“Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness. “To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but [also] create a renewed sense of purpose.” — Excerpts from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard Commencement Speech, 2017

Zuckerberg’s comments convey the recently heightened awareness of many American business leaders: Purpose matters. In fact, John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, in their book Conscious Capitalism, which launched the growing movement by the same name in 2014, argue that having a higher purpose energizes companies, aligns the interest of all stakeholders, and helps companies discover how to best serve. The authors note that many CEOs have discovered that purpose matters, even citing Jeff Bezos, who advises leaders to “choose a mission that is bigger than the company.”2

Despite this increasing awareness of the importance of purpose, Gallup’s research has found that  “Although leaders are skilled at creating value through process improvements, they have much to learn about creating value by aligning the mission and purpose of their company with business strategies, culture, brand, and performance measures.” Without this alignment, employees are less likely to personally connect to the mission. The result: a strong mission statement, efficient processes, but many staff who are not engaged; that is, who are indifferent to the long-term success of their employer and uninterested in going the extra mile to make a difference.  

Businesses with low levels of employee engagement fail to tap the potential of employees, miss opportunities for innovation, and are generally much less dynamic and productive than they could be.  This is not just a theoretical problem imagined by some academics; it’s real. Gallup’s extensive research over the past decade shows engagement levels to be consistently low.3

Building a Connection Culture

The key to meaningful and purposeful work, then, is not merely a strong and inspiring mission, but also a consciously developed culture in which all employees connect with that mission and with one another. Sure, senior leaders frequently know and identify with the mission, but those in the middle and on the front line must also.  The front line knows the customers, they know the service gaps, the missed opportunities and where processes break down. These are unfortunately most often the people not connecting with the mission.

The creation of a workplace environment where all employees are inspired by the mission must be part of a conscious effort. While many strategies may be pursued to improve engagement with the mission and increase camaraderie, purposely building a Connection Culture may be the most important.  

A Connection Culture is Facilitated via the Following:  

  1. Mission statements that succinctly and passionately communicate the higher societal good of the organization’s work:  Peter Drucker advises that the mission statement should be “short and sharply focused. It should fit on a T-shirt. The mission says why you do what you do, not the means by which you do it. …it must be clear and it must inspire.  Every board member, volunteer and staff person should be able to see the mission and say, ‘Yes. This is something I want to be remembered for.’”4
  2. Organizations that “serve a cause, rather than an outsider with selfish motives”: “Human beings have thrived for fifty thousand years not because we are driven to serve ourselves, but because we are inspired to serve others.”5 Such organizations that serve society inherently value diversity, sustainability, and fairness, for without these core values, any claim to a higher purpose is simply not authentic.
  3. Employees who are valued: In such businesses, staff are not taken for granted, but rather, are valued for their strengths which they use in their daily work. Additionally, employees are assisted in growing these strengths through ample development opportunities and career advancement.  Organizations that value their staff ensure that personnel decisions are based on objective performance measures and ensure that no one is overlooked or excluded.
  4. Managers who see their role as helping employees do their job effectively and recognize each person’s contributions:  Such “servant leaders” are much more inspiring than those who see their staffs as serving them. Servant leaders provide the tools and training so that people can do their work effectively.  
  5. An organizational emphasis on helping each employee build a sense of purpose: In a recent Harvard Business Review article, John Coleman reflects, “In achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it. Put differently, purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find.”   

In his Harvard commencement speech, Zuckerberg shared a story about John F. Kennedy’s visit to the NASA Space Center. Seeing a man carrying a broom, Kennedy “walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: ‘Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.’” Being a great place to work means more than just having an important organizational purpose. It also means being a place where all employees understand their role with regard to the mission and are empowered to use and develop their strengths to make real and meaningful contributions.

By Gary Miller, Director, HR Process Transformation and Integration, DePaul University

End Notes

  1. The term “connection culture” is borrowed from Prinitha Govender, who used it to describe Costco’s workplace culture. Costco has not only gotten the first part of the equation right with a clear and meaningful mission statement, but also has created an environment in which employees are valued, are engaged, and feel connected to their co-workers and to the mission. This strong employee connection reflects the priorities of co-founder James Sinegal, who knew the importance of treating employees like family. This culture has resulted in Costco beating out Google in 2017 as the “best place in America to work.”
  2. Mackey, J., & Sisodia, R. (2014). Conscious capitalism: Liberating the heroic spirit of business. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press. For the authors’ discussion on the role of purpose, see pp. 41– 67. See p. 42 for Bezos’s comments.
  3. Many of the ideas in this paragraph are derived from (1) Gallup employee engagement research (link to summary of the research); and (2) Google management effectiveness research (link to Project Oxygen).
  4. Drucker, P. F., Collins, J. C., Kotler, P., Kouzes, J., & Rodin, J. (2008). The five most important questions you will ever ask about your organization. San Francisco (Estados Unidos): Leader to Leader Institute ; Jossey-Bass.
  5. Sinek, S. (2018). Leaders eat last. New York, NY: Portfolio Penguin.

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