as Robin Williams would have us…”Seize the Day”.  On Boards of Directors, as individual leaders, as leadership teams and in what I am calling “signals”.  First on Boards of Directors.


Action by Boards

The emergence of a focus on good governance has been long overdue. From the bursting of the south sea bubble to the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, and here in Canada with Intel, Bre-X and now perhaps RIM, the question “Where were the Directors?” has quite appropriately been asked, but all too often, too late. In recent years, considerably more attention has been placed on compliance and the Sarbanes Oxley and Basel standards and other regulatory frameworks have now almost suffocated us all with compliance requirements. But as my friend Donna Kaufman, now chair of the Institute for Corporate Directors said to me recently, “the new Audit Committee is the HR committee”.  Regulation can only take us so far, human character is the essential currency of compliance.

Allow me to go further without advocating that Boards violate Carol Hansell’s most helpful principle to guide directors, “Noses in and fingers out”. The role of the Board must be to hold fast to the purpose of the business.  It is essential that the Directors know why the business exists, to be very clear and to then “hold the space” so that the endless buffeting of markets, regulators, labour supply and competitive dynamics do not knock the business off its destined course.

The second-generation scion of a large family enterprise in North America, not possessed of the managerial expertise of the founders, but conscious of his stewardship of the enterprise, asked for help.  His task was to govern wisely and not to manage efficiently, that was for others to contribute.  The framework for such governance had to be derived not from the mechanisms of good governance alone but from the Purpose behind the enterprise, to reflect why it existed in the first place.  The founders built the business for a reason and it was to that purpose that governance needed to adhere.

What almost brought one of the world’s largest insurance intermediaries to its knees was not the existence of a well-known billing practice, but the failure to disclose it.  A fundamental foundation of business value – client advocacy, in this case – was put at risk.  A few rogue traders played a part to be sure, but where was the oversight to authenticity – a board that grasped and was deeply committed to the purpose of the business and was not prepared to ignore a convenient practice that yielded attractive revenue?

The Board’s first priority is to the enterprise, not to the shareholders and the business enterprise is the embodiment of its Purpose.  Clarity of purpose is the essential element that will give focus to the Board, its governance mechanisms, committee mandates and the capabilities and qualities of its directors.  Boards must be the custodians of Purpose, not just generally accepted accounting principals, essential as those are.  Board members are not doing their job if they cannot answer the question of why the business exists and cannot rest assured that it is at least making a very serious attempt to live up to its brand.


Action by Leaders

Through the years of coaching senior executives, I have become deeply convinced that the leader must live out that through which they seek to bring the organization.  I have said of large-scale change efforts in which I have had both successful and unsuccessful contributions, “as go the leaders, so goes the change”.  But I need to narrow that and define leaders in the business not in hierarchical terms, but in terms of evidence.  The key incontrovertible evidence of a leader is not title, or rank or accountability, but the presence of followers. So, in this context, leaders are people to whom others look for clarity about the uncertain path ahead.  Twenty-five years ago Dick Hodgson taught me at Western that leaders are “people who go out ahead in order to show the way”.  The authentic and purpose-infused business is a community filled with authentic leaders.  This is far from new news, but it is never more essential if world-shaping Purpose is to be realized.  A purpose-infused brand has to be lived, expressed in a purpose-infused culture and this reality must first exist in purpose-infused leaders.  This is what I call incarnational leadership – the purpose of the business lived out, oozing out from every pore if the leaders as individuals, as persons that embody the deeply held beliefs of the business.  Authentic leaders are the visible and personal manifestation of the business purpose and find the business purpose to be personally captivating. They are not simply adherents to generally accepted leadership principles.  Rather, they embody the characteristics essential to a particular business purpose.  Far from leadership clones embracing a generic leadership code, they are shaped “for such a business as this, and at such a time”.

I have two clients at the moment that have enormously powerful life-giving ideas for their businesses and why they exist, but in both organizations, many of the leaders do not actually believe, that is trust, the core ideas they espouse…and their people know it.  They watch them make budget and promotion decisions that are incompatible with the stated purpose – usually with no acknowledgement of the dissonance they create.

Purpose-infused leaders are called upon for a degree of moral courage that may well imply that they must give to others that which they themselves are not receiving. In numerous 360-feedback conversations, we have together confronted the hard reality that the leaders team needs time, insight, or perhaps consistency, or understanding from a leader who is starved of such benefit from their superiors.  In this sense, while in a community, they are also deeply alone.  Their task is to hold the space for the creation and re-creation by others. This is the essential ingredient for innovation – a safe place to fail. It is the task of purpose-infused leaders, those with the courage to live their own business Purpose that will be required. Purpose must be lived out individually and authentically to have life, else it is mere words.

