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Talk: Too much nonsense with purpose? The value of purpose at work

Findings of NWX22

Cover photo The value of purpose at work - NWX Talk
IBA editorial team IBA editorial team ·
6 Minutes

Purpose, the meaningful aspect of work, is currently a widely discussed topic. As part of the New Work Experience in June 2022, host Prof. Dr Heike Bruch talked to author and business psychologist Prof. Dr. Ingo Hamm, Otto Group Executive Petra Scharner-Wolff and NEW WORK SE CEO Petra von Strombeck about the value of “purpose” at work.

Purpose as an Employer-Branding tool

Petra von Strombeck, Chairwoman of the Executive Board at NEW WORK SE, generally advocates a stronger emphasis on meaningful aspects of work. “For a better working life” is the purpose formulated by the Hamburg-based company. New WORK SE wants to merge companies searching for talents with potential employees seeking for purpose and personal fulfilment. According to von Strombeck, purpose is not only important as employer branding tool, where it can serve as a kind of first filter for candidates who want to make a personal contribution to a company’s success. Purpose also provides orientation, especially within organisations, and is the base for identification and motivation. After all, employees’ identification with company’s purpose is more important than ever, especially in post-pandemic times, which have led to a decline in employee loyalty and interaction.

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Leadership task purpose

Petra Scharner-Wolff is campaigning for a consistent cultural change in companies. For the Otto Group Executive Board member a formulated company’s purpose makes sense when it can be experienced in everyday work life and when employees are allowed to critically engage with it. For her, purpose is the result of a long-term process, that leaders must exemplify and that should arise out of organisations. Purpose has to live, has to be concrete and has to offer the possibility to rub up against it. “We need a completely new mindset, there is no alternative,” declares Scharner-Wolff. For her, corporate culture plays an important role within it. Likewise willingness to change and employee empowerment will turn out to be new leadership skills. In a working environment that is getting more digital, a “cultural change 4.0” is necessary, which deals a lot with attitude, silo dismantling and improved cooperation. “Cultural change is the turnover of tomorrow ... Because if we don’t succeed in purpose, we will eventually get in trouble with companies’ viability.”

Prof. Dr Ingo Hamm, professor of Business Psychology at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, speaker and author
Prof. Dr Ingo Hamm, professor of Business Psychology at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, speaker and author
Petra Scharner-Wolff, Group Executive Board member Finance, Controlling and Human Resources at Otto Group
Petra Scharner-Wolff, Group Executive Board member Finance, Controlling and Human Resources at Otto Group
Petra von Strombeck, Chairwoman of the Executive Board at NEW WORK SE
Petra von Strombeck, Chairwoman of the Executive Board at NEW WORK SE

Obligation to dissent

For Prof. Dr Ingo Hamm, a cultural change in companies is also indispensable. For him, the critically questioning of purpose at all hierarchical levels and engaging in constructive dialogue – without regard to hierarchies – contributes to a new culture of error and dissent. This “obligation to dissent” needs courage and a willingness to change. In addition to new leadership skills, openness and more responsible action at employee level are required. Furthermore, respective the purpose discussion, it is important for Hamm, that purpose is not naively “driven through the New Work village like a grunting publicity swine”. “Purpose” should always be formulated simply and honestly. Adventurous word creations are neither necessary nor a justification for economic corporate goals.

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The new transparency of corporate culture

Petra von Strombeck is certain that candidates are no longer just looking for employers where they can make the best use of their competencies. Working in a job that matches one’s strengths and skills, but also one’s individual values, leads to satisfaction and self-efficacy. And consequently to more purpose at work. Purpose and self-realisation are therefore important decision-making criteria. For von Strombeck, communication and participation are essential on company side. Enabling interaction, enquiring about needs and actively involving employees in decision making must be as given as regular exchange and critical dialogue in an organisation.

Despite their different approach to the “purpose” topic, the experts agree that cultural change takes its time and freedom as well as new leadership skills are required for it. They are clearly in favour of working more consciously with the purpose approach. Companies offering a working environment in which each individual can contribute to the company’s success and at the same time follow the own moral concept provide orientation.

Management has to act as a role model and authentically exemplify the company’s purpose. For von Strombeck, Scharner-Wolff and Hamm, being credible, approachable, ready for transformation and also dealing with criticism is just as important as creating trust and taking time for an active dialogue of values that thrives on the diversity of opinions.

Prof. Dr. Heike Bruch, host of the panel discussion at the New Work Experience, is a business psychologist and professor of business administration and leadership at the University of St. Gallen. She is a member of the preparatory committee of the School of Management, the Advisory Board and the Expert Council of the Center for Disability and Integration.

Prof. Dr. Ingo Hamm is professor of Business Psychology at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, speaker and author. His research focuses on the future of work, consumer behaviour and sustainable consumption. The former McKinsey consultant has published several books, including “True Leadership”, “Wettbewerbsfaktor Mensch” and “Sinnlos glücklich”.

Petra von Strombeck has been Chairwoman of the Executive Board at NEW WORK SE since May 2020. For the former CEO of Lotto24 AG, New Work and Purpose are topics of great social relevance. The graduate in Business Administration studied at the École des Affaires (now ESCP) in Paris, Oxford and Berlin.

Petra Scharner-Wolff is Group Executive Board member Finance, Controlling and Human Resources at Otto Group. The graduate in Business Administration began her career as a management consultant and joined Otto Group in 1999, where she held various management positions, including Managing Director of the Schwab Group in Hanau, until she received the call to the Otto Group Executive Board in Hamburg in 2015.

Cover photo:
Prof. Dr. Heike Bruch, Petra von Strombeck, Petra Scharner-Wolff und Prof. Dr. Ingo Hamm (f.l.t.r.). The photo was taken on 20 June 2022. Photo: NEW WORK SE

The lecture is made available for listening by New Work SE at this link.