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Interview with SYPartners: Lisa Maulhardt

This article is taken from SMO's tabloid "TOKYO 2019". The rest of the pages as well as the newest version is available for download here.


Could you please tell us a bit about SYPartners and the work you do?

SYPartners is a consulting firm based in the United States, in New York and San Francisco. We work with CEOs and their leadership teams to help them build capability to constantly transform, in a world where change itself is constant. We help CEOs design the future of their company by building purpose-driven strategy, and shaping a culture of transformation that can enact that strategy.

How does SYPartners define “purpose”?

We define “purpose” as the answer to the question, “Why do you uniquely exist?” or “What do you exist to do in the world?” We believe this applies to organizations as well as to individuals.

From the lens of SYPartners, why is purpose such a central role in transformation?

An organization needs to know what its core truth is, in order to choose strategies and actions that produce the outcomes it desires. Purpose is an articulation of that core truth. Transformation without the intention that purpose provides is simply activity without meaningful achievement.

In addition to purpose, how critical is “vision” as an element in transformation? (Will having a clear and powerful purpose alone enough to propel a transformation?)

Purpose should be thought of as a north star, never wavering. Vision is equally important, but it can change over time: It is a statement of intent with a clear time horizon. (The classic example we often quote is the United States President John Kennedy’s vision for America in 1962 that “this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”) For transformation to occur, an organization needs its purpose as a touchstone for staying true to itself, and a vision to help channel all its purposeful activities in a single direction for a strategic period of time.

What do you believe is most important when it comes to (re)discovering purpose for an organization?

It might sound obvious, but the most important thing is to actually ask and answer the question, “What is our purpose?” An organization usually knows or feels that which makes it unique and purposeful. But along the way thousands of decisions might have diluted that meaning, or led the organization slightly astray from its purpose. It’s critical to take the time to clarify the purpose in words, to articulate it, so everyone can interact with it as an idea. This should not be the work of the leadership team alone, by the way—it is important to engage the whole organization in committing to a specific statement of purpose.

Today tremendous companies understand the importance of purpose. The challenge for many companies is on how to activate it in their organization. What do you see as the key challenges and what are the solutions for bringing purpose alive in organizations?

One of the key challenges is that organizations often behave as if once they have articulated the purpose, they are suddenly purpose-driven. This is only the first (important) step. Then they must do the work of evaluating their cultural rituals, decisions, partnerships, growth strategies, and asking the question, “Do these help us live and advance our purpose?” If not, those things need to be changed. Every person in the organization should be able to see how their everyday work helps contribute to the organization living its purpose. It is the responsibility of leadership to ensure people can do this.

Recently you worked with Weight Watchers to transform their brand. Can you tell us about how SYPartners helped this transformation? What do you believe are the key success factors?

The Weight Watchers (WW) leadership believes very strongly in running the business through the lens of purpose. We were their primary partner in articulating their purpose in more relevant language for today’s culture, and in helping the leadership team design rituals and tools that used the purpose in critical decisions about the future of the company. One of the things we did with them was to help create what they call a “purpose filter” for decision-making. It is a series of Yes-No questions that help them determine how to proceed with a decision, based on whether it is purpose-aligned.

What are some case studies or best practices that Japanese organizations can learn from about discovering and activating purpose?

The companies that are making bold moves to live their purpose in their business and culture strategy are the ones to learn from. They are the ones aligning everyday actions and business decisions, to their purpose. For example, Starbucks recently returned to their purpose (they call it “Our Starbucks Mission”) to find guidance on how to act during a racially-biased incident in one of their stores. This prompted them to make the bold move of re-writing their store policies to clarify that anyone who crosses their threshold is a customer—not just someone who makes a purchase—which then changes the protocol for how store managers interact with those people. They also closed 8000 stores in North America to conduct anti-bias training on May 29, 2018, and are now engaging in a systemic overhaul of their policies, training, and practices.

What is your outlook for 2019 in regards to purpose in businesses and companies around the world?

While purpose has been an element of the conversation in business for many years now, any time the world around us feels unsettled, purpose plays an even more important role. If a company goes back to its purpose when it makes decisions in moments of uncertainty, it finds the foundation to make smart decisions without distraction. Certainly, we are all experiencing the world around us to be changing and shifting quite a bit these days. Purpose will likely be something that helps grounds us in 2019 and beyond.

Lisa Maulhardt

Executive Vice President

At SYPartners, Lisa ensures that the experiences people have as employees, and the experiences the world has with our people and our ideas, meet our aspirations for greatness for our brand. She joined the company in 1994 as a writer and assumed greater leadership responsibility over the years, including several years leading the San Francisco consulting practice, until transitioning to her current role in 2013. While consulting at SYPartners, Lisa’s clients included Apple, Disney, Gap, Herman Miller, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Old Navy, PBS, Starbucks, and Sundance.

Lisa holds a B.A. in English and Poetry from Stanford University and an M.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of California at Davis.



SYPartners is a consultancy that helps leaders, teams, and organizations build the capability to transform into more vibrant versions of themselves—so they can grow with purpose, and have a positive impact in the world. For 25 years, we’ve partnered with executives in some of the world’s most influential organizations to help design their futures, including Starbucks, BlackRock, IBM, Apple, Nike, and Obama Foundation.

SYPartners is based in New York and San Francisco, and is a founding member of kyu, a collective of best-in-class creative firms.


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