Maintaining a Sense of Purpose in a Growing Organization

Kelly Smith, serial entrepreneur in agricultural biotechnology, shares insights for keeping your growing company focused on a common purpose.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Recent research has shown that a sense of purpose is key to maintaining employee engagement. In addition, a shared sense of purpose is very important to the success of small companies, since it will help sustain people when resources are tight and the obstacles seem insurmountable. Newly-formed companies are often closely tied to their original purpose and a small team can easily maintain this connection. Challenges arise as the organization grows — there are new faces in the office, it takes time to learn to trust new team members, and meanwhile the work still needs to get done. There is a real risk that individuals will lose sight of the overall purpose of the company in the day-to-day grind of meetings and messages, and the company may devolve into a set of internally-competing units with little shared investment in the company’s larger goals. I have found the following guidelines useful in maintaining a sense of shared purpose as a young company grows:

  1. Overcommunicate the purpose from the top leadership. As ridiculous as you may feel at first, re-stating the company’s purpose, mission and values every time you speak to your team will go a long way towards making it their day-to-day focus. A growing biotech startup I worked with incorporated a statement about the company’s purpose and top-priority goal into every internal meeting presentation. It wasn’t long before everyone was referring back to this message to pressure-test decisions and resource allocation all over the company.
  2. Expect communication of the purpose from managers to their teams. As leaders in your company, your managers should be able to clearly articulate the company’s purpose in their own words, and connect it to their team’s goals and their personal values. As you add new employees, it will be critical to their teams’ cohesion to hear this from their managers, and it will teach the company culture and values very effectively. At this same biotech company, I witnessed much better onboarding among new employees who heard the company’s purpose stated consistently and often.
  3. Make opportunities available to see the impact of your purpose. Organize site visits within your industry, bring customers on-site to meet your staff, and send employees to conferences and trade shows to hear how your company fills an unmet need, directly from those who have it. In my experience, every conference presentation or trade show table has provided a visceral connection to those who were eager to see our products solve critical problems they were facing.
  4. Do not tolerate cynicism. Especially at first, you may find some of your managers, and even senior staff, will resist all this talk of purpose. They will insist that everyone already knows that stuff, it’s a waste of time, etc. Most will participate, and keep it up, because the benefits quickly become apparent. It may be worth exploring why the others are not willing to talk up the company’s mission — is it because they don’t believe that the upper management is really operating from that purpose? Or maybe they feel it is beneath them to recite these things over and over? Usually you can coach a good manager through those objections. Unfortunately, it may turn out your employee is not able to connect the purpose to their own values. In these cases you may find sarcasm and cynicism creeping into how they (and then their teams) talk about and view the company’s purpose. This is corrosive and contagious, and will lead to rampant disengagement. Leaders who cannot be coached out of this behavior should be separated from the company.

It doesn’t come naturally to most people to talk about their own and the company’s purpose at first. It will feel uncomfortable, and may provoke discussions about how the company’s activities do or don’t support its stated mission. The benefits far outweigh the temporary disruption, however. If the company’s purpose is right in front of everyone all the time, it’s much harder to lose sight of it.

Kelly Smith, Ph.D. has spent nearly 2 decades in agricultural biotechnology. She was a co-founder of Pasteuria Bioscience in 2003 (acquired by Syngenta in 2012), an early employee of AgBiome, Inc., where she led the effort to register, formulate and scale-up production of Howler™ fungicide, and currently serves as the Head of Bioprocessing and Formulation Development for Joyn Bio, bringing novel microbial solutions to agriculture through the power of synthetic biology. She is proud to be part of two Springboard cohorts: NE2004 and ATLS 2009.




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