Purpose in the C-Suite with M.J. Clark

April 17, 2021


A Conversation about Purpose, Culture, Values and Accountability with M.J. Clark of Integrated Leadership Systems.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with M.J. Clark, M.A., Fellow PRSA, vice president at Integrated Leadership Systems and author of the books, Shut Up and Lead and Shut Up and Manage. Because M.J. is an executive coach and trainer, I was eager to talk with her about how the c-suite is thinking about purpose. Our conversation focused on purposeful leadership, values, culture-building, change management and accountability. You can read our exchange below.

How are executive leaders feeling right now? What concerns are top of mind?

M.J. Clark: Two of the biggest concerns leaders are expressing right now are the need for staffing and getting people back to work. While things are improving, many companies are still dealing with staffing challenges. They’re continuing to navigate illness, quarantines, family obligations and those opting out altogether, like employees deciding this is a good time to take early retirement. While some companies have navigated the pandemic well, others have not. People have been asked to work in uncomfortable or challenging settings. This breaks down trust. Then there’s also the process of safely getting people back into the office and back together.

How does brand purpose or mission play into your work with executives?

M.J. Clark: I often find myself starting with mission. Especially when I encounter a business that doesn’t have a stated mission, vision and set of core values. It’s actually somewhat common in high growth businesses. They get the business up and running and they’re making good money. It’s when things start to plateau or they grow to a certain size that they begin to experience fractures around the values or direction of the business. They then take a step back to examine how the business has evolved and what they want next. This is an important time to get clear about your purpose. 

What do you believe is the link between having a clear purpose and building a strong, more connected culture? 

M.J. Clark: Purpose is extremely important to today’s workforce. Research shows millennials and GenZers care a lot about whether their company does something for the greater good. I’ve also found that if you can appeal to the why behind what you do and find people who care about that, you’re able to create a sense of connectedness around the purpose. 

Aligning your business around its purpose often means making some shifts in the way you operate. What advice do you give to leaders embarking on a change management initiative? 

M.J. Clark: First, avoid working in a bubble. We often see top-level leaders collaborating in a small group to discuss changes. When, in fact, they should be doing the opposite. The best way to get buy-in is to allow people at all levels of the organization to weigh in on how the changes will affect their work or their team. By this, I mean having an ad hoc team made up of one influential person at each level of the company to discuss upcoming changes. Secondly, manage expectations along the way.

With large initiatives, we often set high expectations and leave people waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Or, we risk losing trust and buy-in when a timeline is missed or adjustments need to be made. The better option is to be visible, open, and communicative. People don’t like change, so give them pieces in small bites. Lay out the plan, provide updates and let them know what to expect. 

2020 put a spotlight on the link between purpose and values. What are some of the best ways you’ve seen leaders demonstrate or nurture their values?

M.J. Clark: It has a lot to do with your people – the people in your organization and the people you bring into the organization. I believe mangers should discuss values during the hiring and on-boarding processes. Explain what type of behavior aligns with your values. Too often, we fail to create the right experience on day one. 

I also encourage my clients to incorporate their values into their annual review form. It’s a great way to hold people accountable to the way they treat others, and not just the tasks they perform. The same way you would have a discussion with a team member who isn’t completing their work, you need to have the difficult conversation with the employee who isn’t representing your values.

In his book, Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey highlights that trust is a mix of character and competence. Certainly you want someone who can do their job well, but not at the expense of the team or our values. 

You mentioned accountability. How can leaders establish a culture where they hold themselves and others accountable to their purpose?

M.J. Clark: First, holding people accountable often means overcoming fear. For example, if you’re already struggling with hiring or retention, you may be fearful to offer feedback in the event it might make them leave. I’ve also watched leaders hire people who aren’t a good culture fit for fear of holding out too long for the right person. Both situations usually end poorly.

A lot of people don’t want to hold themselves accountable either. However, someone who really cares about the purpose and doing meaningful work wants to know when they’re getting off-track or when things aren’t aligned. 

I also believe accountability is linked to priorities. Leaders need to prioritize the things that have to do with purpose over things that don’t. An effective way to manage this is by keeping purpose top of mind. It begins with writing down your purpose and then keeping it in front of people. I’ve had clients repeat their purpose at staff meetings, make it a focal point of their annual meeting, and role model by weaving it into strategy discussions. By keeping it top of mind, your purpose settles into the organization and ultimately becomes part of the strategic planning and decision-making processes. 




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Karen Bailey is a brand purpose consultant and specializes in helping companies define their purpose and align their business around it. In 2017, she launched the blog, Purpose Greater Than Profit, to start a meaningful conversation about the increasingly important role of brand purpose, purposeful leadership and a better way of doing business.


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