I’ve been reading the inspiring book by Dan Pontefract entitled The Purpose Effect, so purpose has been, understandably, on the forefront of my mind. As I wrote in my post last week, the importance of identifying purpose in a company’s overall Corporate Social Responsibility plan is clear. Whether you’re measuring employee engagement, community engagement, talent acquisition and retention, media attention, productivity, or efforts put forth in sustainability – having a purpose-driven culture moves the needle in all of these areas.
I began to think about my personal journey in search of purpose. Starting my career in government as a young environmental attorney was the perfect avenue to combine my passions with my sense of purpose. Not only did I feel that I was contributing to society by working for the government and defending our natural resources, but there was also a comradery and community amongst other workers all aligned with the same mission – and it was palpable. Oftentimes there’s an unfair stereotype of government workers being lazy bureaucrats. I can say from first-hand experience, this is the farthest thing from the truth when you’re working in an agency that has a mission and a heart-centered purpose. I, and my colleagues, worked much harder and for longer hours than our below-market compensation would typically warrant. It was, as Pontefract describes in his book, the “sweet spot” of having a Personal Purpose, Role Purpose, and Organizational Purpose. This may explain why employees who are part of a purpose-driven culture are willing to accept less compensation.
My next two jobs, while certainly having a “purpose,” were not with companies that had an underlying mission, a company vision, or written set of values. Both positions were in the private sector. One with a large law firm and the other with a Fortune 100, publicly-traded, multi-national, industrial company. While the work was challenging and sometimes exciting (at the company; not so much at the firm), it seemed that the “purpose” was to be competent, represent the client, keep them out of trouble, and negotiate the best outcomes for the company within parameters of the law. There was little emphasis on keeping employees engaged. There was sparse attention to external stakeholders (other than governmental entities). Sure, I was well-compensated, got to see the world, travel first class, stay in five-star hotels and eat well (and pay off my school loans in the process), but throughout these experiences, I felt as if I was doing a J-O-B. The best result from my employer’s perspective was one that reduced exposure for my client – and that was the goal as opposed to one that was aligned with a particular set of values.
Then I had the idea to create an environmental advocacy nonprofit organization that worked with the music industry. You might ask how that could occur – who puts the idea of environmental law + public education + musicians into the same space, right? Well, would it surprise you if I told you that I was following my passions and purpose in doing so? Of course not! Simply stated, I was finding a “Role Purpose,” aligned with my own “Personal Purpose” and in turn, created organization that encapsulated all of this in an “Organizational Purpose.” Sometimes, it is said, if you want your dream job, you have to make it yourself. And that is what I did – for 15 years.
What was rewarding about this type of job in the “sweet spot” of purpose, was that I reaped my own personal satisfaction from this work, and interestingly enough, it attracted others who self-identified as having a similar “personal purpose,” seeking a “role purpose” in a company with an “organizational purpose” in alignment with their own values. This particular sweet spot of purpose resonated with thousands of people every year who donated funds, became members, talked about us on social media, told their friends, and who wanted to sport our merchandise, volunteer for us, intern with us, and work for our organization. To be honest, it’s a golden example of how purpose can drive success. Of course, it’s not unusual for this alignment of purpose to be found in the nonprofit sector. After all, nonprofits are driven by mission, vision, and values. Nonprofits attract people (employees, volunteers, and donors) who are similarly motivated to help a cause. Those same people are not driven primarily by profits or by compensation or any expectation of rewards other than knowing they are helping to advance the mission and vision for the organization. While nonprofits certainly need to raise money to operate, they do so with an underlying purpose of making the world a better place.
So turning back to the private sector, the question is how can we take this sense of purpose found so readily in government and in nonprofit organizations and apply it to the private sector so that companies can experience all of the benefits, good will, and overall employee satisfaction that we see in purpose-driven organizations? In a nutshell, I would posit that leaders need to first take a 360-degree look at every stakeholder (internal and external) of an organization and ask, “What do these people desire?”
For example, employees (and prospective employees) want to work in a company committed to doing more than just making profits. Communities want businesses that support the community by hiring from within, contributing back, and not trashing the neighborhood with pollution. Customers want to feel good about the products they purchase and know that they are produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way, that they are of good quality, that the people producing the products are treated fairly, that supply chains utilized are equally screened in accord with the company values, and that the company demonstrates authentic compassion for people and planet.
In the end, companies that embed purpose in ways similar to that of government and nonprofits will hit the “sweet spot” of purpose, will succeed, and are built for long-term advantage in the 21st century.