The Power of Purpose - A Tale of Two Visits

Case Study – The Power of Purpose – A Tale of Two Visits

by Stephen De-Wint, CEO, Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award - Canada

What follows is A Tale of Two Visits, one to a country I had only visited once before, in an industry (healthcare) that I know nothing about, and another that is more spiritual than geographical. In October 2023, I was accepted to join a leadership experience visiting the eye hospitals of the Aravind Eyecare System. “Visit one of the world’s most purpose-led, highly revered organisations and find and define your personal leadership purpose,” said the subtitle on the welcome pack – what’s not to get excited about!

As the CEO of a national charity in Canada, that underwent major changes during the 2+ years of the pandemic, my board of directors had been asking me to do something to recharge my batteries and enthusiasm. This opportunity seemed ideal, and I remember reading a powerful article years ago about the charitable impact of an eye hospital in India that was changing the perspectives on how cataract operations should be carried out – surely this was linked in some way.

Act 1 – The original eye hospital

37 hours of travel to reach my first hotel in Madurai, India, felt like it might break my enthusiasm. However, an hour after arrival I found myself buzzing around a room of like-minded, purpose-seeking colleagues, desperately trying to remember names and to prepare myself for what was sure to be an inspiring visit. The team from Wavelength were inspiring from the outset. We were encouraged to be open-minded; to look for clues and the principles behind the execution; to see the structure that helps drive the behaviours; and share our perspectives with each other as we went along. But to where and what organisation, none of us seemed entirely sure. We had been provided some stunning references: a Harvard case study and several high-praise articles that explained the amazing scale of activities that Aravind undertook, but surely the reference to the thousands of procedures done each week was simply hyperbole – no charitable organisation really operates at such scale, do they?

Well as I soon came to find out, everything about this visit was big – big numbers, big ideas and big solutions. The world has approximately 39 million people suffering with blindness, and 80% of this is avoidable. More than 12 million of India’s 1.4 billion population suffer with blindness in one form and a 10-minute surgical procedure could restore sight or prevent blindness to 7.5 million of these and another 2.4 million could be helped with glasses. The only small number I could see was the one, single, unifying purpose behind the whole Aravind Eyecare System – “To eliminate needless blindness”.

Our visit looked at as many different aspects of the Aravind Eyecare System as possible. It started with a visit to one of their outreach “eye camps”, where over 300 people would be seen in one day (8am – 3pm) for eye check-ups, and assessed and registered for surgery if needed. We were privileged to hear insights from their long-serving and incredibly successful senior management team, on the vital DNA that makes the organisation work so well. We toured the three parts of the original Aravind eye-hospital in Madurai – there are now 14 hospitals, 6 community eye clinics and over 80 vision care centres spread throughout Tamil Nadu. We were allowed a backstage pass to the reviews of the regional outreach managers, including the phenomenal use of performance data from the previous week’s outreach camps. We received an eye-opening explanation of the work that Aravind does to engage with and train local young women as a key part of their infrastructure. These Mid-level Ophthalmologist Personnel (MLOPs) play a key role in ensuring the efficacy, but also the accessibility of Aravind within its local communities. We took a look at what impact Aravind has had globally, where it has worked with over 385 hospitals in 29 countries. And the final part of our stay in Madurai entailed a visit to a separate part of the Aravind Eyecare System, Aurolab, which originally made lenses for cataract operation replacement, and has since diversified into other areas of optical medical supplies and equipment. What is now a $41.5 million (USD) annual revenue social enterprise was started with the challenge of “how can something that looks like a small button (a replacement ocular lens), cost more than $100?”, and to create one for $10 or less.

Act 2 – Changing locations, changing perspectives

We finished our inspiring trip to the organisation’s heart and soul with a period of reflection and discussion with some of the original founding leaders, who left us in no doubt that their passion for the original purpose still burned as bright as ever. However, they were aware that culture is in constant flux and new leaders have to be found and brought through to keep the organisation performing and relevant.

To reinforce this point we travelled to the newer Aravind Eye Hospital in Chennai. We met the chief medical officers from the Pondicherry and Chennai hospitals and saw first hand the similarities and differences in practical delivery, as demographics and geographic culture took effect. It was a far more modern, purpose-built building. Where you could see the business processes jammed tight into the original hospital in Madurai, these were being brought to life in obvious circular workflows that helped generate such high levels of productivity.

Act 3 – My takeaways

I had four personal takeaways from the visit to Aravind:

1) The power of having an organisational purpose and vision that aligns all its team members cannot be underestimated. Every department had a clear statement of what it does to help achieve the simple vision of eliminating needless blindness. This alignment drives a level of responsibility and performance that is phenomenal to observe.

2) It was stated early in the visit that all organisations exist within a context – whilst this may seem to be a statement of the obvious, it was the acceptance of certain dichotomy’s in that context and a desire to unearth the ‘real’ problem being faced that seemed to drive an innate desire to continuously improve.

3) Most compelling of the values shared was the concept of “complain or figure it out” – with the emphasis quite firmly on the latter. We all face issues and challenges, and in most cases it is those challenges that create our reason for being – so let’s get on and solve the issues as quickly as possible.

4) Organisational culture drives success, and never have I experienced this more intensely within an organisation. However, there was also a major concern running throughout all the discussions that this should not be taken for granted. Huge steps are already being taken to perpetuate and evolve that culture for the next generation of Aravind’s leadership.

Act 4 – Making it personal

I said at the beginning of this article that this was a tale of two visits. Seeing Aravind at work was eye-opening. There was so much good practice to see and try and understand. But, this Wavelength experience was also determined to help all attendees better develop, understand and articulate their own, personal purpose. We transitioned on the fourth and fifth visit days to reflection and thinking about what we have all been trying to achieve in our own personal and work lives.

The final day was dedicated to a day-long workshop with the excellent Tim Munden, recognised for his exceptional work as the Chief Learning Officer and Head of Employee Wellbeing at Unilever and now Director at Kairon. I think we all knew this was going to be a challenging part of the trip. Sharing personal feelings and matters with people you had only just met. As one of the Wavelength team put it earlier in the visit there is at key times a “need to recharge yourself, not your phone”. Such personal insight takes time and effort, commitment and investment to willingly focus on yourself AND help other group members through their own learning. I found that working on a purpose statement is personal, very personal, but getting there takes input and support from others. For me my own statement has taken a while to craft, but it has opened up a room of personal motivation and power to get things moving forward in so many aspects of my life. I was exceptionally grateful during these two days of reflection for the relationships of trust that the Wavelength team had encouraged and facilitated in us all.

The final scene

So did this event deliver? Simply put, yes! I travelled for over 70 hours to spend just over 100 hours engaged in the experience, and those hundred hours have already started to change my perspective and behaviours, in so many aspects of my work and personal life. People say your purpose determines your “why”, and after the last few years of reaction, this proactive and jam-packed experience has already started to focus me back on the impact I want to have in my and others’ lives. So what was my personal purpose statement? Well, that’s the part for me to personally take away and keep, but if you ever get to meet any colleagues I have worked with during this time, maybe you could ask them if they have noticed a change.

Stephen De-Wint, CEO, Duke of Edinburgh International – Canada

Wavelength Power of Purpose Programme Delegate, Tamil Nadu, India, February 2024

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