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Why every team should have a ‘shared purpose’

Professor Jeroen De Flander, strategy execution expert an author of The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness

Professor Adam Grant, one of the world’s leading purpose experts, says it’s important to have a shared purpose when working in a team. It unites people who would otherwise drift in different directions, chasing their own passion. Grant’s research shows that people work harder, smarter, longer, more generously, and more productively when they see how their work affects others.

“Although many employees do work that has a meaningful impact on others,” he points out, “all too often, they lack a vivid understanding of how their efforts make a difference.”

This has been supported by dozens of studies and real-life examples. Spikes in motivation are driven uniquely by an enriched appreciation of how our work benefits the wellbeing of others.

Let’s look at UCB, an innovative stock-listed pharmaceutical company. UCB develops solutions for people with serious diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s. While most of these diseases are not curable, UCB’s ambition is to develop products that improve the daily life of those living with these severe diseases.

UCB was created in the 1920s as a hybrid chemical company. It became patient-centric in 2006 with an innovative approach. “Today, our patients are at the centre of everything we do. Our thinking, processes, budgets, and structures are all patient-centric, as opposed to doctor-centric like some of the other pharma companies,” strategy director, Philippe Vandeput, tells me. “When we started to involve real patients a decade ago, our vision ‘Inspired by Patients. Driven by Science’, really got a boost.”

What did they do exactly? UCB started singling out patients and asking them to share their story, showing employees the positive impact of their work to create a shared purpose.

One of these was Jerome, who has been living with epilepsy since 1989. He never liked classrooms and would often stare out of his school window, wishing he could escape to run or swim. Jerome experienced his first serious seizure on the way to swim practice. He was transported to a hospital that warned him of the consequences of too much exercise. But Jerome was determined to prevent his epilepsy from defining his life. With the support of his family, Jerome began medication, and his seizures became less frequent. Jerome now has a driver’s license and works as a physical therapist. He has completed several triathlons and continues to live a very athletic lifestyle.

You meet these real patients everywhere at UCB. When you walk into their offices, you see life-size pictures of patients their first names and in the bottom-right corner ‘living with a severe disease’. They are included in PowerPoint presentations, annual reports, and their stories are shared on the website.

Imagine seeing a picture of Jerome in your office every day at UCB – a patient you have met personally. What you will do that day, you do for them and millions of others living with a severe disease. It gives your work purpose. Your job contributes to the wellbeing of those patients, making their lives better.

“We saw a real impact on our employees,” Vandeput tells me. “These real patients, you know their stories and have shaken their hands. Our vision is more than just a slogan. These real patients make you feel what we do.”

“When I interview candidates, people are moved by the way we put the patient central and they point it out as why they want to come and work for us.”

Recruiters often forget what a tremendous impact they have on people's lives. A career switch can be one of the most intense rewarding experiences for people, helping them to move to the next level up on the mastery curve. It provides long term joy. So next time, take a moment and think about the impact you have on other people's lives. It will make you a better recruiter, as Adam Grant's research clearly shows. 

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