Finding your personal purpose

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Published on: November 2018

Written by: Lee Sears, Madeline Renov

Leading with Purpose, Part 2

As we discussed in the first post of this blog series, purpose is an essential ingredient for business success and employee engagement today. Yet purpose is a nebulous concept, and often difficult to pinpoint. I know this firsthand. Around twelve years ago, a consultant in his early 20s joined the BTS San Francisco office where I was working, and I took him out to lunch. Within ten minutes of sitting down to lunch, he asked me, “So what’s your purpose? Why have you been at the firm for so long?” I’ll never forget it. I’d been at the company over six years, and that was the first time somebody asked me that. I felt it was a fair question, and yet I didn’t have an eloquent answer at the ready.

Coming up with a response, I started to talk about some of my guiding principles, things like learning and having fun, how I’m proud of the impact our work has on clients, and how I love building a team of leaders (or a business) that grows every year. The question from this new hire, though, who was probably ten years younger than me, put me on the spot and made me feel a bit inadequate as a leader. At first I did not have a crisp, compelling answer.

Since then I’ve been in many dinners with other executives from Fortune 500 companies to tech startups, who more and more frequently are being expected to lead their organizations with a clear purpose… and at the same time understand that each employee’s purpose and what motivates them is going to be slightly different than theirs, the firm’s and their peers’, and that’s okay. Once a leader or a firm has clarity of purpose it can be a beautiful energy and driving force, and should be the first lens with which leaders run their business.

So, how does one find a sense of purpose?

In truth, many people assume that only those who follow a vocation like medicine, teaching or work in the charitable sectors can have a true sense of purpose at work. Our experience, as well as much current research and writing, would suggest otherwise.

One simple way of looking at this is captured elegantly by the Japanese concept of Ikigai, or ‘The reason for being.’ The idea of Ikigai is that one’s sense of purpose lies at the intersection of the answer to four questions:

  1. What do I love?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. What can I get paid for?
  4. What does the world need?



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Take these four questions and look at the organization you are already a part of. Use them to see if you are in touching distance of doing more purposeful work, whether it be at the core of what you do or as a part of work that sits slightly outside the current definition of your job. Whilst we may not get the ultimate answer to the purpose question from our current work, once we have identified our own Ikigai we can go in search of the more meaningful elements of our jobs and start shaping the agenda at work in a new way. In the next installment in this blog series, we will discuss how to use your personal purpose to shape your organizational purpose and lead with meaning.