Idea in brief: helping employees connect authentically with organizational purpose is key for engagement and revenue growth. Here’s why and how you do it.
There’s a lot of current focus on organizational meaning. Most technology companies today – from two person startups to 100K employee behemoths – have a publicly stated purpose. And many are transparent about their values.
Further, there are numerous researchers and observers – including Shawn Achor and Patrick Lencioni – who pour through applied positive psychology and organizational health data, generally concluding that happily aligned companies do better. Folks like Bob Buford also encourage us to think about our “one thing” that clarifies our quest to live a life of significance.
While organizations are complex collective organisms (for more on this, read the classic The Living Company by Arie de Geus), I would argue that clarity and alignment of purpose is the most important single factor that contributes to growth.
First, a bit of a step back on purpose versus meaning. Purpose is generally embedded in a thing by definition. The purpose of a table is to hold the food, drink and other items we consume. Meaning, however, is placed on an object via human experience. The Eileen Gray 1927 adjustable table on display at the MOMA is beautiful because we connect with the essence of what the artist was conveying: modern, multi-purpose simplicity is profound.
Ideally, organizations would aspire to meaning. But given how challenging it can be to align purpose for a collection of humans serving a market (i.e. a company), I generally recommend that meaning is a second order exercise (and/or something that advanced individuals and work teams strive for).
Don't feel saddened by not striving for meaning out of the gate. Purpose works. From personal experience, I loved the journey that we took while building high-growth companies like Motive and Pluck.
With Motive in the early 2000s, I was energized while helping people attain and maintain broadband connections. Via our activation, provisioning and support solutions, delivered via telcos and cable companies around the world, I felt like we were transforming personal connections and productivity. Broadband was literally life-changing for those who were previously stuck in a dial-up existence.
Later in the 2000s and 2010s at Pluck, our purpose became one of helping content companies open up, enabling journalism to become conversational and participative. By equipping publishers like USA Today and NPR to accessorize their content with integrated community experiences, we both aided mainstream social media and provided new channels for listening, dialogue and growth.
Data backs up my examples. For instance, Deloitte Consulting has found that 82% of people who agree they work for an organization with a strong sense of purpose are confident that their organization will grow this year (compared to 48% who do not have a strong sense of purpose). Further, these employees believe their company will outperform competitors (79% vs. 47%).
Key people are needed to fuel long-term growth. Towers Watson has found that employees who align with their organization’s sense of meaning and significance are three-times as likely to stay with their company.
So, how do you find your company’s purpose? Or, if like many companies you feel that your purpose needs an upgrade, where do you begin?
John Baldoni would offer that you start with vision, mission, and values.
To articulate a new vision, mission and values, consider creating a small task force. Encourage the team to use various collaboration techniques (such as Post-It Note word play) to openly develop concepts. Move fast and iterate rapidly. Realize that your values probably should be somewhat controversial in order to be memorable. Think about also using a mnemonic such as a phrase or acronym to foster repeatability.
From your vision, mission and values, you can set out on your quest to articulate a new purpose. Getting your purpose statement right is generally really, really hard. In my experience across multiple organizations, purpose statements (including many that I attempted to write!) were often cliché, full of jargon, unoriginal, not inspiring or several combinations of these. Like poetry and song lyrics, they require multiple revs and lots of crumpled and discarded attempts.
To create a purpose statement that is authentic and impactful, pursue a leadership-driven exercise, possibly with outside perspectives. A third party can help guide the process and serve as a neutral influence, especially as things can become heated with teams that care deeply.
Assuming you’ve gotten your purpose in place, what’s next? Integration and repetition. You’ll want to drive your purpose in to logical and unexpected places. And you’ll want to repeat, repeat and repeat some more what your purpose is and what it means.
In my work, I've repeatedly seen how quickly people forget purpose and how often they can become cynical if they sense that purpose is mere platitude rather than the core essence of an organization.
So, make sure that you and the team “walk-the-walk” on purpose, vision, mission and values. Remind yourself regularly what they are and think about novel and authentic ways to incorporate them in to your work, including alignment with objectives, strategies and tactics.
Becoming a purposeful company is hard work. But the potential rewards around engagement and growth make the effort well worth it. Plus it's fun to change the world with energized, purposeful colleagues!
