How to Identify Your Purpose at Work
Written by Dave Bailey
We all need a sense of purpose in our lives, but when we can’t find one, it can leave us lifeless and unmotivated. Our daily pursuit of money and respect is shaped by the economy — and the prevailing social structures — but financial success and the perceptions of others don’t correlate well with our sense of purpose.
Many of the most successful CEOs I know say, at one time or another, something like, ‘Dave, I’ve made a lot of money and my business has done well, but I feel lost — what’s the point of all this?’
If this is you, try reflecting on who you’re trying to serve. It’s a powerful way to rekindle a fading sense of purpose. CEOs are often so focused on financial performance that they don’t make the time to speak directly with customers or coach their team. And this disconnect with the human impact is often the cause of ‘feeling lost’.
I’ve had hundreds of coaching conversations about purpose, and CEOs often talk about ‘making a difference’, ‘having an impact’, or even ‘changing the world’. This has led me to a universal insight that’s both enlightening and practical:
Our ultimate sense of purpose comes from helping other people.
It might sound obvious, yet it’s surprisingly easy to forget. When you lose sight of the people you serve, you lose your sense of purpose — as well as the energy and motivation that come with it.
Finding Purpose at Work
Businesses may be made by people for people, but our sense of purpose doesn’t come from helping businesses — it comes from helping other people.
Few businesses factor this in when trying to motivate teams. Internal objectives are framed in terms of helping the business achieve results and outcomes. But for many people, that’s too indirect to truly motivate them.
What about creating a clear Purpose Statement explaining how the business helps its customers? Articulating your company’s purpose can certainly be useful, particularly when recruiting talented people. We tend to personify companies, and when we evaluate them as a whole, their purpose can be appealing. However, when you work in a specialised role — as a marketing coordinator, for example, or as a sales executive — the overall purpose can seem distant or abstract.
How can leaders go beyond defining a company’s purpose and help all employees see the human impact of their daily work?
The Recipe for Purpose
If you want to build a purpose-driven company, you need to reframe your internal objectives in terms of how they help people, not how they help the business.
The majority of your objectives are likely to be focused on helping customers, or helping teammates who are helping customers. Without happy customers, there is no business, but some objectives might be focused on helping other stakeholders, such as suppliers, partners, and shareholders.
If you’ve implemented agile in your product development, you might already be using a framework that clarifies who you’re ultimately serving. User stories — a format to describe a feature or task in terms of benefits to the end-user or customer — are common in most agile frameworks.
A typical user story format might be: ‘As a [persona], I want to [goal], so that [benefit].’
User stories help developers clarify who they are helping and how they aim to do it. In other words, user stories clarify the purpose of a feature in terms of how it helps customers.
When you apply this insight across your entire business, the results can be powerful.
The Purpose-Driven Company
It’s easy to see how focusing on end-users can apply to a product team, but how can you apply it across the business?
For every piece of work, you have to clarify who you’re serving and what you aim to help them with. A general format you might adopt is:
The objective is to help [customer/team] to [achieve a customer/team goal].
This isn’t always intuitive and it often requires careful thought — though in this case, that’s a good thing. You’re aiming to connect employees with their purpose and to make sure they are working on things that actually matter.
Here are some ways to express business function objectives in terms of the people they serve, rather than as business-focused results.
- Product development: help customers achieve a valuable goal in their life
- Sales: help prospects understand the product’s value and then buy it
- Marketing: help potential customers learn about a product that might benefit them
- Customer service: help customers resolve issues and get value from the product
- Finance: help customers with payment and help the team capture value
- HR: help the team perform and grow
- Admin: help the team focus on their respective jobs
- Investor relations: help investors stay up-to-date and contribute
You may have a different take on exactly which people your functions serve and how they serve them. For example, maybe you see investor relations as helping investors ‘feel like team members’. It’s worth taking the time to clarify this at your own company.
If you find some tasks or activities that don’t serve anyone directly, then one of two things is probably true: either you haven’t clarified the ‘who’ properly, or the task lacks any purpose — in which case it can be safely eliminated.
Does Helping Your Boss Count as a Purpose?
When people can’t express what they do in terms of helping customers or their team, they often resort to, ‘I’m doing this because my boss told me to do it.’ And in some instances, this is justified, particularly if you work as a personal or executive assistant.
However, if you aren’t a PA and you’re doing something you’ve been told to do without knowing who it helps, it’s a recipe for chronic demotivation. If your team is unsure of how a particular task helps someone in real life, clarify it with them. ‘Because I said so,’ doesn’t cut it.
On the other hand, if you’re a leader, officially or not, then helping your team to do their best work and grow as professionals does count as a purpose. In fact, some people believe the purpose of leaders is to serve their team.
We All Need a Higher Purpose
You don’t need to work at a social venture, a non-profit, or a healthcare company to find real purpose in your work. You just need to understand how you help real people in meaningful ways.
The art of building a purpose-driven company is to frame day-to-day work in terms of who it actually serves and what value it brings to them. Reframing the objectives of all tasks and initiatives in human terms can be incredibly insightful.
If you’re struggling to find meaning in your work, reflect on who you’re serving. And if you have a team, help them understand who they are ultimately helping. Because if your team can’t find purpose in their work, they will eventually look for purpose elsewhere.
Originally published May 6, 2019, last updated Jun 1, 2021
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