Use a Common Purpose to Thrive During Crisis
The most important thing you can do right now as a leader is to establish a common purpose.
As a leader in crisis, you’re getting pulled in every direction. Prioritizing your responsibilities can be overwhelming. And keeping your team motivated can feel like a daily burden. Not to mention the managing the self-interests of your third-party partners.
That’s where a common purpose comes in.
When I worked for Disney, our common purpose drove our every action. “We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment, for people of all ages, everywhere.” Simply put, “we create happiness.”
Everyone working for Disney or in partnership with Disney knew our ultimate goal - to create happiness. If Disney shut its gates, we knew there would be a little less happiness in the world.
It was a bigger than any one of us as individuals. And it was more emotional than a revenue target. Whether you worked in finance or at the front gates, your purpose was the same. To create happiness.
That common purpose inspires action from Disney Cast Members. It’s empowers them to do things out of the norm to create surprise and delight moments for Guests and other Cast Members.
Like this custodian creating a 'Water Mickey' with his mop.
Or this housekeeper making a towel animal in a Guest's room.
Or these leaders recognizing a staff member.
When I worked for Disney Institute, clients would often visit us in Orlando. Naturally, we wanted to create happiness for those clients. When I wanted to surprise them with something special in the theme parks, I picked up the phone, called a Cast Member I had likely never met before, and asked them to “help me create happiness for a guest.” Most times, that phone call was all it took.
That simple ask was all it took, not because Disney somehow finds the nicest people in the world, nor because Disney Cast Members don’t care about procedure.
It happened because every leader reinforces with their Cast Members that their Purpose is bigger than their Task. If there is an opportunity to deliver directly on your Purpose, you make it happen. “Help me create happiness” was the secret code word to getting stuff done at Disney.
The power of a common purpose extends to any organization.
Take the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and the flood. New Orleans had been absolutely destroyed. The stadium was damaged almost beyond repair. But they rallied behind a common purpose to come back stronger than ever.
We sat down with Doug Thornton to discuss this topic. Doug is now the EVP of ASM Global, overseeing all stadium, arena and theater operations & finance, worldwide. Back in 2005, he was leading the Superdome.
We asked Doug how he “framed the stakes” for his team. He told us it was all about “recapturing what we had lost.” Now for the most part, I might have chalked that great phrase up to Doug’s own brilliance. But he used the same, exact phrase multiple times in the next five minutes.
Which leads me to believe it was a true, almost formal common purpose. It was written down, and shared with others. It wasn’t Doug’s own interpretation of what the purpose was, it was a shared rallying cry with everyone who was a part of the project.
Let’s break down the power of common purpose through lens of Doug’s story at the Superdome.
"Framing the stakes becomes really important in a crisis. As you guys were rebuilding, Tom Benson was thinking about moving the team. There was some conversation with that, right? How did you frame the stakes with your team to really motivate action? What were some of the things that you used as a leader to get your team motivated to quickly get everything done that you guys had to do?"
BIGGER THAN ANY INDIVIDUAL
“Well, the first thing is, I would tell you that we all wanted to recapture what we had lost. And I think that was the single most motivating factor here. And what I mean by that is, our way of life, and the building that we work in every day. The cause of what we were fighting for was bigger than us as individuals.
I have to tell you that within a month after Katrina, once I learned that the Superdome could be rebuilt, and that's a underscore, could, because there were doubts. I had doubts when I left here. I didn't think there would be any way, to be honest with you. But within a week, I had contacted architectural friends who had assembled a team of engineers.
They were down here within probably two weeks after the storm, assessing the damage. And I remember very distinctively, it was September 30th. I was standing outside the building on the plaza level, talking to the lead architect. He says, ‘It can be done. It's gonna cost you over $200 million, and it's gonna take more than two years.’
And it turns out he was right about each one of those, although we accelerated the time frame to get it reopened in one year.”
MAKE IT EMOTIONAL
"But right then, I instinctively felt that this was something we had to do, because the Superdome is such a huge part of the economy here. It's such a huge symbol. And in talking with Governor Blanco, probably two weeks after that, on October 11th when I first met with her, she recognized that too.
And what motivated us every single day was the fear of failing and letting down our entire city. We knew that if the Superdome could not reopen, people would, as you say, not be motivated. Not just the people who work here, but the people in the city. They saw a human tragedy play out on a worldwide scale at the Superdome. It was the poster child for misery and suffering.
This was our opportunity to turn it around and show that it could be rebuilt and that we could use it to jump start our economy."
"And I will tell you every single day that we came to work, there was no problem being motivated. There was no problem being motivated at all. There were times, of course, when you get angry and you get concerned and frustrated about how we're going to make it happen.
But I would say that we were totally unified behind a common purpose. To reopen this building for the following football season, so we could jump start the economy, put our people back to work, and give people of New Orleans hope that we were putting a stake in the ground as a city, saying ‘New Orleans is gonna make it.’
This building is such a visual image. When you drive by on the interstate, you can't miss it. And to see that 9.6 acre roof ripped apart, peeled like an onion. We knew that the minute we turned that roof white again, and we put it back together, that people were gonna be inspired. So that was our motivation every day. And that fear of failure, the constant reminder that we wanted to recapture what we had lost, was what drove us."
APPLIES TO EVERYONE
"I'll give you one more interesting point about the recovery that I that I saw and something that I have learned and really live by today. And that is the power of unity and the common purpose.
In our case, you had several organizations with very diverse interests. The NFL had its own self interest. The New Orleans Saints had their own self interests. The State had its own self interest. Governor Blanco? She wanted jobs. She wanted the economy to be restarted. And of course, we as a company, we had our own self interest. We wanted our building back. We wanted to be able to host events here for the people of New Orleans.
But what I saw in that particular situation, everybody put their self interests aside and they rallied behind this common purpose of ‘let's make it happen.’
The NFL contributed $15 million. The Saints very quickly decided they were going to come back, because they knew the minute that they said ‘yes, they were going to return to New Orleans,’ it would create the momentum we needed to get the funding and get the support from the local leaders. Governor Blanco signed the executive order without hesitation, giving us the ability to basically do a design/build project, which at the time, was not something that was permitted under state procurement code. So she basically ceded the entire project over to the leadership team here at the Superdome. ‘You guys run it, you guys put it back together.’
So everybody put aside their own self interest for the common good, and you know what happened? We were able to reopen successfully on September 26th September 25th 2006 with a remarkable Monday Night football game which no one thought would be possible."
No matter the size of your organization, no matter what industry, a common purpose can be incredibly powerful, especially in a time of crisis.
If you’re setting out to create your own formal common purpose, here are some considerations:
Bigger than Any Individual
Make it Emotional
Applies to Everyone
If you’d like help, building a common purpose and frameworks for action is part of what we do at EngageMint. We’ve done this with exercise with countless organizations.
Using virtual collaboration tools, we’ve developed a methodology to help you build your organization's own common purpose while we are all working from home.
For guidance in creating your own common purpose, contact our team here.