Idea in a nutshell: by giving ourselves and our teams encouragement to serve multiple organizations, we can flourish while helping our primary employers thrive. This is the first post in a three part series.
In computer programming, threads enable commands to operate, often in parallel. A multithreaded system, assuming capacity, is both more efficient and more effective. It’s not surprising then, that a large number of engineers in the software space take a multithreaded approach to their careers.
These developers often have a day job. But at night, they do contract programming for friends and former colleagues. And on the weekends, they build their own apps and products. They are artists, as Seth Godin has honed the term, working for a variety of reasons, constantly learning, creating and morphing.
One of my favorite CTOs argued circa 2009 that the world of work had changed and that engineers were some of the first to get it. They saw that the monolithic corporate structures of the past were no longer optimal. They also embraced the idea that any single working organization may not fulfill all of our vast creative potential.
Most of us are wildly multithreaded beings. We are children, friends, partners, parents, and volunteers; we play, listen, travel, pray, grieve and serve. Life is a rich tapestry of interwoven and integrated experiences.
Yet, when it comes to our work, many organizations and managers expect their employees to “give their all” to a singular company. They may look the other way at engineers who program for multiple causes and reasons (while secretly wishing the engineers would only code for them). But talk about their sales folks, product managers and accountants? Man, they had better grind out every last erg of energy for the company that pays, trains and promotes them!
What if it didn’t need to be this way? What if there was a different approach to work that actually enabled people to operate more efficiently and effectively? That gave them a greater sense of autonomy? That honed in on their need for purpose? That encouraged them to serve and learn, drawing in experiences that helped them operate as their most authentic selves?
What would a work environment like this look like? And could it actually function?
From personal experience, from anecdotal perspectives and from industry data, there seems to be a case to be made here. Lately, I have come to believe that the concept of multithreaded work (which I define as serving multiple organizations in parallel) is both beneficial and will become much more common in the decades ahead.
My own journey is one that significantly changed late in 2013. After 20 years of a singular career trajectory with wonderful teams, products and outcomes, I experienced a personal setback that shook me enough to cause me to reassess things. After several months of deep pondering, I wondered if I might be able to serve the world in 2014 with more impact, while also flourishing more in all regards, by multithreading my work.
For me, multithreading became a quest to help other people and companies grow. As a framework, I began to consult, advise, mentor and invest. I had no idea what the year would hold but I quickly found myself blessed with incredible clients and the opportunity to help a small portfolio of organizations.
I no longer managed people. So my questions, stories and recommendations came from a new place of depth and truth – and I constantly sought to let go of old voices (ego, fear, anxiety, etc.). My quest was to open my heart and to be fully present for those whom I might be able to help.
While multithreading, I’ve worked incredibly hard this year. I no longer take time off in the traditional sense as every day there is someone to serve. Work and life have become more deeply integrated as I don’t go to a separate office each day. In many ways, I work always and everywhere. I take the people and companies I serve very seriously and constantly appreciate the opportunity they've empowered me with.
And you know what? I’ve loved this model. Have I continued to make many mistakes? Absolutely. Do I still sometimes wake up at night with inner doubts around my approach and actions? More often than I’d like.
But am I fundamentally learning and experiencing profound moments of connectedness with my clients and their teams? Completely! And am I arguably a better father, son, husband and friend in 2014 versus 2013 and earlier? I believe that I am. And most days my wonderful wife agrees.
I don't think I'm alone in my multithreaded journey. It's easy to spot multithreading in public powerhouses like Warren Buffet, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. But there's a lot more happening than what we read about in the mainstream press. And anecdotally, others tell me that they feel more enriched and productive as they multithread their work.
But please don’t think that multithreading is only a senior executive’s game. Here’s why:
While pouring themselves in to work (as measured by intensity and time), all seven of my anecdotal examples report a profound sense of happiness with their lives. And in operating with zest, vigor and cross-service mindsets, they're all experiencing significant success and significance as they uniquely measure both.
We'd love to hear your perspectives, feedback and/or challenges, either via a comment below or by contacting us directly. Thank you!
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Steve Semelsberger is the Founder of Alder Growth Partners.