Waters’ chief executive Udit Batra shows why true purpose is built on shared authenticity – and great leadership.

Brand statements often hide meagre aspirations. Yet the reverse can also be true: the most purposeful organizations can emerge without big words cast on brass plates in the lobby of a company’s HQ.

Waters is one such company. At Waters’ core, it uses science to improve human health and wellbeing. Waters enables scientists to ensure medicines and vaccines are safe; food and water is pure; car batteries don’t catch fire; and the materials used in products contribute to a sustainable future.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Udit Batra joined Waters as chief executive officer and president. Over that time, he has led a transformation that resulted in significant progress in regaining the company’s commercial momentum, strengthening the company’s leadership, revitalizing innovation and defining a long-term strategy.

At the start of the transformation, Batra’s tactics were to pave the path to growth. He brought together his leadership team and together they put all the facts on the table. Transparency about what was working – and what was not – enabled the team to have a shared understanding of the current state, and create a set of initiatives to get back on track.

“I said, ‘Let’s do the familiar first,’” says Batra. “And the familiar part was replacing instruments. We know how to do it. Then we got into the tactics: we built a spreadsheet, we looked at customer data. And I think what is lost very often is that there is a spiritual part of this: which is, ‘Hey, we can do it’.”

By focusing on regaining commercial momentum, Batra was able to invigorate the company’s indomitable spirit. In fact, ‘indomitable spirit’ became a rallying cry across the organization, reminding employees that when they approached challenges with focus, urgency and accountability, they could – and would – get back on top.

Commercial success followed more quickly than anyone had expected. “By the end of 2020, we were seeing the first signs of outperformance,” Batra recalls. “A year later, we had excellent momentum. And in 2022, the success continued. Not letting people get lost in the big picture, and just making sure that the actions were broken down into smaller pieces, was critical.”

This approach allowed Batra to not only deliver real change, but also to lay the foundations for something bigger. The groundwork for a higher purpose came from Batra’s efforts to revitalize Waters’ innovation and drive its long-term strategy.

“When you are seeking collective purpose from your people, you must realize that the transition must occur organically so people start believing in themselves,” Batra says. “You can talk about purpose until the cows come home. But it won’t work unless you have built the necessary foundations. Get the first part right – the tactics of running a successful business – then you can change the narrative.

“In my mind, I had already said, ‘The first step is all these tactics’. And then, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could all become convinced that we are here to solve big problems.’ Did I invoke the essence of where we wanted to go, right at the beginning? The answer is no,” says Batra. “Our first purpose was the right to have a purpose.”

Building purpose, stage-by-stage

The recognition of this paradox – that promoting the big picture too early can actually inhibit individuals from connecting to the big picture – speaks to Batra’s brilliance. Instead, big-picture purpose is built stage-by-stage, as individuals embody the value in the essential tasks that they complete day-to-day.

I put it to Batra that this pivot – from practicalities to purpose – was the leadership equivalent of an elegant dance, using subtle cues and momentum to convert one dynamic into another. A simple cognition of the steps that were needed to bring the good times back led to an embodied, but inferred, purpose: to use science to improve human health and well-being.

“You must feel it,” Batra insists. “If you feel it yourself, you don’t have to say it. When we talk about authenticity in behaviour, I believe it.

“I came into the healthcare industry to solve these big problems and work with people, and I’m not leaving until we’re done,” he reveals. “There’s no retirement in my mind. I want to work with people way smarter than me to be able to orchestrate something; to solve some of these challenges that we see in front of us.

“It costs $3 million to give gene therapy to a child with cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (CALD),” Batra says. “If you fail to provide treatment in those first few years, you lose the child. Three million dollars! That’s a big problem that should bring purpose to everybody’s work.”

Yet Batra accepts that work is far from everything for people. Much individual purpose is found through families: the way we strive for the happiness and comfort of our loved ones. Batra’s understanding of this fundamental human truth informs much of his leadership. He urges his people to identify what he calls the “intersection of purpose” – where their positive impact at work reflects and reinforces their positive impact at home. “Over time – if that intersection is compelling and powerful enough – people don’t leave just for a promotion,” he explains, “because they don’t believe that a promotion anywhere else will offer them that powerful intersection. But make no mistake, it’s an invitation. It’s not an obligation. It’s not a condition of employment.”

The invitation for Waters’ employees to consider the intersection of purpose is independent of the necessary elements of organizational success: performance management, structure, discipline. “The paradox is, how do you do performance management at the same time as the invitation?” says Batra. “But that’s the task of leadership.” Batra upholds standards while simultaneously trying to foster an emotional connection. “It can be done,” he says. “That is where the magic is.”

Under Batra’s leadership, Waters has harnessed that magic. By avoiding ‘big statement’ purpose – that is, purpose for its own sake – he has cultivated something far more potent: an innate, implicit, living and felt purpose narrative that has emerged organically, incrementally, and individually through the business.

It is purpose born of people, not plaques. Great leadership trumps signs on the wall.