Q&A with Joel Kurtzman, author of
Can you define common purpose?
When people inside organizations don't have to be told how to do their work, when they make decisions flawlessly in the interests of their constituencies, when morale and energy are high and people are happy, when everyone does their best, and when an organization's strategy is known throughout the firm, then you can say the organization has common purpose.
What inspired you to write this book?
Years ago, I went to Apple's Cupertino headquarters to have a discussion with its senior leadership. Not only were people everywhere in the company upbeat and happy, but you could feel the energy snapping through the air. It was very informal — there were even bicycles in some individuals' offices — and people worked day and night. One woman told me she felt she was part of something great and thought of herself as a revolutionary. The next day, I flew to Detroit for meetings and walked into a parts manufacturing company much larger than Apple. As soon as you walked through the doors, you could see, feel, and sense the difference. The receptionist did not look up from her newspaper when I walked up to her, people's faces were downcast, the atmosphere felt lackluster, the CEO was embattled. I began wondering what was responsible for the differences between these two companies. Why was one company so depressing and another so exciting? This led me to the realization that common purpose was present at Apple and lacking at the automobile parts company. I spent years testing this hypothesis before writing the book.
What are some examples of companies who have found their common purpose and achieved greatness?
Apple Computer is a common-purpose company. You can feel it and see it in their products. FM Global, a mid-sized insurance company in Rhode Island, is another common-purpose company. Everyone at FM Global speaks the same language — in their case, the language of engineering — and people make decisions with very little supervision. The CEO sits at a random table in the cafeteria and eats lunch with whoever is at the table. People share ideas and information. Everyone understands what the company stands for.
When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. It was next to our campus. People were working on designing and building the space shuttle at the time. You could feel the energy in the air and sense that the people at NASA had a mission. When people have the spirit of common purpose, they'll perform under highly adverse circumstances. Back then, at NASA, even when budgets were cut, people performed well. They knew they were doing something important.
What about companies or organizations that have had failures or have missed opportunities because they weren't united?
Common purpose does not happen on its own and it can be lost. When I began working with companies, my first client was Toyota. Back then, it was a common-purpose company and everyone understood the importance of quality and responsibility. Workers on the assembly line could stop the entire line if they encountered a quality problem. People put in suggestions about how to change or improve the design of a part or a manufacturing process. They worked overtime, not for extra money, but because they were interested.
But over time, Toyota lost its way and its sense of common purpose. Common purpose was replaced by an overreliance on numbers and quantitative targets — which all companies must have. But in Toyota's case, they became obsessed with numbers, especially financial numbers. The spirit of common purpose became smothered, and people who at one time acted spontaneously on behalf of the company, its interests, and customers, became fearful of taking action. The result is now obvious. Problems with certain designs went for years without being addressed and Toyota's quality and reputation were damaged, perhaps irreparably. Once common purpose leaves an organization, the organization's performance deteriorates. It takes a lot of work — and sometimes years — to get back the spirit of common purpose.
What advice would you give leaders who are trying to unify their people?
Leaders can't think of themselves as better than their workers, or more favored because they have a higher rank. Becoming CEO is not a coronation, it's a promotion. And CEOs can't do everything. The purpose of an organization is to combine the efforts of many people to produce results no one on his or her own could achieve alone. Leaders must understand that. They must live the goals they espouse. They must understand that everyone inside the organization is looking at them — scrutinizing them, really — and also that every action of theirs is being watched and talked about. At FM Global, Shivan Subramaniam, the chairman and CEO, decided against buying a corporate jet despite the prodding of his board. Instead, he decided to abide by the same corporate travel rules that every other executive in the company abides by. He even flies on the redeye if he must. By doing this, he sends a powerful signal throughout the company that while he may be the CEO, he's also an employee, just like everyone else. People value that. People will do almost anything for a leader like that.
What can people who aren't in charge do to create common purpose?
Organizations function best when people feel they aren't being second-guessed. They work at their utmost when they have internalized what the company stands for, and they use those values to make their decisions. If they sense that they are being second-guessed or being given conflicting messages, they need to communicate this to the people they work for. They need to make their supervisors understand that they take their jobs seriously, even though they rank lower than their bosses. They need to make people understand that they need to own their jobs, so to speak. And, if they are not given ownership of their jobs and allowed to make decisions that are appropriate for what they are doing, they should quit. If a person is frustrated and feels unwanted by his or her organization, the result will be a toxic workplace where people are unhappy and unproductive. If we have only one life to live, we should not spend it in a place where we are not valued or allowed to contribute fully.