Earlier this month my wife and I finished another leg of the South Downs Way. If you’ve not visited before, it is a 160km National Park walking trail that weaves its way across the south of England. It’s as beautiful as it is entertaining with plenty of pubs found along its rolling hills and Neolithic chalky white cliffs.

The trail is one of the most loved in the UK, a jewel in the crown of 15 National Park trails, and attracts over 100,000 walking visitors each year which, by any standard, is quite a bit of foot traffic.

As we made our way along the clearly marked paths and through the ‘crystal-maze like’ gate mechanisms I came to think – who is responsible for maintaining all this? The answer was quite surprising. To look after this network of trails, gates, steps and paths, takes a huge co-ordinated effort by volunteers, in particular, the Rangers of the South Downs Way. They alone have over 500 eager souls who give up 6000 hours per year, all on their own time and dime. Which led me to ask – how does this volunteer organisation, one that doesn’t offer any of the traditional benefits, engage these people to do their best work? And, can business leaders learn from this?

When creating solutions for clients as a consultant, I’ve often found a defining factor of a performing team is their level of Engagement. More specifically, the five levers that drive Engagement; Purpose, Challenge, Reward, Growth and Autonomy. I’ve noticed when these levers are woven into a culture, they translate into important behaviour changes.  And the behaviour change I love most is discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is all about achieving marginal gains through people giving a damn beyond their salary. It could be a late-night phone call to a client, a final patch to a piece of code or a ‘leave no person behind’ attitude when working to a tight deadline.

Discretionary effort is important. World-class sporting teams know it and industry giants spend millions trying to increase it.

Returning to our group of volunteers shoveling and chopping their way along the South Downs Way. How are they motivated to give up so many hours of their time, their discretionary effort, per year? One thing that clearly stands out is they have a clear Purpose; the first lever of Engagement. Purpose can take on different forms; Task Purpose (connecting daily tasks to a larger goal), Collective Purpose (creating cohesion in a group around a vision) and Social Purpose (wanting to make a change in the world we live in). Let’s take a look at examples of Social Purpose from across the globe used by organisations to attract volunteers to their cause;

A national marine conservation and campaigning charity that inspires, unites and empowers communities to act to protect oceans, beaches, waves and wildlife.
– Surfers Against Sewage www.sas.org.uk

Medical aid where it is needed most. Independent. Neutral. Impartial.
– Doctors without Borders www.doctorswithoutborders.org.uk

We fight hunger by providing quality food to people in need.
– Foodbank Australia www.foodbank.org.au

And, in the case of our hardworking green-thumbs at the South Downs Way, this is their Social Purpose;

To conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area.
– South Downs Way Authority www.southdowns.gov.uk

Reading this last one makes me smile. This simple statement lets me, my wife and thousands of others enjoy the beauty of the South Downs Way and preserves it for future generations. Which brings me back to my original questions – If Engagement and discretionary effort begin with a clear Social Purpose, can business leaders learn from this? In particular, the organisations moving at pace? The short answer is yes.

When starting a business, engaging a team is simple. It’s an exciting time, everyone has buckets of energy and there is often a very clear ‘why’- it may be a new idea, a problem to solve or an underserved market. But as the team raises funds, overcomes challenges and the company headcount grows, leaders can become disconnected from their teams. This means their original reason for being, their Social Purpose, becomes diluted and often teams lose their way. This disconnect can have a severe impact on the growth or success of a company, especially in the early years.

To counter this, leaders need to articulate ‘early in the game’ their authentic, clear and bold Social Purpose of the organisation. And, when combined with the other Engagement levers of Challenge, Reward, Growth and Autonomy, they will have the best chance to create a high performance culture prepared to steer the business through its rocky teenage years and hopefully help it grow to have a positive impact on millions across the globe. And unless you’re a Ranger of the South Downs Ways Rangers, no shovels should be needed.

See you on the trail.