According to recent research from Ipsos MORI and Cirrus, having a shared purpose and sense of direction is one of the top priorities for senior business leaders – yet only 19% of the Captains of Industry questioned believed HR departments were effective in helping them create this.

The report (Leadership Connections: How HR deals with C-suite Leadership) raises an important issue and reaffirms the findings of previous studies which have shown ‘visionary’ leadership has a real impact on performance. In the book ‘Leading at the Edge’, for example, a study of more than 500 leaders showed that those who demonstrated strong visionary leadership had the highest performing teams, while leaders with good management skills but poor vision only had average performing team.

A shared understanding of where the business is headed is vital if organisations are to develop the agility they need to respond to rapidly changing markets, and to provide a seamless service to customers. If people understand where the company is going and how they can contribute to its future success, they will be better able to act quickly and make the right decisions.

Responsibility for creating this shared purpose clearly rests primarily with leaders themselves – it’s not something HR can pull miraculously out of the hat unaided. The Ipsos MORI/Cirrus research shows, however, that there is a desire from senior managers to actively work alongside HR to create this kind of ‘joined up’ environment.

So, how can practitioners step up and support leaders in building the shared direction that will lead to a long-term, sustainable future for the business?

Start with the employees

If you asked your employees to describe what your company is trying to achieve, and how they fit into this vision, how many of them would be on the right page? If you’re not sure – take the time to find out. Run small discussion groups, or survey your workforce. Ask people what they believe the company stands for (or should stand for), and what it means to them. Once you have the evidence you’ll be in a much better place when it comes to getting your voice heard if change needs to be made.

Develop a vision that resonates

As Simon Sinek, author of Why Leaders Eat Last, says: “we are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.”

Help leaders to carve out the time to articulate — and then communicate — an image of the future that draws others in. A shared purpose and direction needs to be exactly that: shared. If employees don’t get it, then they won’t be fully engaged. Involve key managers in being part of this journey. If they understand what shapes their leaders’ vision they’ll be able to take the journey with them and find it easier to share the vision with their teams.

Make values real

There is no point in saying that investing in people is a core value if there’s no budget for training and development, or putting agility at the top of the agenda if a command and control culture prevents people from showing their own initiative. Review the extent to which management behaviours are encouraging alignment, agility and shared purpose — and ensure your values reflect this.

Embed shared purpose in everyday activities

To be engaged employees need to know exactly what it is the organisation wants them to be engaged with. Invest time in setting up performance review processes that match employee (and line manager) performance with the company’s goals. And make sure reviews are held frequently so that the business can be agile.

Communicate, communicate, communicate…

Leaders need to be seen to be leading the way, so it’s important that their views and vision is constantly in front of employees. Authenticity is important too. It won’t work if someone else writes their words for them. If they are short on time, help them find a way that works for them. A brief post on your HR portal a couple of times a week flagging up exceptional performance, or a great new initiative, is much more immediate—and is more valuable than a quarterly newsletter.

If inclusiveness is part of your values, give employees a voice too. Let them share ideas, invite feedback and give praise. One of the key findings from the Workplace in the Digital Age report is that organisations who say they feel a stronger shared purpose are also more cross-communicative.

One action to take this week: Read the Acas ‘Building employee engagement’ Policy Discussion Paper.

You may be interested in reading our guide to building trust within your organisation.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.