The two most important days in your life is the day you were born and the day you find out why. (Mark Twain)
I was born and grew up in a small town outside Oslo, Norway. My dad was a doctor and my mom a nurse. One night my parents had friends over for dinner and someone asked me: “So, little Annicken. What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be happy and have fun” I replied with a big smile. I can still remember the laughter and what they whispered as they walked away: “She’ll soon enough wake up to the harsh realities of life.” There and then I decided that one day I would prove the grown-ups wrong. I didn’t understand this until later, but at the tender age of six I had simply discovered my purpose: to be happy and have fun, in life and at work. The choices I’ve made later in life have to a large extent been shaped by this desire. You can read more about how my personal purpose ultimately led to Corporate Spring and our company purpose here. It’s quite a story.
Moving from my close-to-home example into the field of neuroscience: studies show that purpose is one of our strongest motivational forces. Humans are primarily intrinsically motivated; we want to do something that matters, not only to ourselves but also to others. A MIT study, here presented in a short animation from Daniel Pink’s TED talk The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us shows that people who do work based on intrinsic motivation; because they want to, largely outperform those who do work only motivated by external rewards. Humans are purpose-driven creatures, but most companies’ incentive- and performance management systems are built on the premise that we’re not. But thankfully things are about to change. The most forward-thinking organizations are now leaving the old paradigm behind and rethinking and redesigning the way they operate, incentivize, lead, and inspire their teams for performance. And within this new paradigm, also known as the new world of work, purpose is key.
The Power of Why
When my team and I are being asked to advise companies and teams in how to build high-performing team cultures, we always start with trying to understand why they exist; what they are doing and why they are doing it. Surprisingly many say they exist to make shareholders happy, which is, according to the late Jack Welch, “the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy.”
In his book “Start With Why” Simon Sinek writes “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause, or belief – WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”
In the HBR article “Why are we here?” the authors emphasize the importance of connecting business purpose to customers and strategy. What is your reason for existing? What value are you giving your customers? And why is your firm uniquely capable of providing it? These are all good questions that can help you articulate a meaningful purpose for your organization or team.
The Connection Between Purpose and Business Success
In PwC’s Putting Purpose to Work workplace study, 79% of the leaders surveyed said they believed their purpose was important to their business success. Yet only 34% said that their organization’s purpose was a guidepost for decision making in their leadership team. The PwC study also found that people want to work for companies with a purpose. People who find their company’s purpose meaningful are 5.3 times more likely to stay with the company.
Another study, from London Business School, found that employees who work for companies with a purpose are more engaged and perform better, and businesses that are driven by purpose outperform those who are only trying to maximize shareholder value.
The recently published Edelman Trust Barometer is dedicated to the “rise of the Belief-Driven Employee.” The report says that 1 out of 5 of the surveyed employees have recently quit their jobs or are planning to leave their jobs within the next 6 months. 76% of the employees say they have higher expectations to their employer now than they did three years ago, and 71% have “strong expectations” of finding a job with some kind of social impact.
According to Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, 44% of millennials and 49% of Gen Zs say they have recently made choices over the type of work they are prepared to do, and the organizations for which they are willing to work, based on their personal ethics. For many, the pandemic has been a big wakeup call. Millennials and Gen Zs say they are making different and more conscious choices after the pandemic, and this generation will make up 75% of the workforce in 2025.
Defining Your Purpose
Most companies have a purpose and a reason to exist. They just might not have articulated or defined it in a way that people get it, are inspired by it, and understand their own role in it.
When we work with startups, we usually recommend getting the entire company together to define their company purpose. It’s not about coming up with a reason to exist (if they didn’t know that, they probably wouldn’t have made it past their first year.) It’s about putting words to their “why” in a way everyone can relate to and, hopefully, be inspired by. Involvement leads to commitment and ownership but if it’s not possible to involve everyone, we recommend having the leadership team together and invite a diverse group of team members from different roles and parts of the organization to participate in the discussion.
In larger organizations, teams might still want to create their own team purpose, in support of the bigger company purpose. To give a concrete example: an IT team that works in a financial institution whose purpose is to “provide easy, accessible investment opportunities for young people” defined their own team purpose: “From millennials to millennials: we’re making it happen.” As facilitators, our jobs are to inspire high-level-thinking, help them avoid too tactical discussions (where most teams go by default), and look for the light go on in people’s eyes, because that’s when we know they are onto something. Seeing the shiny eyes of that IT team when they had defined their own WHY is one of the reasons why I love my job so much!
How To Do It in Practice
We recommend fun, visual exercises, aimed at answering the question “Why do we exist?” Coming up with the answer to that question may be harder than you think. Making it light-hearted and playful helps.
One of these exercises may help you get there:
- Design/draw/create a frontpage on a business magazine 5-10 years from now, with a short headline on what you’ve achieved and the difference you’ve made for your customers, your community, or for the world (depending on your level of ambition).
- Bring lots of different pictures and have the team create picture collages that visually describes why you exist as a company or team (depending on whether you’re defining a company purpose or a team purpose.)
- Gather around a make-believe (or even better: real!) fire pit to tell the kind of stories you hope to be able to tell your grandchildren one day.
Make sure that the purpose statement you end up with speaks to both people’s minds and hearts. A purpose isn’t supposed to be tangible and rational. That’s what strategies are for. The best purposes are aspirational, inspirational, and emotional. They express what you value, what you stand for, believe in and why you exist.
Making Your Purpose Come Alive
Defining a purpose statement is only the beginning. How you make it come alive is what will make the difference.
Leaders who actively use and refer to their purpose when communicating and explaining their strategic choices are far more effective in getting people behind decisions, including the more uncomfortable ones. When people understand why, they can easier accept the how and the what. When you make your purpose a guiding star for your team and in your leadership role; people will want to work for and with you, be inspired to give their very best – and great performance will follow.
Making it Personal
I’d like to end this article as I started it: on a more personal note. While company purpose is important, so is our personal purpose. Why do we exist? Why do we get up in the morning? And why should anyone care? If you think it is difficult to articulate your personal purpose (most people do), remember it is not about what you say but about who you are, what you do and why you do it.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Till next time…
I’m Annicken R. Day, born and bred Norwegian, living in California, on a mission to make the (corporate) world a happier place. After 12 years as Chief Culture Officer and Culture Strategist in Tandberg and Cisco, I founded Corporate Spring in 2012 and have since then, together with my amazing team, helped organizations around the world build thriving, joyful, high-performing cultures.
I’m also author of the bestselling novel Fly, Butterfly. The book is a personal and professional metamorphosis story, about life and business, passion and purpose – and our ultimate pursuit of happiness. You can get the book here.