Hiring a chief meaning officer? You're missing the point

Blog posts

16 Jan 2019

Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Director, Employer Research and Consultancy

I suppose it makes sense to make sure that someone’s job title reflects what the organisation wants them to do. There’s not much ambiguity in job titles like ‘Finance Director’ or ‘Store Manager’, for example, but in recent years there has been an increase in job titles which have been conferred on people because the organisation wants everyone to know that they are taking an issue very seriously. This seems to have been especially prevalent in the domain of people management.

A few examples might illustrate my point. A chief commitment officer or a chief engagement officer are simple, if slightly gimmicky ways of showing that different aspects of employee motivation are important and that somebody high-up is being given ‘stewardship’ responsibility for them. With the growth of the wellbeing movement, we’ve also seen some high-profile examples of chief happiness officers and even chief fun officers too, although the idea that ‘happiness’ can be corralled in an instrumental way feels a bit, well, weird and confected.

The next ‘wave’ of such officers is now finding its way into an even more philosophical sphere – meaning and purpose at work. And lo and behold, here we have both chief meaning officers and chief purpose officers to help employees who are feeling disconnected from both what they are doing at work and why they are doing it. Apparently we need strategic guidance on such matters from senior folk who, thankfully, have achieved piercing clarity on the meaning and purpose of their own roles thanks to their shiny new job titles.

It’s hard not to get just a bit cynical about some of this job title jiggery-pokery (and guess what, I did find a chief cynical officer role, too).

One serious criticism might be that the most sustained effort by employers to promote engagement, wellbeing and a connection to the purpose of the organisation is probably best done by line managers and leaders at all levels, rather than just by somebody with a catchy job title. Let’s take meaning and purpose as an example.

Over the last couple of years, IES has published research on meaning at work by Luke Fletcher and Dilys Robinson and by one of our excellent Honorary Fellows, Professor Katie Bailey. Katie has conducted interesting work on both the sources of meaning with which employees engage and on how easy it is for organisations to undermine or destroy the precious sense of meaning which employees achieve about their work.

The truth is that leaders can animate the purpose of the organisation. They set the context in which employees can build their own sense of meaning from their work and help them to understand the part they play in that larger organisational purpose.

A major two-year study led by my former colleague Dr Penny Tamkin explored in some depth, through over 250 interviews, how outstanding leaders strive to communicate both vision and purpose. The research centred on what leaders themselves believe leadership to be and how they practice it, with perspectives from both senior leaders and their direct reports in six major companies, including Tesco, Unilever and Guardian Media Group. The effectiveness with which leaders helped to ‘bring meaning to life’ was identified as one of the important attributes which differentiated ‘outstanding’ leaders from those who were merely ‘good’:

‘Outstanding leadership enables a strong and shared sense of purpose across the organisation as sustainable high performance comes from a shared determination to overcome challenges for the long-term benefit of stakeholders, staff, customers and society. Outstanding leaders tangibly demonstrate a sense of purpose in their work, bringing meaning to what they and others do. Contributions are connected to the organisational purpose, people are respected for what they offer and what they aspire to so that they feel purpose-full in their work. Outstanding leaders find an emotional connection for people; they focus on passion and on ethical purpose.’

In practice, the research found that many leaders recognise the power of conveying the purpose of the organisation and are skilled in articulating it and in identifying where employees fit into it. As one leader put it:

‘I always have the concept of a journey. To me, leadership is about engaging with people to work out how to take that journey; getting clarity around it and being able to articulate it clearly enough for people. Then engaging and motivating people to move the organisation on from where we are today. It’s trying to give people the reason; the catalyst to change what they’re doing today.’

Yet, while leaders play a vital role, effective organisations cannot be reliant on the 'heroic' or charismatic qualities of an individual (eg their chief meaning officer) taking all the responsibility on their shoulders for imparting purpose through sheer force of personality.

The desire to find work meaningful is deep in human nature, and has become part of the strategic landscape of the modern employment relationship. More than ever before, people are looking for more than a job – they are seeking meaning from the work they do.

My argument is that this principle applies universally. It applies in the private and public sector, to the highest fliers and the lowest paid, the high- and the low-skilled, to senior leaders and front-line staff, and to the huge percentage of the workforce in between.

While it is not in the gift of employers simply to provide meaning for their employees, they can actively create the environment which enables people to attach meaning to their employment. This is too important a task to give to one employee, regardless of their job title. It requires a distributed responsibility that should be woven into the fabric of every leader’s role, supported by their HR colleagues. 

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.