Look to the RNLI for the reasons to have a purpose of your startup

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea, providing on call, a 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue service around the UK and Ireland. With lifeboats, lifeguards, safety advice and flood rescue, they are committed to saving lives.

When their pager beeps to call them to the lifeboat station, breakfast, dinner or tea, the volunteer crew leave their families at a moment’s notice to commit to their purpose of saving lives at sea. I imagine that countless meals have gone cold or been left uneaten.

To me, it is an organisation of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I like the way they have framed their purpose as an organisation, with simplicity and clarity: The RNLI saves lives at sea.

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824. The charity was founded, with royal patronage, as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home.

The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854, and cork lifejackets were first issued to crew members that year. In 1891, the first RNLI street collection was held in Manchester. The C20th saw the RNLI continue to save lives through two world wars, and lifeboats moved from sail and oar power to petrol and diesel, and the first women joined their crews.

Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men and women can give us clear learning points to take into our business about teamwork. However, at the heart of a great organisational success you will see a team transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose.

It’s the concept of a clear, shared purpose of an organisation, and how the RNLI have captured this, which is the key learning for me to explore in this blog, and why it is essential a startup defines it’s north star around a clearly articulated purpose.

I define ‘purpose’ as Organisational purpose expresses the company’s fundamental value – the raison d’etre or over-riding reason for existing. It is the end to which the strategy is directed, why the organisation exists in the first place and what ultimately matters in its work.

Research shows that most people want their organisation to
have a purpose beyond making money. A purpose
of simply maximising profit leads to employee disenchantment and a lack of loyalty and commitment. In contrast, an invigorating purpose conveys something distinctive that is uplifting.

Leaders draw people into a shared sense of purpose by creating a distinctive, well-crafted and compelling vision of the organisation’s future. This is essential for a startup in terms of attracting and retaining early employees and early adopter customers, as advocates.

Harking back to the RNLI, although the organisation has significantly expanded its services and its geographical presence since 1824, its core purpose remains the same – the charity that saves lives at sea. This unifying purpose underpins the organisation’s vision, values and strategic and operational priorities.

How the purpose enables the RNLI business model offers insight for startups. For example, all its funding is from donations, the general public give to the RNLI because they respect the purpose and the work the organisation and lifeboat crews do. Maintaining the organisation’s reputation amongst the general public is thus key to sustaining the organisation’s business model.

Also aligned to the organisation’s core purpose is maintaining a strong volunteer ethos. This ethos enables the RNLI to prioritise spending on areas that allow it to achieve its core purpose, as opposed to staffing costs.

What also resonates with startups is that the purpose helps with high levels of organisational engagement too. While most staff find it relatively easy to identify with the organisation’s core purpose, not all staff find it so easy to appreciate the impact of their individual contribution on the wider purpose of saving lives at sea.

For a startup, the thinking that it should stand for something bigger than profit has become an important dialogue around creating customer engagement. When your customers can identify what you stand for and why you do what you do, this creates alignment with their own values.

The hard part is figuring out how to make it more than just words. For purpose to really count, it needs to go beyond an initiative or fine words of intent that sit around the organisation. It needs to be a central part of ‘why we do what we do’ and customers can see tangible existence in your every day work.

I find that entrepreneurs want to make a profitable living, but their purpose is to make a difference. Creating a culture of purpose is how you do both, create enduring customer value and leaving clear footprints. Simon Sinek’s work where he states people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it captures this.

This is why you must find the deeper purpose of your business. Here are some example of deeper business purposes:

  • An architect’s practice: Architecture design that inspires.
  • A furniture factory: The most beautiful tables in the world
  • An electrical contracting business: You’re in safe hands

If you were in the market for a table, wouldn’t you like to check out the furniture factory? Of course you would.

For other examples of purpose, look at ING, the financial services company Empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business, the Kellogg food company Nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive and IAG, the insurance company, To help people manage risk and recover from the hardship of unexpected loss

A good example comes from Volvo, which found its new purpose by looking to its customers’ needs, rather than simply their demands. Their purpose is epitomised in its company slogan: human made – making people’s lives easier, safer, better. To help in this came a new organisational approach to reinforce the new ways of working, with new independence, which in turn led to new ways of thinking. Volvo is focused on its customer-centric purpose.

