Is the pursuit of purpose the latest management fad? Nope.

But it is getting more personal…

  • Is the pursuit of purpose

Published on: November 2018

Written by: Jessica Skon, Lee Sears, Madeline Renov

Leading with Purpose, Part 1

Most CEOs I speak with are not 100% at peace with their company’s purpose. As the market, their people and their business evolve, so will their purpose. As some of the best companies of past and present show us, there is strength, and even magic, in a great company purpose. What is also clear, however, is that this magic does not come from just having a “purpose” or “vision,” but rather from how well a company is executing against their purpose.

When Southwest Airlines (which has been profitable for 45 consecutive years, and on FORTUNE’s list of World’s Most Admired Companies for 24 straight years) was first starting out, their mission was to make flying affordable.1 They rallied their people on the idea that a grandmother should be able to affordably buy a ticket, at the drop of a hat, to get on a flight to see her new grandchild. This simple mission led to the “Southwest Effect,” which transformed the airline industry, and continued to be a lens with which the Southwest leadership team made key decisions.

Today, Southwest’s vision has evolved: “To become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.” And they are executing on this vision. They continue to drive superior shareholder returns against all industries on the S&P 500 (as they have for the past 44 years), and in 2018 were named the top low-cost airline in JD Powers customer survey reports for the second year in a row.

As the Southwest example highlights, great company purpose combined with a leadership team who will build the work-flows, culture, processes and metrics to live up to it can be an enormous employee motivator. But we have also experienced, both at BTS and with our global clients, that a good company vision and purpose on their own are not sufficient – employees need them to be even more personal to them as an individual. I remember a lunch I had twelve years ago with a 24-year old new hire who was my direct report. After some small talk he looked at me and said, “Why are you here? Why have you spent seven years with the same company?”

I’ll never forget that lunch. It was the first time I had been asked the question, and it was the beginning of a new decade where our employees were much louder and more active about wanting to reflect and spend time on our mission and purpose, linking it to their personal values and the impact they strived to have in the world. Luke, that 24-year old new hire, has made me and our company better as a result of his question.

In the last decade, there has been a growing emphasis in the business world on finding a deeper motivation to unlock greater meaning at work. For some this may sound ‘fluffy,’ or as one executive we spoke to commented, “Is this just the next version of the pursuit of vision and values? It sounds great on paper but too often makes little real difference as it tends to stay on the wall, rather than live in your heart.”

Yet your people spend the majority of their life at work and with colleagues. At its best, a sense of purpose is a way of bringing meaning to their work and understanding the contributions they are making to the company, as well as greater society. It makes sense, then, that employees who are clear on their personal and professional purpose end their work day invigorated and proud of what they’re doing instead of exhausted by mindless work that is bereft of real meaning.

According to a recent PWC study, 79% of business leaders believe that purpose is central to business success – but only 34% use their organization’s purpose as a guidepost for their leadership team’s decision-making. Signs that your workplace may be lacking organizational purpose are distracted employees and a lack of comradery. These are significant factors – so why don’t more organizations devote time to developing clear purpose and values? Well, developing organizational purpose is no easy task, and much of it starts with your own personal purpose. If you’re unsure of what exactly your own personal purpose is, have no fear – in the next two installments of this blog series, we will offer simple steps to help you uncover your personal and organizational purposes and get closer to leading through the lens of purpose.