The significance of clarifying and communicating purpose for female leaders

Being clear about purpose can help female leaders drive lasting change, writes Phoebe Waters
African american female empowering other colleagues in workplace

Communicating purpose can help build trust and shared commitment; Shutterstock

Why should we be taking further, deeper steps to achieve meaningful systemic change? At the most macro level, because it is going to take another 300 years to close the gender inequality gap worldwide without investment, according to UN Women. 

To effect change, we need to confront existing ideas and norms. It is how we do this that is very often the challenge. Grandiose ideas and claims are bellowed from the rooftops when it comes to International Women’s Day (IWD) – and for the month of March – but we need to ensure there is substance to those proposed initiatives and go beyond mere aspirations, investing so much more. Three centuries deserves – necessitates – more than a mere marketing and/or compliance tick-box exercise.

By continually reflecting on our workplace ecosystems and assessing when and what change is necessary, we can work towards breaking down barriers together, building mutual confidence and encouraging greater positivity and profitability in the legal sector, and beyond. Eyes and ears need to be kept wide open.

One of my favourite authors is Mary Beard. She argues in her book ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto’ that “you can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure”.

In order to break down barriers together, we need to be effective leaders (and by leaders, I mean you – a leader in your career, in your lives – you as an individual in our societal network). And to be an effective leader? We need to build the dreaded and rather subjective ‘confidence’ to develop our own leadership. We need to first understand ourselves and comprehend that how we think other people feel about us, translates into the actions we take. We need resilience. We need focus. We need to shake off the habits and thinking holding us back.

Clarifying and communicating your purpose

So, firstly – why clarify your purpose? What is the point? Well, it is a way by which we can define the difference we want to make in the world (macro), as well as the impact you want to have on those immediately around you, in your organisation or community (meso), and an opportunity for you to be able to proactively strengthen your leadership (micro).  

All of these intertwine to build a stronger and more effective harness for you to be an influential change agent – that is, to contribute to the elimination of gender inequality in the workplace but also more widely. Clarifying your purpose can help daily decision-making at work, and in a broader context, support you in staying focused on what matters to you most, in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

Gamades articulates purpose (one’s why) as “a guide [to] the kind of lives we want to live, how we’ll treat our fellow humans, and what drives us”. Co-authors of “Find Your Why” – Sinek, Mead and Docker – recommend generating a purpose that is “simple, clear, actionable, focused on the effect you’ll have on others”. The authors suggest using the following format to create your purpose statement: “My purpose is to [the contribution you want to make in the world] so that… [the impact you want to have on others].” 

What about the communication part then? Why do we need to let others know what we are all about? Not only does sharing your purpose help your team, community, family and friends understand what motivates you (conducive to greater mutual respect in my experience), but enabling people to get behind your why, behind the actions that you take that mean the most to you, builds trust. For our shared mission – to achieve global equality and equity – we need trust. This will help us to form and advance the collective commitment needed for transformational change.

It is crucial to be self-aware in leadership (and remember when we talk about leadership, we mean that everyone is a leader). Reflecting upon how your characteristics and experiences influence your behaviours, values and interactions with others, is a key step in both clarifying and communicating your purpose.   

Firms also benefit from defining purpose. The University of Cambridge’s CISL explains: “Purpose-led organisations recognise their role in creating positive societal change. They also have embedded strategies to ensure that actions align with their intent.”

To build psychologically safe work environments, fostering gender equity and inclusiveness, organisations need to wrap together that purpose, their strategy and their people. They can do this by not only fostering the right skills and behaviours in their teams, but having an effective and committed strategy to how they can help contribute to equality, diversity and inclusion of people of all genders.  

The purpose gap. What is it? Let me put it this way: I am sure each of us has either worked somewhere, or known someone, who has been delighted to preach the good word on equality but isn’t actually taking action. This purpose gap is when a company externally communicates a purpose without fundamentally changing its corporate policies and practices. Research by EY found that more than a third of employees saw a gap between an organisation’s intent and its actions. This is why it is fundamental that we hold not only ourselves, but our workplaces, to account.

How can I go about defining my purpose? You can do this by devising a “Find Your Why Statement”. Some guidance on steps for self-reflection to support you are below (adapted from University of Cambridge, 2021):

  1. Capture key words and phrases that describe how you see the world, what motivates you and how you work. 
  2. Jot down things that inspire you. 
  3. Connect with a story that captures the essence of how you function and relates to your values.
  4. Identify symbols or images that might help to convey the elements of your framework.
  5. Reflect on who (the people), and what (events, experiences, ideas) have influenced your leadership practice.

While I am a strong proponent of IWD and recognising the ongoing challenges that women continue to face and the potential opportunities it provides, I see this period as a microcosm of the investment, support and celebration that are required to make the sustainable change that we deserve on micro, meso and macro levels – every day of the year. Clarifying and communicating purpose can be built into personal and professional strategies to effect positive and long-lasting change.

Phoebe Waters is a director at Optimising Potential and an academic focused on gender equality and women in leadership. She is also the immediate past chair of The Female Fraud Forum and one of the judges at this year’s Women & Diversity in Law Awards, which take place in London next Wednesday (13 March).

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