'Embedding purpose is an endurance sport'

Emily Castle, Jul 09,2019

A few weeks ago, we hosted our fourth Brand Culture Sessions event in our usual favourite spot at Shoreditch House. This time round we had the pleasure of hearing from two brilliant panellists, Jess Lonsdale, from Virgin Media and Seetal Bhatti, from BT Technology.

Once our guests were suitably refreshed with a great selection of nibbles and drinks, Brook invited Jess and Seetal to kick off proceedings with a bit of background around their career paths so far. Both were equally surprised to discover that they had taken a very similar journey having both studied science degrees before taking a detour into the world of HR.

But that wasn’t the only thing they had in common as they now both find themselves working for two businesses with a genuine focus and desire to be a purpose-led business.

At BT, Seetal faces the challenge of defining the purpose for the technology team, whilst sitting in an organisation that already has a strong purpose, a task that is becoming increasingly familiar to many businesses. Seetal told us how purpose has always been a key lever at BT with frequent reinventions throughout its rich history and it’s a strategy that has served them well, providing a guiding light during periods of change. On a personal level, for Seetal it’s the thing that gets her out of bed in the morning because BT is so inherent to how we live – the emergency services wouldn’t work without it!

Virgin Media launched their purpose to bring back some of the ‘Virgin-ness’ they felt had been lost to a focus on commercials. Jess said they challenged themselves to find something that was both tangible and heartfelt, designed to be inclusive and galvanise everyone, whilst setting a clear direction.

We then moved on to talking about how you embed purpose in a business, something that is far easier said than done. Jess summed it up pretty neatly by stating that ‘embedding purpose is an endurance sport’, realistically taking over five years to move from launch, to embedding, to being purpose-led, to being purpose as usual.

Jess reminded us that it’s ‘humans and people not numbers that bring the purpose to life’, a lesson she learned during her time at Virgin Care where they took the time to understand what really mattered to people there and then brought this to life through purpose aligned initiatives: innovation funds, awards ceremony and real-life stories.

Now at Virgin Media, Jess is looking to make tough purpose-led decisions that are ‘symbolic statements’. But can’t be distracted by the shiny gimmicky things, it’s got to be everything you do in the business.

Seetal agreed but raised the question of how to keep people interested in a time when businesses demand pace and agility. She believes the key is to get leadership buy-in to the purpose: to role model it and be accountable. Although BT’s new CEO is taking bold actions to drive change inside out, this alone is not enough. It’s up to all leaders to enable change below them by understanding their people’s motivations and flexing to meet different needs.

In another uncanny parallel, Jess is also working under a newly appointed CEO who is empowering leadership to rethink how they make decisions that ladder up to the purpose and strategy.

Moving onto the practical side, both speakers shared some lessons learned from their experiences. For Seetal it was ‘what wasn’t done’, having done the hard work of crafting the purpose statement, but then neglecting to live it, and leaving the hard work of galvanising the business up to the values.

Jess felt her main learning was how to turn a beautifully articulated purpose statement into something meaningful. Again, this comes back to leadership, leaders who understand their people so can take a strategic narrative and empower individuals to translate it into something that’s relevant to them – ‘leading with individuality whilst nurturing inclusion’.

This turned the group discussion to the increasingly important subject of inclusion, with Seetal sharing that although today has work to do, now it’s about making bold and courageous moves.

For Virgin it’s a different story, from day one bringing your whole self to work was encouraged, with Richard Branson turning up to work in jeans on his motorbike. But that doesn’t their work is done, as many businesses know there’s always more that can be done to further inclusion in the workplace. For Virgin Media their next focus is bringing more women into senior positions and promoting diversity of thought.

Thanks everyone who joined us for a great evening and if you’d like to be invited to any of our future events or updated with our latest thinking please drop a line to hello@people-made.com.