Why do you do what you do?
I was with an executive team recently and found myself silently channeling Simon Sinek, asking myself that question about these people: Why do they do this job? Their company provides a service aimed at helping families who earn $50K or less each year make the best of their financial situation. This is a serious, for-profit company; I didn’t need to see their compensation reports to know that everyone in the room made much more than $50K per year.
What attracted these well-dressed executives to this business? Was it pity? Boredom? Worse yet, opportunism?
Many team members were relatively new to the company so we spent some time sharing life stories around the table. A pattern soon emerged. As people told stories about their backgrounds, we heard about their own experiences of living with limited means. One had a parent leave when she was young, throwing her family into a prolonged period of economic hardship. Another had a family business go bust; he went from being the rich kid to poor kid at school overnight.
Of the twelve people on that team, at least half had personal experience living a cash-strapped life with all of the associated anxiety, stigma, and difficult choices about which bills to pay and how to do the right thing by their children. The nickel dropped for me: this is why these people are attracted to this business. This is at least part of why they work so hard. They aren’t serving a nameless, faceless “target customer” dreamed up by a marketing consultant. They’re working hard for people they understand at a deeply personal level. The purpose of this company connects directly to a set of experiences they could never forget, experiences that in many ways shaped these leaders.
Companies spend truckloads of money trying to motivate employees. It often feels like they’re trying to whip up passion in a loveless, selfish marriage. A dozen roses, some nice chocolates, and a weekend at a fancy resort can create momentary zip. But eventually you have to come home to the hard work of everyday life where flowers wilt, your teenager eats all the chocolates behind your back, and memories of the getaway have faded.
The same is true for company meetings with the hottest motivational speaker or a golf outing with colleagues at a posh corporate retreat center. The excitement from the newly forged bonds and exciting ideas fade after a few days back in the grind… unless you’re in HR and you’re trying to mop up behind the bad behavior that too often happens at those events.
So what’s the secret sauce? Do you have to staff your team with people who are exactly like or have been exactly like your customer?
The answer to tapping into passion at work is often simple though far from easy:
- Clarify why you exist as a company. I’m not asking you to describe what you do or what products you bring to market. I’m not even asking you to articulate the business value of your offering even though that is super important. Instead, I’m interested in why any of that matters. Yes, there is probably a rational part of this, something you can explain in a nice line graph. But you really know you’ve hit purpose paydirt when there is a strong positive emotional reaction in the vast majority of your key people. My client’s leadership team has a visceral response to working hard for people living on limited income. It requires no hype.
- Hint: This usually happens when people see how what you do makes a big difference for people they know or can identify with. Which leads to…
- Help your existing team members to link that purpose to their own experiences. If they had the strong emotional reaction I mentioned above, they probably have at least a subconscious awareness of how your organization’s purpose touches their own life story. But it’s very powerful to give people the opportunity to explicitly connect the dots – and to share that connection out loud with colleagues. “My family was exactly like our customers when I was growing up” beats a slick powerpoint every day when it comes to motivation.
- Attract more people who personally connect to that purpose. As you recruit new staff or attract new partners, pay attention to their life stories. Listen for points of connection or disconnection with your organization’s core purpose. Yes, people can learn to appreciate a purpose even if they don’t connect with it personally. But stocking your team with a solid percentage who carry this purpose in their bone marrow is just plain smart. Skills can be learned. Passion and purpose flow from a place that’s harder to affect.=
So if you’re looking to tap into the natural energy in your organization, start with clearly identifying how the work you do benefits real people. Give them names and faces. Then try looking into the personal stories of your people. Find the high points and low points that have marked them. Go on a hunt for how these highs and lows connect to the way your organization’s work touches real people. Yes, make the numbers work. But make work personal too. Because in the end, you’re dealing with people and people crave purpose more than just about anything else.