Herein lies the greatest challenge for leaders.  The elements of Brand and Culture are identities, collective and personal, the elements of relationship with customers and employees.  From where will those who lead derive their identity?  If from power, then how can the business serve?  If only from financial performance, then how can the business embody a transcendent purpose that does not merely fuel our economic “tragedy of the commons”?  If only from performance, then how can the business embrace sufficient failure to be truly innovative?  A CEO who cannot or will not embrace and infuse their own identity from the Purpose of the enterprise they lead, cannot lead with authenticity. They must make it their own, or more accurately, they must make themselves a part of the business so their leadership comes from within the organization and not from outside. When the enterprise is the pawn on the leader’s personal chess-board, who would follow?  When the Purpose infuses the leaders selfless service, then who would not follow? Are we ready for such leadership?


Action by Leadership Teams

We humans are social beings as well as individuals and a great deal of our identity is not simply derived from our own self-creation but from the social context in which we work and live.  Additionally, we now create such complex products and services the creation of which demands a wide a variety of skills and specialized capabilities, all working together.  We must create value in the business system not as individuals acting alone, but in teams, yet as consumers we are increasingly served in our uniqueness, or at least our postal code, but sometimes even ‘one-to-one’ in our very own segment.

This dichotomy of being coddled as unique consumers who must somehow set aside our celebrated individualism to serve as colleagues, collaborators and co-creators on teams is a confusing set of behavioral expectations for which we need models and mentors.  Who will show us how to work in such teams, if the senior leaders do not provide an exemplar of the business purpose incarnate, not only in individual leaders, but in the senior team, in the Board, in every visible team we create, whether permanent or ad-hoc, co-located or virtual.  A critical role of the senior team is to demonstrate not just the avoidance of Patrick Lencione’s helpful Five Dysfunctions, but also just how how the business purpose is to be expressed in behavior inwardly – to demonstrate the culture alive and valid and active, and externally as the exemplar of the brand, a living, breathing manifestation of what is claimed to be true.

The CEO of a business whose brand claim of “Life’s Good”, one you might recognize, facing an internal reality too often characterized as “Life’s Gone!” – a function of the extreme competitive pressures facing the business – exhorts his leadership team that all they can really control is how they choose to lead, together.  He calls them to absorb together that which would sap the energy from their people and live out “Life’s Good” as a leadership community in the business.  This is authentic purpose lived out in a team.

A business operating in a highly fragmenting environment finds that the core offering for clients demands the integration of a wide array of elements in order to assure their success.  Like Kodak and the silver-halide chemistry they democratized, the task for this professional service firm is to absorb the complexity of the discipline and yield simple and easy to use solutions for their clients.  In its best moments, usually selling new work, the internal frictions are minimal, but when sustainment is required, the internal competition predominates.  If the senior team cannot model the intense collaboration required daily, to whom else will the people look?

Most of us, if we have been blessed, have known those moments when the team upon which we served, soared. When cohesion and clarity and trust were manifest. If you reflect on those moments, which may well have occurred only once or twice in a career for some, you will find that the aim was unambiguous, the purpose undeniable and held authority over all. You had common Purpose and it transcended everything else.  Purpose must be lived out authentically and visibly in teams as well as in individual leaders.


Action on Signals

The fourth major lever we have is what I call “signals”.  When I walk into a new client, I look at the architecture, the symbols of identity, for the things that are celebrated, for the commemorations, for the heroines, for the rewards tangible and intangible, for what is written and what is left unsaid. And in all these icons and symbols and words and actions, we see what is important and what is not. We see either ambiguity of purpose or clarity. And the signals do not lie, rather, they speak volumes and more than anyone else, the youngest employees know it, just ask them. They are the canaries in the mine of duplicity, they can smell in-authenticity a mile away!

Every function has opportunity to shape the organization’s focus on its Purpose.   If you are in Finance, look at what is measured. In HR, consider recruitment criteria and rewards. In Marketing – can you and your colleagues live up to this brand ambition that you have shaped?. In operations, what inputs are really baked into the goods and services? In sales, what is really being sold?  In PR, what story are you spinning for the world?  Are you low in the hierarchy, what questions are you asking?  Are you in the corner office, what example are you setting?  Signals, all of them, small messages, virtual, multi-media, in human form, posted on buildings and websites, tweeted and e-mailed.  Whether words or actions, this is the surround-sound of signals that tells others and us whether our business is authentic and purposeful or a meandering and too-often exploitive lie.



This then is the distillation of 25 years of consulting, of working and serving amidst the commerce of the last quarter century. And this is my deep conviction. Now is the time for business to lead, to give meaning to a fragmenting and sometimes frightening world, not to fruitlessly try to preserve our western resource-intense consumption, but to infuse the human spirit with hope and courage when a lot looks uncomfortably dark.  I have called this essential movement, “Telositytm”, from the ancient Greek word, telos, meaning ultimate end or purpose.  Not a static end, but dynamic with the movement of incarnation, purpose embodied in the authentic identity of Brand and Culture. Let us therefore together seek to create purpose-full and authentic businesses – they are much needed, we can and we had better.


Chris Houston

The Change Alliance


905-854-5332 (office)


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