Purpose. It’s the desire to make a meaningful difference in the world. The search for purpose may seem private and personal, but now, more than ever, purpose matters-especially at work. A recent McKinsey survey found that 70% of US-based employees define their sense of life purpose by their job.
Why is this important now? Nearly two thirds of survey respondents said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. Nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials (35% of the total workforce) were three times more likely than others to say that they were reevaluating work.
All this reevaluation has led to resignation. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary shows that another four million workers quit for the fourth month in a row, even as job openings reached a record high. Denise Roberson, Chief Purpose Officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day shares, “The crises of 2020 have served as a tipping point for purpose, as it is no longer a nice-to-have, purpose is now a business imperative.” A Cone & Porter Novelli study found that 88% of Americans would buy products from a purpose driven company, and 78% would prefer to work for a purpose-driven company.
McKinsey found that 63% of employees want their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work. Michael Chavez, CEO of Duke Corporate Education and co-author of Rehumanizing Leadership: Putting Purpose Back into Business, explains, “A clear and inspiring purpose can help employees navigate ambiguity and make decisions. It can also be a source of inspiration, answering the larger “Why?” question, which has become increasingly important in a world where employees value meaning as much as money.”
Leaders who don’t help their employees meet their need for purpose run the risk of losing them to someone else who will. Conversely, helping people connect to purpose increases retention, engagement, profitability, and well-being. Leveraging purpose is a crucial leadership skill in today’s world. Here are three keys to unlock the power of purpose.
Key #1: Create A Clear Strategy Around Purpose
Frank Cooper, CMO of Blackrock, begins by suggesting that “Leaders must first embrace a simple truth: True purpose is a company’s ultimate goal and therefore no individual person has exclusive province over it. A leader can only harness purpose by helping everyone associated with the firm live the purpose. It requires a strategy that gives each stakeholder the motivation and courage to make the company’s purpose his or her ultimate goal.”
Denise Roberson adds, “To harness the power of purpose, identify why your company exists beyond profits. Then, build that into a meaningful purpose articulation and extend it as a strategic operating system across the organization with goals, measurements, and feedback loops deeply steeped in transparency and inclusivity. Cooper builds on this idea. “The leader must have clear and measurable KPIs for each of those stakeholders in relation to the company purpose. In this sense, harnessing purpose is less of a grand pronouncement by the leader and more of a continuous effort to ensure everyone associated with the firm embodies the firm’s purpose and adopts it in their daily behavior.”
Deborah Yeh, CMO of Sephora, suggests that leaders “Be goal oriented. We’ve found that having clear milestones takes purpose from a theory into a genuine plan. For instance, we’re passionate about making the beauty category and retail industry at large more welcoming and inclusive for all. But we’ve seen that shoppers of color frequently experience a negative “toll” in the retail journey – feeling unwelcomed, dismissed, or even watched. That’s not ok. So we started to measure this, monitoring every client service comment and creating feedback loops to hold ourselves accountable. When you measure what matters, purpose becomes woven into the work every day.”
Key #2: Lead By Listening
Purpose isn’t something you push down as commander-in-chief. It’s something you pull out as facilitator-in-chief. Roberson shares, “Leaders need to meet employees where they are to activate purpose across all levels of the organization. Telling employees about purpose is no longer enough. Engage employees and allow them to actually experience purpose in workshops, storytelling, direct one-on-one sharing groups, and off-site gatherings in nature to inspire them into action.”
Cooper adds, “True purpose is deeply personal. Drawing from the Japanese concept of ikigai, we need to understand as individuals what we love, what we’re good at, what the world needs and what we can get paid for. This is a process of helping employees discover their personal purpose, then find their path into the company’s purpose and enjoy a greater sense of fulfillment in their jobs.”
Yeh suggests leaders “Spend as much time on the frontlines as possible. In a retail organization, the client-employee interaction is where our purpose best comes to life. For instance, we have a program of free beauty classes for people experiencing life transitions. This includes “Bold Beauty for the Transgender Community” with a curriculum and facilitation team who specialize in making all gender identities feel seen and empowered. When employees get involved in or even witness one of these classes, there is an immediate recognition of our purpose and how it can come to life.”
Key #3: Lead By Example
Yeh shares, “As leaders, we have to walk the walk. No one is going to connect with something that seems merely performative. I’ve found it important to get more deeply involved than I would with a “normal” business endeavor, playing the role of student at times as much as I am a leader. I’ve joined our employee resource groups, attended brown bag sessions, and done volunteer work because I’m on a personal journey to fully live purpose in my own efforts. I hope my employees see this intention in my actions.”
Roberson shares, “Purpose must be lived by the leadership team and modeled throughout the organization with authenticity, accountability, and action. It’s essential to be vulnerable and transparent in sharing your own purpose journey to bond people. If purpose is just a glossy statement scrawled across a wall or employee handbook, you can easily do more harm than good, as employees, customers, and investors are savvier than ever. You need to bravely walk your talk each and every day, with every facet of diversity front and center.”
When leaders model vulnerability, they build psychological safety for those around them. This opens the door for inclusion, belonging and community. It’s the secret sauce for turning a group into a team.
Yeh sums it up well. “Purpose builds stronger teams by tapping into our humanity. It offers perspective on the challenges we face together, and even lets us see each other more clearly. There’s almost always a very personal story at the core of how an employee identifies with our purpose. When people feel comfortable sharing these stories with each other – it’s an incredible moment of team connection.”