There’s a lot of talk about purpose these days and for good reason. For too long people have worked for companies whose purpose was either not clear or a facade. And by facade I mean they had a grand mission in words but everyone knew by their actions that all they really wanted was to profit, period. Products and services were only a vehicle, a means to the end of bettering self, not a way to improve the lives of others.
Now we’re in the 21st century and thanks to Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why, Lisa Earle Mcleod’s Selling With Noble Purpose, and Jim Stengel’s Grow, businesses in all corners are abuzz about their purpose. They’re asking themselves, “Why do we exist? What do we do that matters? How do we benefit others?” Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good thing, I am all for people believing in and feeling strongly about the work they do. We all want what we do to make what Steve Jobs called “a dent in the universe.” But the employee out there on the factory floor or in the shop or sitting in their cubicle rolls their eyes thinking “we’re not curing cancer, we make widgets that end up in swag bags at conferences, what’s the purpose in that, how is that noble?”
But we need to be clear about purpose, purpose doesn’t mean it has to change the lives of everyone on the planet, it doesn’t have to be some lofty, idealistic, heroic thing, it’s really just about doing things that matter … to someone. It’s about doing things that help others. And helping can mean a lot of things. Maybe you help people do something they can’t do themselves. Maybe you help people do things they don’t know how to do. Maybe you help them do something they don’t want to do. Maybe you simply provide something that makes people smile or thrills them or entertains them. No matter what your business does, if it helps someone somewhere, if it makes someone’s life just a little better and they value it, even if it’s momentary, you are doing something that matters. No, it’s not curing the ills of the world but it matters to someone and if you didn’t do it, who would?
When I first started my work life, I was 15 and worked in a Tupperware distribution warehouse for my uncle. You remember Tupperware, those plastic bowls and things for storing food et al, it was a pretty big thing back before you could get plastic bowls and things in the supermarket for next to nothing. The way Tupperware worked, the sales was done through parties that were held in homes where products were shown off and sold. The sales people were for the most part, remember, this was the 70s, housewives making extra income. Orders would come in to distributors who would fill them and either ship them out or deliver them to the ladies personally when they had their weekly “sales celebrations” at the distributor’s meeting room.
Anyway, when I think back, at the time I could only see the drudgery of filling those boxes with product and loading trucks. I really had no sense of purpose. However, now that I look back with more experience (and more gray hair), I can see how Tupperware was changing and making lives better. I remember hearing stories of how some of the ladies were making more money to help their families make ends meet. Others made enough to buy a second car, or take their family on a much needed vacation, or save for sending kids to college. All of these things were making lives better … with Tupperware. In addition, Tupperware was helping the environment as they were one of the first companies promoting recycling. In the warehouse, we would regularly take old Tupperware products, grind them into bits and send those bits off to be recycled into more Tupperware. Lots of meaningful purpose behind working there but I was totally unaware of it at the time, which is unfortunate, because that awareness could have impacted how I thought about the work and made it better and more meaningful.
So, given all of that, and thinking of the impact purpose can make, the bigger question is, how are you sharing purpose, how your company benefits others, with your team members? Do your employees know that what they do touches someone out there and it matters to them? Have they ever heard a story that communicates how meaningful the widget in that swag bag was and how it came at a moment in time where it caused a change? I know it may sound crazy but somewhere out there is a customer whose life has been moved by what you do and your employees need to know about it. It makes a big difference to come to work knowing that what you do matters to someone rather than just coming in to make sure your tasks are completed so you can get your paycheck.
If you’re a leader in your business, whether a senior executive or a line manager or a group leader, you owe it to your employees to help them understand how they matter. There is no greater gift you can give someone than a sense of their value and why what they do makes a difference.
Go find that story. Go find a customer that’s been touched by your company’s work, and when you do, come back and tell that story to everyone in your workplace. Make work matter. Make your employees matter. That’s the power of purpose.
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