Define your purpose, free your people

Michael Chavez

At Jacobs, purpose provides alignment so individuals can shine.

Can purpose be liberating? The Great Mind of Alexa Braun shows that it can. Braun, vice-president and operations leader for strategic consulting, North America, at Jacobs, demonstrates how common purpose, clearly defined and universally adopted, allows talent to shine.

Jacobs, a global engineering and technology professional services firm, has articulated an authentic purpose that is embedded in its very fabric. The firm’s purpose – to create a more connected, sustainable world – is the foundation not only of the company’s brand, but of everything it does and creates. In services like strategic consulting, purpose provides an arena in which individuals can express themselves, shaping their work to the client and situation through experimentation and ideation.

Braun and her colleagues help ensure that this common purpose drives growth and value for Jacobs. Facilitating their effort has been a strong organization-wide focus on leading from purpose, which is a central topic in Amplifi, the firm’s global leadership development programme co-created with Duke Corporate Education.

Jacobs’ strategic consulting services help clients maximize value through delivery of integrated advisory solutions that cut across the traditional silos associated with engineering consulting. To help bring Jacobs’ purpose to life for her team, Braun and her colleagues employed several triggers.

One step was to ask a series of stimulus questions: “Who are we?” “Why does strategic consulting exist today?” “If we were to disappear tomorrow, who would miss us, and why?”

A second move was to extract people from their day-to-day operations and challenge them to consider their reasons for being there. Colleagues were asked to define success, map their direction towards it and – crucially – envisage its impact on their clients and the people they serve. How would their achievements make a difference in the world?

A third gambit was to seek an outside view. “We asked clients what they thought of us,” the team told me. The final examination was introspective. “We asked ourselves how we wanted clients to think of us,” Braun revealed. “There was a need to really share our story and the ‘why’ behind what Jacobs does.”

The result was eight key terms that define the team’s approach: ingenuity, diversity, technical excellence, agility, integrity, passion, collaboration, and client focus. The first – ingenuity – speaks forcefully to an ethos of purpose-led freedom: “We ask bold questions, take risks, and frame failure as learning opportunities,” the team told me. Another, agility, extols the vitality of an open mind and shaping one’s approach to circumstances.

This thorough analysis of purpose led to a unity of vision rather than a unity of output. Individuals have the freedom and flexibility to chart their own path, which is critical when your business model is based upon creativity and providing a personalized service. “You can’t focus on the metrics first and the people second – that’s something that needs to be flipped,” Braun says. “If you focus on people first, and support their growth and success, the business will grow and succeed.”

Together, the eight mantras act as a narrative and catalyst to inform decision-making. Their real-life application infuses everything Braun’s team does. They deem purpose the ‘strategic muscle’ that powers the service they deliver to clients, and their image to the world. Jacobs uses purpose to build its brand, “not vice versa,” the team told me. By amplifying and applying that purpose-led brand in their work, the strategic consulting team is a spearhead pointing towards a liberated and integrated future.

“It’s that foundation of purpose – of brand – that is the constant,” says Braun. “If everybody is anchored and aligned to it, all the other tangible outcomes will resolve themselves.”

Braun is a Great Mind with a grand vision: that defining and aligning on purpose allows your people to shine.

Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education.