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News Stories · Leadership

Crafting your purpose: SEF Academy explores new ways to lead

In a world driven by external markers of success, such as profit, performance, and power, it is time to nurture a new style of leadership that allows us to connect with the person behind the leader, says Julia Binder, Professor of Sustainable Innovation and Business Transformation.
June 2023

“Purpose is something you craft; it’s a process of reflection and taking the time to think about what is meaningful to you, and how you can bring this meaning to work,” said Binder during the fourth annual gathering of the SEF Academy, a day-long event organized by IMD as part of the Swiss Economic Forum’s (SEF) annual conference.

With the world facing crises on multiple fronts, from climate change and biodiversity loss to the rising cost of living, and an epidemic of loneliness and frustration, people are starting to question traditional markers of success and are looking for ways to bring their whole selves to work.

“We have been socialized into a world where it was still economic profit first,” said Binder. “We need to unlearn this and learn new behaviors and definitions of success.”

The participants, who ranged from founders of tech start-ups to executives working in the transportation and defense industries, were invited to reflect on how they can foster a new style of leadership that connects with the core of who they are.

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“When we wake up in the morning, we don’t do it only to pay the bills; it’s more than that,” said Mariana Atilano Meriñan, Head of Strategy at insurance company Groupe Mutuel. “What we have seen is the business models to which we have grown accustomed are becoming outdated. Leaders need to completely switch the way we address the new kinds of problems that are arising.”

Dominic Lüthy, Director of Marketing and Communication for the Swiss Economic Forum, said the SEF Academy was an opportunity for participants to gain inspiration and techniques which they can implement tomorrow in their companies and businesses.

Leading from the inside out

Binder explained the Japanese philosophy of Ikigai, which intertwines passion, mission, vocation, and profession to give a person a sense of purpose or reason to live.

Rather than thinking of finding your purpose as a ‘Eureka’ moment or a ‘single why’, it’s important to recognize that purpose can come from multiple sources and change over time, said Binder, who encouraged the participants to regularly block time in their calendars to reflect on how they can make their life as a leader more meaningful and authentic.

“When we wake up in the morning, we don’t do it only to pay the bills; it’s more than that”

-Mariana Atilano Meriñan, Head of Strategy at insurance company Groupe Mutuel

She highlighted the LABORS framework – devised by John Coleman, author of the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose – which identifies Love, Avocations and self-improvement, Beauty, Occupation, Religion (or spirituality), and Service, as sources of purpose.

Ursula Volpe, Co-founder and CEO of Fox and Happy Blocks, a start-up that aims to de-mystify Web3, also commented, adding, “I learned that there doesn’t need to be this one purpose in life. You can have multiple purposes – maybe in your private and your work life. But in the best-case scenario they are in both, so you don’t have this divide between the two.”

From purpose to action

The young leaders were invited to mine their lives for common threads and themes to identify the forces that energize them and bring them joy. To help uncover these motivations, they were asked to reflect on what they enjoyed doing as children, how they have been shaped by challenging life experiences, and when their life felt most meaningful, and why. As a next step, participants ranked the themes according to importance and tried to establish a connection between them.

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The workshop also explored how techniques such as ‘job crafting’ allow people to shape their roles to infuse them with meaning. This can be broken down into ‘task crafting’, where you add a meaningful component to your usual work activities, ‘cognitive crafting’, where you reframe the way you look at certain situations, and ‘relationship crafting’, where you find ways to engage with people at your workplace.

As leaders, it’s important to remind your team members how their work contributes to the success of the whole organization, fosters a culture of trust, and creates opportunities for intra-team exchange, said Binder.

Leading with impact

More and more companies are waking up to the fact that having leaders who understand their personal purpose and how it fits within the organization is good for business, leading to happier employees and a stronger bottom line.

“Purpose is the glue that holds the organization together,” said Alex Benincà, Founder and CEO of B-Works, a digital venture builder, whose company holds a weekly meeting where staff can voice any frustrations to release tension that might otherwise build up and impact the way they work.

“Purpose is very contagious in a positive sense,” added Binder.

“If people sense that you have a connection to your job, this is something that can easily be passed on.”

The final part of the workshop examined how leaders can harness their purpose to lead in a way that has a positive impact on people and the planet. Binder advised leaders to develop their own “personal materiality matrix” to help identify a societal issue they care about deeply, and which they can influence.

IMD’s academic partner, the SEF, has been convening leaders from business, academia, politics, and the media for the past 25 years. This year’s motto is “Make it happen”, and celebrates the hidden champions among Swiss SMEs. Speakers at the event included Sergio Ermotti, CEO of UBS Group, Katalin Novák, President of Hungary, and Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion and Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.