Purpose from the outside in

Michael Chavez

Bill Cox inspires with the world outside his window.

Aurecon, a leading international engineering and consulting company based in Asia-Pacific, prizes the human experience. Its chief executive Bill Cox is a Great Mind with a vision that challenges the transactional interpretation of business. Excellence in project delivery is a baseline. Cox wants his people to aspire to a truly humanized experience of working with, and for, clients and colleagues.

Central to this goal is the creation of the chief experience officer. The partnership of CEO and CXO is vital to Aurecon and its distinct approach.

Under Cox, Aurecon is unwaveringly outward-looking. The engineering giant extols the benefits of reaching out beyond its core organizational environment to improve access to external business insights. By taking a vigorous interest in the worlds of its clients and suppliers, and being a proactive, collegiate member of its external industry network, Aurecon enhances internal innovation via increased engagement with fresh ideas and emerging trends.

“It gives us space to flourish,” Cox told me when we met recently. “It makes us more purpose-led, with greater exposure to our environment.”

The chief experience officer focuses on the overall experience of Aurecon’s clients, freeing up managers and leaders in the business to prioritize what matters at the expense of what doesn’t. Under Cox, the organization has become unified around client focus, letting peripheral and trivial elements fall away. At the onset of the pandemic, Cox issued a rallying cry: “Let’s shut down all the noise!” he said. “And use that time effectively to engage with the client.” “We said to our managers, ‘You can now stop doing management reporting when it serves no purpose’,” Cox revealed. “If it doesn’t actually improve the experience for the client, why are we doing it?”

Aurecon’s people are encouraged to engage with their clients on a profound, personal level, pushing the boundary well beyond service provision and exploring the professional lives of their clients, learning from their knowledge and insights. “We ask them, ‘What are you seeing in other sectors that we should know about?’” says Cox.

The ‘in’ part of ‘outside in’ comes down to simplification. Aurecon launched a ‘Dumb Things’ campaign in 2015 to kick off its innovation programme. It encouraged employees to identify introspective tasks within the business that added little value to its clients. Cox has an ongoing focus on cutting red tape, which creates new spaces for innovating with clients to solve complex societal problems and advance its purpose.

This expansive, extrospective approach to purpose is underpinned by Cox’s progressive take on leadership that is based on trust rather than regulation. Within clearly defined guardrails, managers are empowered to plot their own route to success. “Our people love to do good work,” says Cox. This aligns with a huge body of evidence which suggests that unleashing the internal motivation of good people produces better outcomes than external attempts to drive productivity.

Trust, extrospection and a commitment to ongoing learning combine to create a human-shaped organization with a more organic, network-based leadership model. This allows Aurecon employees to anchor their own sense of purpose on what matters to them: their impact on clients and the wider world.

Cox’s outside-in model is the epitome of humanized, empathetic leadership. “I say, ‘don’t think of Aurecon in our own eyes, but from that of our clients and their customers,’” says Cox. “We have been far more active in going out and getting that view of leadership and impact from the point of view of others.”

The Great Mind of Bill Cox speaks to a crucial truth: the biggest risk is that purpose is all inward-looking. It needs to come from a great, deep curiosity about the world outside.

Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education. A version of this column appears on forbes.com.