An interview with Kevin Murray Leadership & Productivity

An interview with Kevin Murray

Leadership and Productivity

Across Europe, there are increasing concerns about faltering productivity growth. Weak productivity hampers growth, at a national and at a company level. So anything that individual leaders can do to improve it has to be worth taking seriously.

In his latest book, People with Purpose, Kevin Murray looks at the links between leadership communications and productivity. The book features interviews with CEOs, neuroscientists and psychologists, and sets out to explore how great leaders and communicators use Purpose as a tool of leadership and inspiration, improving productivity as a result.

Mark Johnson, Associate Consultant with Visible Leaders, talks to Kevin Murray
about his views on Purpose, people and performance.

The Inspiration Gap

It’s a truism that individuals who feel more inspired by their leaders perform better. Those who feel less-than-inspired are unlikely to deliver the discretionary effort that underpins exceptional organisational performance.

Kevin Murray calls this “The Inspiration Gap”. For him, inspiration is a fuel, delivered by leaders who understand how to communicate a sense of Purpose; and who also understand how to communicate with conviction and authenticity.

Where there is a shortage of this fuel, it shows in the results. Productivity is compromised. And overall commercial performance suffers.

In People with Purpose, Kevin Murray sets out to measure the Inspiration Gap. He partnered with YouGov, the market research company, to explore the scale and the nature of this phenomenon.

Inspiration and connection

Kevin Murray began his career as a crime reporter, before becoming involved in Crisis PR.

“In that world, I got to see some highly intelligent leaders close up. And I became fascinated by one central question, which was: why did some smart leaders fail?”

Did he ever answer that question?

“Yes, I think I did. The most common reason for failure was that they were unable to take their people with them. They had a blind spot. They paid lip service to communication. But, in reality, their version of communication was disguised instruction, which is hardly inspiring. People just don’t respond to it.”

“Far too many leaders still think of communication in terms of an exchange of information. That’s not what communication is about. It’s about creating a connection with another human being. It’s about inspiring others. And great leaders understand that.”

Such blind spots have commercial consequences. In People with Purpose, Kevin makes a strong case for the “cost of disengagement”. He estimates that just 57% of European workers show up and do a hard days work.

We can call this a productivity gap, or we can call it an inspiration gap. Either
way, improving the situation ought to be high on any leader’s agenda.

Researching leadership and inspiration

The YouGov research sought to define what traits and behaviours lie behind an
inspiring leadership style:

“66% of managers and 65% of employees regarded making employees feel important and appreciated as the top attribute, by some way ahead of all other attributes”.
People with Purpose, page 70.

The research also highlighted other leadership traits that inspire employees. Honesty, sincerity and consistency scored highly, as did the ability to “listen carefully”. Also high on the list was “defining goals” and “commitment to purpose”. But what of the Inspiration Gap? What did the research have to say here?

On this, the statistics should give those of us who lead pause for thought. Managers consistently over-rated their own positive traits, compared to the employee perspective. For example, YouGov found that 93% of managers say they “care about the people they lead”, whereas only 52% of employees agree with them. In all, YouGov interviewed 1,884 managers and asked “how inspiring
are you as a manager?”. 73% said that they were “extremely or somewhat inspiring”.

But employees had a different view:

“Only 41% of those surveyed agree their bosses are inspiring. Nearly 6 out of 10 of
their bosses, they said, were either not inspiring or, worse, could be demotivating”.
People with Purpose, page 75.

Kevin Murray is unequivocal about the implications. He told us.

“My view is that the Inspiration Gap is one the major causes of the productivity challenge we face,”

Human beings need a Purpose

People with Purpose is – at one level – a study of the Inspiration Gap. But the book’s title points to the importance of Business Purpose as a means of bridging this gap. So how does having a clear Business Purpose help leaders to be more inspiring?

This turns out to be a key question. According to expert neuroscientists, when we work with a sense of common Purpose, our brain chemistry changes for the better, and we feel more motivated and more able to rise to difficult challenges.

At the heart of this, in psychological terms, is a feeling of worth. Dr. Duncan Banks, a lifetime honorary member of the British Neuroscience Association, sums up:

“Leaders need to think about whether they make their employees feel worthless or

Do they make their employees feel a sense of common Purpose, and part of a community? Do leaders communicate in the right way, involving people and listening to them, as well as persuading and encouraging them?