For your startup, you need to have the same clarity on your north star as the RNLI and the corporates highlighted above for your purpose, and then you need to know how to do this in a manner that make a difference to your customers. Some companies are obsessed with growth, and have forgotten to see the real purpose they started up in the first place.

Having a purpose creates a sustainable and scalable competitive advantage. Competing on price is not a sustainable strategy for success of your startup. You can avoid having to compete on price if the purpose of your business relates to your customer’s needs.

Focusing on profit as the purpose of your startup has one major flaw: your customers have no interest in supporting you to just make money. They are quite happy for you to make a profit, but only after you have met their needs and delivered value first.

In other words, customers want you to explain to them why your business exists, what it is here for and why they should care. In working with my startup clients to find the deeper purpose of their business, I always ask them those questions first and invariably I get the following three answers:

We do great work. At a great price. And we give great customer service.

Undoubtedly true, but all your customers expect those three qualities as a bare minimum starting point and secondly, your competition makes exactly the same three claims.

So, as a startup, what is the purpose of your business? Have you clarity of this? Do you ever think about that throughout the course of the day? Ten years ago I would have gone with Peter Drucker’s answer – The purpose of a business is to create a customer. Today, after years of working with several hundred small business owners this very question, I have to say that your why matters more than just your what.

I had one client who’s reply to my question What is your purpose? was to provide the highest quality technical support within the terms of the service level agreement. An interesting answer, sincere intent, but is it a genuine purpose, or a KPI? It certainly could be a valid purpose, but surely it is description of what the business does. It’s the thing they do which, if they do it well, will achieve their purpose. It wasn’t their Why?

In the end, we reworked it and decided that the purpose of the business was to enable customers to continue to trade in the event of a technical failure. That was the problem their customers paid them to solve and where they made a difference and it created alignment. With this definition of their purpose, it was easy to see how they could grow the business.

Founders need to truly believe in the purpose of their company. Although many of us see Facebook as a social media platform, founder Mark Zuckerberg encompassed his personal vision in the purpose of his company.

Through Facebook, Zuckerberg aims to give everyone in the world the power to share and make the world more open and connected. By making the mission personal to the founder, it is authentic and sets the tone to attract a like-minded, vision-aligned team where everyone is working towards something in which they can believe.

A purpose-driven organisation believes it can advance society by harnessing the influence and power of its impact. The company’s purpose provides the fundamental reason for its existence and underpins its product or service offering. That’s exactly what the RNLI is all about, and is an authentic role model for startups.

If you do believe in purposeful organisations, then support the RNLI. This weekend, 14-16 October, there is a major fund raising event, Host a Fish Supper. The RNLI ask that seasoned chefs and amateurs alike dish up the fish for their friends and family in a fun themed evening.Every penny raised helps to protect the brave crew and the families who love them. Visit the Fish Supper website to sign up and receive your free fundraising kit full of recipes http://fishsupper.rnli.org/

Purpose really comes down to mindset that taps into your sense of being. At dna people, my purpose is to help build a more entrepreneurial society. I want to enable innovation with purpose from people with great ideas, intelligently investing in the future. My purpose drives me to ask better questions – to challenge, inspire and unlock new solutions. Why am I doing this? Because, quite simply, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, it’s my purpose.

Breakthrough teams: life’s a shipwreck, but don’t forget to sing in the lifeboats

I spent a recent Saturday at the Moelfre Lifeboat Station on the east coast of Anglesey for their annual open day, when you can wander around the station, meet the volunteer lifeboat men, read the accounts in the log of rescues through the years, and pause to reflect on the bravery, heroics and humanity which the RNLI represents, from the old photos and press cuttings on the boathouse walls. I left inspired and humbled.

Moelfre Lifeboat Station, which opened in 1830, has a remarkable history of bravery, with its lifeboat crews awarded 37 medals for gallantry, four of which are Gold – the V.C. of the lifeboat institution. Gold Medals were awarded to Captain Owen Jones, volunteer lifeboat man, and William Roberts, second coxswain. The remaining two Gold Medals were awarded to the outstanding figure in the station’s history – Coxswain Richard Evans, one of the few lifeboat men ever to be awarded a Gold Medal for bravery twice.

Dic Evans became a crew member in 1921 when he was just 16. He took over as coxswain from his uncle, John Mathews, in 1954, himself a recipient of the Silver Medal. His father, and both his grandfathers had already served with Moelfre lifeboat by the time he was born. He earned his first Gold Medal five years later, during a rescue saving the crew of the stricken SS Hindlea in hurricane force winds. The second Gold Medal came in December 1966, when he helped save 10 men from the Greek ship Nafsiporos, adrift in heavy seas.

