Purpose-driven leadership: ‘you will always go to your highest values in a crisis’

October 9, 2020


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For most entrepreneurs, work is more than just a job. An entrepreneur starts his or her journey with a purpose, whether it is to bring in social change or to solve a pain point they see. It is this purpose that becomes the foundation for future growth direction.

An organization goes through ups and downs, but as long as the core purpose remains intact in the leadership, the organization prevails. In times of crisis, whether it´s the COVID pandemic or a recession, how can leaders continue to motivate their teams to perform creatively?

Barbara Shannon

“In a crisis, go to your values and bring your leadership team to a focus there” — Barbara Shannon

Barbara Shannon, Founder and Chair of The CEO Board, a San Francisco based CEO peer group, and Athena, a monthly mastermind group dedicated to the success of women entrepreneurs, says a leader’s mindset is the key factor that determines the viewpoint of the entire organization. In times of crisis, this view determines the organization’s direction.

“The smaller and narrower your view of your purpose, the more difficult you will find a time of crisis. If you view your purpose as large and define it in a way that means having a positive impact on your customers, your view widens,” said Shannon.

The foundation of this viewpoint emanates from the values of the leader that cascade down to every employee.

“You will always go to your highest values in a crisis. If your values are, ‘I will serve my customers at the highest and the best possible level,’ then when a crisis hits the company, you will think, ‘how is the same crisis affecting my customers?’” she added.

A business growth expert and advisor to CEOs and entrepreneurs, Shannon also serves on the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change and is a speaker on the future of work and values-based business. She is also launching a new podcast series called The Good Company, which brings together purpose-driven business leaders around the best ways to lead their organizations out of times of crisis.

“You can’t generalize a crisis. The way that you need to meet a crisis is by understanding the details of that situation” — Barbara Shannon

Since no crisis can be generalized, the details of what’s going on is of utmost significance. A crisis like COVID comes with opportunities that leaders must see.

“You can’t generalize a crisis,” Shannon explained, adding, “the way that you need to meet a crisis is by understanding the details of that situation.”

Shannon drove her point through a specific example of really understanding the details of a crisis.

A client she coaches just launched a new sustainably manufactured backpack company. The backpacks were manufactured from recycled plastic gathered from some of the poorest communities in the world, but when COVID hit in March, nobody was buying any backpacks.

The CEO; however, an expert in turning plastic into textile and other usable products, saw an opportunity. He pivoted his factory to turn the plastic into PPE shoes for healthcare workers. Now, with countries opening up, he’s back to making backpacks.

In a crisis, a leader would discuss value-based questions in a team to guide it towards communicating the situation to customers, stakeholders, business partners, and employees in order to react, reach out, partner with them, or help them.

“In a crisis, go to your values and bring your leadership team to a focus there, so that you come up with what to do, and do what’s grounded in the culture of the company,” said Shannon.

“The podcast is the first step in many things I’m going to be doing over the next year to create a global community for purpose driven leaders and CEOs, a place where we can come to hear each other” — Barbara Shannon

The CEO Board chair has spent years studying and managing people during organizational changes like mergers and integrations, which has given her the wisdom to advise leaders in different situations.

She was a management consultant with Deloitte for nine years, prior to which she worked on one of the first non-profit AIDS organizations in the US.

She also spent time as an actress as well as a producer, which honed her instincts around human nature, leadership, and people.

“Theater is a deep dive into who we are as people, how people influence other people, how people react to the world around them. So that’s probably why change management was the natural place for me to put down my roots in business,” Shannon reminisced.

She is also really excited about her new podcast series called The Good Company, in which she chats with CEOs running purpose driven companies.

“The podcast is the first step in many things I’m going to be doing over the next year to create a global community for purpose driven leaders and CEOs, a place where we can come to hear each other,” she said.

“My job with the podcast is to amplify the voices of purpose driven leadership and to expose all the difficulties that every business leader faces, plus a whole unique set that is around really trying to do the right thing according to their values.”

The name Good Business is symbolic of the one quality that is common to all her guests, a purpose-driven nature. She has already interviewed names like Miyoko Schinner, CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery, Bryan Janeczko, CEO of Loeb NYC, and Jim Dickie, Managing Partner at Sales Mastery.

“Every company needs to be really clear about its values and to be leading with those values” — Barbara Shannon

Facing a gamut of challenges comes in the job description of a leader. A CEO must know the urgent as well as the important, and work accordingly, while also promoting a value-based culture in the organization.

According to Shannon, prioritizing and creating culture are the two biggest challenges that are consistent for leaders.

“Not working on the urgent, but always working on the most important and coming up with processes and systems for doing that, that’s one of the reasons that leaders need a coach, because it’s really hard to keep your eye on the most important things, things that are going to be the needle movers for the business in the face of fighting fires and especially responding to all the needs of your team,” she said.

The other challenge that a leader faces is building the culture of the organization, which according to Shannon, includes getting the right people and keeping them in the right positions in the organization.

“The CEO and the leaders really define the culture. So, it starts there. And then the other elements of culture are largely created by understanding what your values are. And now, much more than in the past, every company needs to be really clear about its values and to be leading with those values,” she said.

This value-based behavior, she says, has to start with the CEO instead of bottom up, because ultimately, the values of the CEO and the values of the senior leadership team will be the values of the company.

“You can put any list on the wall that you want about what your culture is and what your values are, but what actually happens is going to be derived from what the CEO values and what those senior leaders value. So that’s the place to start,” she explained.

This is the reason why leaders need to think deeply about what their values are personally. They need to be clear about what they want their company to stand for. Furthermore, the customer experience and the employee experience will be a reflection of what matters to a leader.

“From there, you define what your culture is, because those are the things that you will really be living day to day. That’s the walk you will walk as opposed to the talk you will talk,” said Shannon.

“So, I think prioritizing and building the culture are the two most important things.”

To listen in to Barbara Shannon chatting with purpose-driven leaders about what drives their mission and their strategies for managing the challenges and opportunities that are thrown at them, check out The Good Company Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Tune In

Disclosure: This story includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company.

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