“The positive side effect will always be an increase in performance, because people who feel worthy are more likely to give of their discretionary effort when called
upon to work harder.”

” I don’t really believe in the idea that we are one person. As Walt Whitman memorably said. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

People with Purpose, page 13.

Kevin sees this challenge through the lens of leadership communications. He told us:

“It is the job of the leader to create real meaning for those they lead. To supply the Purpose for the community they lead. And to articulate that Purpose boldly and simply.”

Purpose and the customer

So far so logical. A clear Purpose helps to bridge the Inspiration Gap because it creates a motivating sense of community and self worth, and – in turn – this leads to greater discretionary effort, and therefore improved productivity and performance.

But what is a Purpose? Could we say, for example, that “increasing shareholder value” is a Purpose? Kevin thinks not, primarily because:

“Increasing shareholder value is not an inclusive idea. It speaks to one stakeholder group but does not reach out to those who will deliver the value. Nor does it add to their self-worth.”

Kevin cites Yodel’s “Take Delivery Personally” as a well-considered statement of Purpose.

“It reminds everyone in the Yodel organisation that a parcel is personal to every recipient, and that every employee has to take personal responsibility for their part in its successful delivery.”

Yodel’s statement of Purpose was – and is – directly linked to a set of strategic objectives, drafted to improve customer service. By January 2014, intervention in this area had become a strategic necessity, especially after Yodel was voted the “worst delivery service in the UK” by for the second year running.

By the time Kevin Murray interviewed Dick Stead, (the Executive Chairman of Yodel) the business was recovering commercially and in terms of reputation. Dick Stead highlights the importance of a clear Purpose in the turnaround strategy:

“The first thing to do was to get everyone in the organisation to realize that we were delivering so much more than a parcel. It’s an item that could mean the world to someone – or even change their world in an instant”.

Kevin adds:

“To be effective and inspiring, a Purpose Statement must be well articulated, by which I mean that it must be brief and memorable. But, more than that, it must speak to the heart. It must connect with people. And help the leader to communicate his or her core strategy across the entire organisation.”

The Yodel example is a powerful one, in which the Purpose Statement works as a proxy and summary line for the strategy, and also serves as a directional headline for the strategic priorities that sit within it.

Yodel’s turnaround KPIs focused on on-time delivery of parcels in great condition, delivered with a positive attitude, backed up by a promise to keep customers well-informed at all times. What’s interesting is that these KPIs are potentially generic to the sector. But, by packaging them within an emotional statement of Purpose (“Taking Delivery Personally”), they connect with the audience that matters – i.e. those who deliver the service, and who are ultimately responsible for business performance.

This is a perfect example of the way in which Purpose can help to bridge the inspiration gap and improve business performance.

Purpose and inspiration

Kevin highlights that, for Yodel, a bold articulation of Purpose helped the Leadership Team to “inspire rather than simply instruct”. In People with Purpose, he cites other examples, all of which illustrate how an inspirational Purpose Statement helps to communicate strategy and direction in a way that is easily grasped by all.

One example that leaps off the page is Moss Bros, whose Purpose is expressed as “To Make Men Feel Amazing”. This line helped the organisation to translate a relatively workaday strategic objective (i.e.. improve customer service) into an idea that connected with those working in individual stores. As Kevin says:

“This Purpose Statement was chosen to help drive behaviours on the shop floor, and resonated with the DNA of the staff.”

Kevin sums up:

“The benefits of emotive, memorable Purpose Statements like these are clear. They help to create greater strategic focus and clarity. They place current activity into a long-term perspective . They help leaders seeking to transform an organisation. And, as we’ve said already, they motivate employees, because people enjoy the idea of being part of something bigger. In a word, a well-crafted statement of Purpose inspires.”

Inspiration turns out to be a key Kevin-word. He articulates his own Purpose as being “to help leaders to be more inspiring”, and has a great deal to say on this crucial subject.

Inspiration and authenticity

Kevin diagnoses a common problem:

“Many leaders don’t really know how to be themselves at work, and – as a consequence of this – don’t really know how to inspire others.”

