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Companies used to think that in order to attract and retain the best talent, they just had to offer perks and a nice paycheck. Now, it’s evident that employees care about more than just making money. They want a sense of purpose and meaning in their work and are often willing to take a pay cut to get them. We often see these two words go together and they are used interchangeably but what do they really mean and how can leaders and organizations create more purpose and meaning for their employees?

As part of the research for my new book, The Future Leader, I interviewed more than 140 CEOs around the world. When I asked them about trends facing future leaders, one of the most common responses was providing purpose and meaning. These aren’t just “work issues” these are crucial aspects of our lives as human beings,

Here’s how we need to think about purpose and meaning.

Your job is what you do, and your purpose is the intention of the job. Your purpose creates an impact or outcome, which then drives meaning, or why you do what you do. Purpose and meaning are two different, but very important, parts of the equation.

Job

This is really just about what it is that you do whether it writing code, handling customer service issues, or sales. Everyone generally knows what their job is, it’s what they got hired to do.

Purpose

This goes one level deeper than the job. For example you write code so that you can create user friendly products that customers want to use. You sell so that you can generate more revenue for the business which in turn helps it grow and invest in new opportunities. This is the bridge between the work you are doing and the impact it has on customers, employees, or the world at large. Sadly, many employees struggle with their purpose because we have built organizations that focus on tasks, projects, busy work, and things that keep us “heads down.” As a result, many employees around the world can’t see and are not allowed to see past this very basic layer. The engineer who designs a product rarely speaks with customers or hears their stories. The sales professional who brings in the deals doesn’t know what happens with the money he or she brings in, they just know they need to bring in more of it because it’s their job.

Impact

This is what actually happens from your purpose. In other words, your purpose in customer service is to resolve any issues, get customers to want to come back to the brand, and hopefully make their lives better and easier. But, is that the actual impact that you are having? Your purpose is about the potential but the impact is about reality. You want your impact to be greater than or equal to your purpose, never less than. Just as in the purpose section, most employees have not idea what impact they are having. Leaders however tend to have a more solid grasp of their purpose and meaning since they move away from the purely task or project based work to focus more on the big picture.

Meaning

This is subjective and unique to each and every one of us. This is about why we are doing something and the feeling we get from doing it. If you are writing code you might get meaning from working on complex problems or challenges, if you’re in sales you might get meaning from building relationships, if you’re in customer service you might get meaning from helping people.

Creating Purpose and Meaning

The balance of power has shifted towards employees, and organizations are now focusing more on employee experience and creating an environment where employees want to show up to work. Leaders and organizations can no longer simply think of themselves as just there to make money or drive profits. They can’t be isolated; they must work towards something bigger and more meaningful.

Where to begin:

  • Leaders must first understand their own purpose and meaning and the difference between these two things.
  • Give more access to ALL of your employees so that they can see how the work they are doing is impacting the business, employees, or the world. Let the engineer talk to customers, let the sale professional know how the money they are bringing in is being used, share stories of how HR teams are creating better experience for the people who work there. BUILD THE BRIDGE.
  • Get to know those around you as individuals and as human beings, not just as workers. What do they care about and value and why?
  • Make purpose and meaning a core part of your messaging with your people. These should be frequent conversations and discussions not one-off things.
  • Align the values and the purpose of the organization with the purpose and the meaning of the people who work there, if there is no alignment then they shouldn’t be working there!

Purpose and meaning are not just reserved for the privileged few. WE ALL deserve to understand how the work we are doing is making an impact and we all need to look inwards to get a better sense of who we are and why we are doing the work we do.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the late Bernard Tyson, the former CEO of Kaiser Permanente (a healthcare company with over 300,000 employees) who sadly passed away in 2019 a few months after I had the privilege of speaking with him. When we spoke he shared something with me which puts all of this into perspective.

“Companies of the future can no longer think that they can just exist…significant companies of the future cannot just exist in this little bread box, in this isolated place. We are a part of a greater society and a greater society is a part of us. The trend of when and how we engage in the bigger societal issues will continue to be a part of the future of leadership.”

I dig deeper into the ideas of purpose and meaning in my book, The Future Leader.

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If you enjoyed the article and want more content like this here’s what you can do:

  1. Subscribe to The Future of Work Podcast where I interview business leaders around the world each week.
  2. Grab a copy of The Future Leader which has been endorsed by the CEOs of MasterCard, Best Buy, Oracle, Audi, Unilever, Domino’s Pizza, Ritz Carlton, Kaiser, and Marshall Goldsmith. It explores the most essential skills and mindsets for future leaders.
  3. If you are or want to be an entrepreneur then my wife and I just launched a brand new podcast on how to Be Your Own Boss, called the BYOB Podcast where we share what we did and how we did it. You can subscribe to that here.

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