In 1969, the year before he retired, Dic received the British Empire Medal. He died on 13 September 2001, aged 96. A 2m bronze statue of Dic Evans, sculptured by Sam Holland is located at the Seawatch Centre, Moelfre, keeping a vigil over the sea. For sculptor Sam Holland it was a passion, as her grandfather served on the Moelfre Lifeboat with Dic Evans.

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824, at a cost of 600 lives lost in service. The charity was founded with royal patronage as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home. The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854.

Today, the RNLI operates 444 lifeboats and provides Lifeguards on 200 beaches. Crews rescued on average 23 people a day in 2013.Most lifeboat crew members are unpaid volunteers. The RNLI is principally funded by legacies (65%) and donations (28%), with the remainder from merchandising and investment. As an organisation it has clear statements of purpose, vision and values, vital to give an organisation – and individuals and teams – an identity and focus:

Purpose: The RNLI saves lives at sea.

Vision: To end preventable loss of life at sea.

Values: Our work is based on, and driven by, our values. Our volunteers and staff strive for excellence and are…

Selfless: willing to put the requirements of others before our own and the needs of the team before the individual, able to see the bigger picture and act in the best interests of the RNLI, and to be inclusive and respectful of others. Prepared to share our expertise with organisations that share our aims.

Dependable: always available, committed to doing our part in saving lives with professionalism and expertise, continuously developing and improving. Working in and for the community and delivering on our promises.

Trustworthy: responsible, accountable and efficient in the use of the donations entrusted to us by our supporters, managing our affairs with transparency, integrity and impartiality.

Courageous: prepared to achieve our aims in changing and challenging environments. We are innovative, adaptable and determined in our mission to save more lives at sea.

In terms of what an organisation stands for, and in setting an RNLI life boatman’s personal compass, the above words are inspirational, full of vitality and purpose. Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men can give us clear learning points to take into our business thinking about team work. RNLI teams achieve extraordinary results by fusing talented individuals into what I call a ‘breakthrough team’.

At the heart of any great organisational success, you will find an inspired team of individuals who have united to make something remarkable happen – a revolutionary, high performance team, energised, producing outstanding and innovative results by harnessing the individual talents to achieve team goals. The team is transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose.

This team achieves a breakthrough – a ground breaking result, a unique achievement never realised before – and then goes on to make its mark with further notable performances and impacts. Examples of such ‘breakthrough teams’ include Steve Job’s Cupertino team at Apple, Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks team at Lockheed in the 1940s, and the Apollo XI moon landing team under the guidance of flight director Gene Kranz.

Breakthrough teams differ from traditional teams along every dimension, from the way they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, their culture and values, and from the expectations they hold to the results they produce.

The headlines from my research shows that breakthrough teams are fundamentally different from successful groups that most organisations have, in several ways:

  • Their working style has an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm and set of expectations; maximum effort is the minimum requirement
  • The team emanates a discernible energy and focus
  • They are utterly unique in the ambitions of their goals, the intensity of their conversations about their objectives, and their focus on results
  • Intense, yet personal and intimate, they work best when forced to work under strict time constraints, but retain a focus on the welfare of colleagues
  • Team members put a great premium on collaboration, there is authentic team-working
  • They focus on thinking correctly under pressure
  • Each team member has a personal credo of be the man that makes a difference; be relentless, be limitless

I’ve fond childhood memories of the RNLI station at Moelfre, I spent many happy summer holidays there as a child, sat on the pebbles eating fish & chips and watching the lifeboat launch, time and time again.  On my recent visit the cohesion of the team, their vibrancy, their single-mindedness, their intimacy and camaraderie were evident from their passionate talks and enthusiastic demonstrations.

There is something both uplifting and concerning about seeing a lifeboat crew arrive at the station and launch. As a young boy it’s the spectacle, as an adult its appreciation of the bravery as to the uncertainty waiting for them and what the result of their actions will be. Here’s a team where the results are genuinely a matter of life and death.

High-functioning teams are what make high-performing organisations like the RNLI click. High performing teams, like the RNLI lifeboat crews, aren’t the result of happy accidents, they achieve superior levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team. In other words, such teams possess high levels of group emotional intelligence.

