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When I started my career, I was primarily focused on establishing myself, demonstrating competence and capability to my supervisors and peers. I wanted to fit in and show value so I could create opportunities for myself. I valued the brands that I worked on and enjoyed the people with whom I worked, but I didn’t particularly think about the value or purpose of the organization beyond our product lines. I also drew a distinct line between my work life and personal life. This was typical of most people in my generation. For example, my kids knew where I worked, but they didn’t really know what I did at work. There was little to no connection between the purpose of the organization and my day-to-day work.
It took me years to understand the importance of creating a sense of value of my team’s work beyond meeting performance targets, and that breakthrough results came quicker if we connected our work to the organization’s cause. Understanding how our work contributed to the well-being of our customers and extended communities inspired great work, improved morale and led to shared success.
Younger workers today have caught onto that idea much quicker than I did. Not only do they understand it, but they seem to crave it. Millennials, much maligned for their pursuit of meaningful work, aren’t asking for any more than older folks want — they’re just being more vocal about it. We spend an average of a third of our lives at work; it’s only natural to want it to mean something more than a paycheck or papers being successfully pushed. Beyond gains in morale and retention, employees who are invested in the mission of a company also tend to be more productive.
Fortunately, every company has a purpose or cause that extends beyond its products or services. However, many organizations have not clearly articulated their unique purpose and communicated it to employees in a way that allows them to understand and be excited about that vision.
The most fundamental step in getting employees excited about your company’s purpose is to make sure you have articulated it in a way that can be easily described and communicated. Every organization has a unique reason for existing and its own space to fill, or it wouldn’t exist. The goal here is to package that reasoning into a succinct statement. Be specific — don’t craft a purpose around a goal that others are striving toward, but rather make sure it really is the reasoning behind your organization’s value.
The accounting firm KPMG had an easy time finding fresh, high-quality talent, but had long struggled with retaining that talent for more than a few years. Although they had a straightforward purpose — efficiently handling financial matters for clients — it was the same one their employees could find at any other accounting company.
But the firm had done history-shaping work such as helping to arrange the land-lease agreement to fund Allied efforts in World War II, laying the groundwork to free prisoners in the Iranian hostage crisis, and validating the 1994 South African elections that brought about the presidency of Nelson Mandela. In 2014, they started communicating that history-shaping legacy to their employees through a campaign with headlines like “We champion democracy” or “We combat terrorism,” with each featuring an example of how the work of the organization had lasting ramifications for the overall world and society. The response from the workforce was tremendous and retention significantly increased almost immediately. The campaign shed light on what they had done to set themselves apart from the pack, leading employees to become engaged in a larger purpose and reinforce their need to do good in the world.
There’s an old story about President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA and encountering a janitor in the hallway. When Kennedy asked the janitor what he did, the janitor replied, “I’m helping put man on the moon.” This janitor knew his purpose — while he wasn’t the one building rockets or solving equations, providing a clean and well-stocked facility to allow those people to comfortably do their jobs was a necessary component of the overall mission. Although this story is likely apocryphal, it highlights another truth of purpose: The difference between purpose or lack thereof can sometimes rest in the way it is framed. To use another example, three men were working together: One was cutting stone. One was earning money. The third was building a cathedral.
Part of building purpose comes down to individual adoption of this perspective, but leaders can still help employees understand how their work aligns to the company’s overall purpose. For example, recognition for wins, both big and small, can go a long way, especially if a leader intentionally takes the time to explain to the recipient and observers how the employee’s small steps helped the company take a giant leap. A few months ago, our leadership team was discussing a recent competitive win. We were all excited to hear the good news, but when the vice president of sales took time to explain the context of the win, it provided me an opportunity to pass along that recognition to my team. Their work to train and educate the prospect’s leaders had opened the door for additional business. This became a great opportunity to recognize the team and remind them how their specific work contributed to a larger outcome.
Communicating tangible gains, either directly from executives or from managers to individual teams, can help give employees the context to understand the impact they have in the bigger picture. Even a conversation from an entry-level call-center employee can have huge ripple effects on the success of the rest of the company, and communicating the tangible wins they bring can help improve morale and engagement in any role. No one is exempt from working toward the company’s purpose, and all are essential to achieving it.
As necessary as stories of success are, they should not be the only times an organization’s purpose is discussed within the workplace. Purpose is not a motto to put on a letterhead or something you tell a new hire and then put on the shelf until next time — it should be stitched into every part of the culture of your company. Purpose is not ever “complete;” rather, it should be clearly integrated into the work your company does and the ways you engage with employees and customers.
Whenever you get together in a team setting, talk about a story or a success that came as a result of pursuing the company’s mission. Too often, we dive head-first into status reports and updates — the reasons for meeting in the first place, sure, but they matter more once everyone remembers why they matter in the first place. When you recognize someone, make sure you tie their actions and the result of those actions back to the overarching goal. Helping employees understand how they are making a real difference to the company and the community around them will help your workforce understand why they matter and create a strong connection to purpose.
About the Author
Gary Beckstrand is a vice president at O.C. Tanner, a developer of employee recognition strategies and rewards programs. He also oversees the O.C. Tanner Institute, a global forum that researches and shares insights to help organizations inspire and appreciate great work.