Was he making a direct connection between the two?

“Sure,” he says. “You can’t lead people unless you show them who you are. People won’t trust you, unless they believe you are sincere. And this is linked to Purpose, because if they don’t believe in you, they won’t believe in your Purpose either.”

And can you learn to be inspiring?

“If you wake up trying to be inspiring, you’ll almost certainly fail,” he says. The leader’s job is to inspire others, and that’s a very different idea. You have to stop trying to be inspiring, and instead focus on leaving other people feeling inspired.”

Kevin is convinced that inspiration can be delivered by leaders with a vast range of personality types.

“What matters is that you look for the words that will work, and the ideas that matter. To inspire others, you have to get inside their heads, and seek out the ideas and the words that will change the way they think and
look at the world.”

In this, he is echoing the YouGov research. This research isolates the key behaviours that managers need to exhibit in order to be seen as “more inspirational, motivating and caring”. The list of behaviours cited by respondents call for no specific personality type. Instead, those polled suggested that managers should:

(a) Show that they care about the organisation’s values and purpose
(b) Help employees to see where the organisation is headed
(c) Make employees feel like they contribute to the purpose and goals

This is worth a pause for thought. For those of us who have nagging doubts about our lack of charisma, or our understated personality, this research is refreshing and reassuring. It gives us permission to be ourselves. And provides well-researched guidance regarding the behaviours that inspire others.

Communicating Purpose

Of course, a Purpose Statement remains “just words” until a leader brings it to life. Kevin has much to say on this subject, seeing it as core to the Leader’s role.

People with Purpose includes some of the advice you would expect on leadership communications generally, such as “being yourself better”, painting a clear picture of the future and being “audience-centric” by starting with the concerns of those you are addressing, rather than with the message you wish to communicate. The book also has much to say about the importance of story telling and metaphor, and about the need for a strong point of view, powerfully expressed.

But what leaps off the page most powerfully are Kevin’s observations about why programmes designed to communicate Purpose break down. In a section entitled “Middle managers bring culture to life or kill it”, he explores the need to focus ruthlessly on inspiring this group.

“Without them on board, the Purpose Statement will get lost and go no further. It’s vital that Leaders take the time to ensure that middle managers truly understand what the Purpose Statement is about, and how is applies to their function and their team members.”

Leadership communications as value-creation

It is tempting to tell yourself that “inspiration” is a nice to have. It is tempting to think that it doesn’t really matter if not everybody buys into a Purpose Statement.

Kevin disagrees:

“We know that most leaders get the concept of Purpose. But we also know that only about 40% are actually delivering it. This is because not enough leaders are taking the time to interpret Purpose into terms that their people understand and can act on. As a leader, you have to individualize Purpose, making it relevant to whoever you are speaking to, on their terms. It’s bloody hard work. It takes time. It takes effort.”

To sum up: it’s clear that – for most organisations – productivity is an agenda item that needs more management attention than it currently receives. You can optimise processes, and invest in robotics and automation, but if your people are not fully engaged and motivated, productivity will still fall far short of optimal.

The stakes here are high. Those who pay attention to this issue will achieve a competitive advantage over those who do not. Those leaders who leverage communications designed to create a sense of purpose, direction and engagement, will improve productivity and performance. Those who leave things to chance – and middle management – will fare less well.

In short: the part that Leadership Communications play in optimising productivity and human performance cannot be ignored. Leaders who are seeking to improve such metrics need to think long and hard about their own part – as strategic navigators, as story-tellers and as inspirers of others.

Colin Hatfield – Visible Leaders Founder

The linkage between productivity and leadership is an obvious one. What’s less obvious is the nuanced role communication plays in the delicate dynamic. When communication functions are asked to justify their existence (which seems to happen with increasingly frequency), they could do a lot worse than leafing through a copy of People with Purpose to show that the rational case for improved ROI is rooted in something rather more emotional – how leaders make people feel.

As Kevin’s research proves, those leaders who create clarity of purpose, who inspire, engage and listen to their teams, and who are able to show they have skin in the game are the ones who will win the day. For us at Visible Leaders that’s our day job – helping leaders create a cause worth fighting for and converting that energy into focussed action.

An interview with Kevin Murray