A team, like any social group, is governed by shared attitudinal and behavioural norms, which, though sometimes unspoken, are understood within the group. Teams that enjoy high levels of group EI have established norms that strengthen trust, group identity, and group efficacy. As a result, their members cooperate more fully with one another and collaborate more creatively in furthering the team’s work. When you create a climate of trust and the sense that ‘We are better together than we are apart’, it leads to greater effectiveness.”

It’s also important to establish comfortable, group-sanctioned ways to express the inevitable anger, tension, and frustration that arise in a team endeavour and to positively redirect that energy. Inevitably, a team member will indulge in behaviour that crosses the line, and the team must feel comfortable calling the foul.

To have a great team, there is no easy recipe for success, but it resonates around collaboration, having people who understand each other and work well together. Having the right mix of trust, ambition, and team mind-set among your team members is crucial. Reflecting on this, here are my ten thoughts about teams based on my experience and research:

Mutual respect is a key element in relationship development, the catalyst for a strong team. Inevitably, the team will take shape and will discover common ground and mutual connections, and as the teamwork progresses and conflict arises – an unavoidable part of collaboration – the team that has respect for each other will be able to move past conflict towards resolution and ultimately work together.

Specialisation A rugby team shows that where players have different roles but combine effectively to win the game, good teamwork comes from members coalescing their special talents to achieve an end goal. Figuring out who works best where will come naturally as the team spends time together, but it’s important not to suppress individual talents. Allowing each person to make their own unique contributions will lead better outcomes.

Establish clear objectives If the goal of the team, whether short or long-term, isn’t clear from the beginning, many hours will be wasted in frustration, working that goes nowhere. The very first step should be to determine a clear outline of the aims and the end result. Change is always necessary along the way, but a clear focus at the outset is paramount.

Adaptability Being flexible is a key trait of any team player, confronting and resolving crises, rushing to meet deadlines, or working to face unexpected challenges all require adaptation. If someone on a team is unable to change gears and refocus, odds are more issues will arise to further impact the efficient workflow process.

No finger pointing When a mistake is made, it’s easy for members of a team to find a scapegoat and lay individual blame. This will only lead to distrust and low morale. It’s possible that if one person keeps making critical mistakes, they may not have the right skills. The entire team should accept responsibility for shortfalls and move forward together make sure it doesn’t reoccur, before resolving team membership issues.

Hold your hands up If a project has setbacks, it’s better to admit it and start over rather than giving up or presenting a flawed product. A good team will roll with the punches, recognise that each step is essentially an experiment, and stay positive even when facing serious setbacks.

Patience Working with others requires the most the most difficult trait of all, patience and tolerance. We all strive for it, but few people are truly unflappable. Patience will keep a team motivated and allay conflict.

Delegation A capable leader will know one of her primary jobs is to delegate responsibility. One or two team members should never be saddled with all the work, instead the workflow should be distributed evenly and each person given a reasonable amount of work to achieve.

Self managed teams A team doesn’t need a superstar leader to excel, but they do need a self-assured, trustworthy, ambitious leader that keeps morale high and knows when to rally the troops. From this, all team members should listen constructively, monitor the quantitative and qualitative results and maintain good peer-group support.

Competitiveness A healthy dose of internal competition is fuel for inspiration. When you’re working on a team it’s easy for people to become jealous or possessive of each other’s attributes or contributions. However, healthy, respectful competition motivates others to develop even better ideas, because it makes people ask themselves, ‘if she came up with this, can I create something even better?’

Building a breakthrough team requires the expression of open, positive emotions. Recognising individuals not only strengthens a team’s identity, but it also spotlights its effectiveness and fuels its collective passion for building a sense of solidarity, efficacy, and identity – clear traits in the RNLI breakthrough team.

Voltaire said ‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats’, whilst Churchill, on the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the RNLI in 1924 said, ‘The lifeboat drives on with a mercy, which does not quail in the presence of death; It drives on as a proof, a symbol, an affirmation, that man is created in the image of God, and that valour, and virtue, have not perished in the British race.’

Two quotes that vividly capture the image of the lifeboat enduring in our lives in times of hardship, and thereby the crew, a breakthrough team of unity and collaboration. The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison, recognising that none of us is as smart as all of us. I hope you can build a breakthrough team in your business, and achieve outstanding success.

