A former co-worker called me the other day. After a decade of working the same job, he was frustrated to the point of an emotional breakdown. He lamented, “I don’t know what the point of my work is anymore? And I don’t see how my work makes any difference to anyone.” Perhaps he was facing a mid-career, existential crisis (who hasn’t had one of those moments). Or maybe he was simply overwrought by the tedious nature of his day-to-day work routine. But I suspect that this paroxysm was a symptom of a much greater epidemic: Employees who are uninspired by their organizational leaders and cannot find a purpose in the work that they do.
Purpose matters. And it’s not just about the millennials. As human beings, we seek meaning from our work. And creating real and authentic purpose is the job of leaders. But when the meaning feels scripted and transactional, employees lose faith. Increasingly, there is a divide between the culture that companies want to portray, and the culture people experience. According to a study conducted by Gallup, only 27% of corporate employees strongly agreed that they believe in their organization’s values and purpose, demonstrating a significant rift between leaders and employees. And this rift has consequences. When your workforce feels disconnected and uninspired, they are much less likely to go the extra mile for the company or produce that next creative breakthrough. In fact, one researcher has found that “companies with well-established sense of purpose outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times between 1996 and 2011.” In an age where companies regularly talk about the importance of innovation, it is nearly impossible to have lasting innovation in the absence of a purpose driven movement.
Nevertheless, many companies lack a clearly articulated purpose. And for those that do have a purpose, it’s often a flaccid byproduct of corporate consensus building that feels like a copy/paste from their creative agency. Telling your employees that our goal is to be #1 or to maximize shareholder value, just doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead, the purpose must feel original and forward-looking and be meaningful at both an individual and at a collective level. So, what should your purpose look like? There are three prominent attributes that must be present: Boldness, Authenticity and Personal Connection.
All great innovation movements start with a bold and inspirational purpose. Take the American space program in the 1960’s. President John F. Kennedy ignited the space race when he announced to a stadium full of 40,000 Americans that we will put a “man on the moon before the end of the decade…not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” He made this bold proclamation despite being strongly advised by his advisors that it would, in fact, be too hard. Yet Kennedy felt that real innovation could only be achieved if someone issued an unimaginably, bold challenge to incite purpose. It is, of course, well documented that the United States not only put a man on the moon but accomplished it before the decade was over. But what is lesser known was the sense of purpose that Kennedy inspired across every rank within NASA. So great was this sense of purpose, that when Kennedy innocuously asked a janitor at NASA, “What do you do here?”, the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” A bold purpose motivates people to find that deeper meaning in their own work.
It’s not enough for your purpose to be well crafted and bold. It’s got to be real. Employees have grown wary of overly polished purpose statements. I was recently speaking with a consumer products company that has a purpose of ‘ridding the world of plastic bottles, one bottle at a time.’ The purpose sounds noble and bold. But is it authentic? For example, besides producing less plastic, which can be seen as a byproduct of their business model, do they dedicate company time and resources to cleaning up plastic in public spaces, for example? Authenticity is who we are when we think no one else is watching.
One of the most inspiring examples of companies with an authentic purpose is the Aravind Eye Care Center. Aravind was borne out of a bold vision to eradicate preventable blindness, particularly amongst the poor and rural. And while many NGOs had attempted to solve this problem, few succeeded until Dr. Venkataswamy, a retired physician and government employee, issued his bold proclamation. What stands out as unique about Venkataswamy is that he chose to pursue this cause in the twilight of his career, funding this movement by mortgaging his house, as well as convincing his siblings to do the same. Venkataswamy’s risk taking and authentic belief in the purpose inspired multiple generations of India’s most elite health care professionals to come work at Aravind. The belief in Aravind’s purpose has sparked intense employee loyalty and innovation, including: Applying McDonald’s Hamburger University efficiency model to surgical operations, the early adoption of telemedicine to treat the rural poor and a tiered pricing system that could be a bellwether for the future American healthcare system. 40 years after its inception, Aravind continues to be one of the world’s leaders in health innovation. And it is fueled by a bold and authentic purpose.
People follow purpose. Especially when that purpose is both relatable and personally relevant. A few years ago, I met Scott Harrison, the founder of a non-profit company, Charity:Water. Like many non-profits, there was an inspiring social mission: to bring clean drinking water to those in need. But unlike many non-profits, its purpose created a strong, personal connection amongst its donors and employees. Delivering over 150 talks per year, Scott used the power of storytelling and visualization to make the challenge of clean drinking water a profoundly emotional and relatable problem. But at the unsustainable pace of 150+ speeches per year, Scott realized that scalability of his purpose was limited. To amplify the reach and personal relatability, Scott and the Charity:Water team launched a digital concept that went intensely viral — “donating” your birthday” to Charity:Water. The donors were personally bonded to these projects. And by GPS tagging the wells that were funded by individual’s donations, donors could feel the impact through videos and pictures of villagers directly affected. The purpose of Charity:Water, and their ability to harness personal connection, has helped raise more than $300 million, and, according to Charity Water, provided more than 8 million people around the world access to clean water across more than 25 countries in the developing world. It has also inspired it’s employees and the company to become innovation leaders in the non-profit world.
It has become trendy for executive leaders to speak about building corporate culture and innovation. But if culture is the air that organizations breathe, purpose is the oxygen. And in the absence of this oxygen, employees feel suffocated. Leaders need to go beyond organizational goals and shareholder wishes and find their bold, authentic and personally relatable purpose. To paraphrase the oft-quoted, Mahatma Ghandi, “if you want to create a change, you need to be the change in the world that you wish to see.” Start with your purpose and a meaningful change in your culture and innovation will follow.