The RNLI and Breakthrough Teams

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824.  The charity was founded, with royal patronage, as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home. The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854, and cork lifejackets were first issued to crew members in the same year. In 1891, the first RNLI street collection was held in Manchester. The C20th saw the RNLI continue to save lives through two world wars. The lifeboats moved from sail and oar power to petrol and diesel, and the first women joined their crews.

This weekend has seen the poignant 125th anniversary of the Mexico disaster in the Ribble Estuary, off the Lancashire coast, where 27 volunteer lifeboat crewmen lost their lives. It’s the worse disaster in the 187-year history of the RNLI.

On the night of 9 December 1886, the German barque Mexico was wrecked at the mouth of the Ribble during a gale. Three lifeboats from Lytham, Southport and St Annes put out to attempt to rescue the crew. The Lytham Lifeboat launched first and rescued the 12 men on board the stricken vessel. They landed them safely back at Lytham at 03:15 GMT on 10 December to loud cheering from a large crowd gathered on the beach

The Southport Lifeboat was taken along the beach to a suitable launching site and put to sea. Washed ashore, it reached a position close to the Mexico and was about to go alongside when it was capsized by a large wave. Fourteen members of the 16 crew members drowned

The St Annes Lifeboat headed out and was not seen again until it was found upturned on Southport beach the following day. Its entire crew of 13 drowned.

Memorial services were held this weekend at both Lytham and Southport.

Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men can give us clear learning points to take into our business thinking about team work. One of dna people’s thought leadership pieces of research concerns RNLI teams – achieving extraordinary results by fusing talented individuals into a Breakthrough Team.

At the heart of a great organisational success, you will often find an inspired team of individuals who have united to make something remarkable happen – a revolutionary, high performance team that is energised, producing outstanding and innovative results by harnessing the individual talents to achieve the team goals. The team is transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose. This team achieves a breakthrough – a ground breaking result, a unique achievement never realised before, and then goes on to make its mark with further notable performances and impacts. The RNLI Breakthrough Teams differ from traditional teams along every dimension, from the way they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, their culture and values, and from the expectations they hold to the results they produce.

The headlines from our research shows that Breakthrough Teams are fundamentally different from ordinary groups that most organisations have in several ways:

  • Their working style has an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm and set of expectations
  • The team emanates a discernible energy and focus
  • They are utterly unique in the ambitions of their goals, the intensity of their conversations about their objectives, and their focus on results
  • Intense and intimate, they work best when forced to work under strict time constraints, but retain a focus on the welfare of colleagues
  • Team members put a great premium on collaboration, there is authentic team-working
  • They focus on thinking correctly under pressure
  • Each team member has a personal credo of it’s down to me to make a difference

We’ve identified the dna of Breakthrough Teams, producing outstanding and innovative results in all areas of human achievement – in business, the arts, sport and in other day-to-day challenges like the emergency services. We’d like to share our insights with you and how to play to the standards of some of the greatest uncompromising, creative and catalytic teams of our times. Find out how these teams set out to revolutionise their worlds, and how you can build a Breakthrough Team of your own. Contact us for a copy of this research.

But back to the RNLI. My favourite lifeboat station is that based at Moelfre, on the east coast of Anglesey. I spent many happy summer holidays there as a child, sat on the pebbles eating fish & chips and watching the lifeboat launch time and time again. The cohesion of the team, the vibrancy from their single-mindedness, and the cammaraderie was always evident. There is something both uplifting and extremely sad about seeing a lifeboat crew arrive at the station and launch into the sea. As a young boy it’s the spectacle, as an adult its appreciation of the bravery and fear as to what the result of their actions will be. Here’s a team where the results are genuinely a matter of life and death. Checking their web site, they’ve launched three times this weekend –http://www.btinternet.com/~coxmoelfrelifeboat/

The RNLI is an independent charity, funded entirely by voluntary donations. Quite shamefully, they receive no Government funding. I’ve been a longstanding donator, they could not save lives at sea without public support. So in return for a copy of my research, why not make a donation to the RNLI, or a visit over the Christmas break to a nearby lifeboat station – all manned 24 hours a day by unpaid volunteers, or attend their Lifeboat Day, an annual fund raising event? Some 7000 people attended Moelfre Lifeboat Day in 2011, it’s scheduled for August 18 in 2012. Go along and support a Breakthrough Team that makes a difference to the safety of our coastline.