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Does talking about purpose at work make you cringe? Here's how to figure yours out.

Updated: Jul 12, 2019


[If you are a keen listener like me you can now listen to me reading this blog here or below]


This was at an annual offsite many years ago. One of those days when you get forced out of the office humdrum and put in a venue on the opposite side of town. And once the official part is done you get to build a wigwam or a marshmallow tower with your casually dressed colleagues.


Keynote from head of department - tick.

Financial update - tick.

Run through KPIs - tick.


Last on the agenda was a guest speaker with her talk about purpose.


She spoke about a company with an ambition to build cars that clean the air as they go. Then she talked about a company that builds child-friendly medical equipment, like an MRI scanner that takes you on an adventure.


Do you know why you do what you do? Very few can answer this question, but those who take the time to figure out what type of work is meaningful to them have a higher chance of creating a fulfilling career.

I was inspired by those stories of companies striving for greatness. Judging by the nods and smiles in the room, I wasn’t alone.


But then she asked us to describe in 6 words why we do what we do.


The positive energy in the room disappeared as if someone popped a balloon. There was a long pause before we reached for the branded pens and notepads on the tables.


Some tried to write what they thought would be "the correct answer". Their bosses were in the room, it wasn’t time to show scepticism. Some were honest: "the bills need to get paid".


A few people at my table left. They said they had calls to make.


I had a stab at answering honestly, covering my paper. But it felt awkward because I never dared to ask myself that question before.


How would you answer that question for yourself?


Do you have it ready to roll off your tongue? Or does it make you cringe too much to even attempt to formulate an answer?


If it makes you cringe, I get it. But the truth is that you can't avoid the question about purpose if you want to create a fulfilling career.


In the spirit of facing my discomfort, here is how I reframed the concept of purpose for myself. I use this logic when I work with my coaching clients too:


1. Define purpose in a non-corny way.


Talking about purpose can feel daunting or grandiose, especially when phrased along the lines of “why do you exist?”.


But purpose isn’t a spiritual vocation or a mystical internal drive. It’s clarity about who you are. It's a direction you set for yourself to make your work meaningful.

Also, something to keep you in check when you’re tempted to follow an opportunity that looks new and shiny, but is likely to be a drudge once the initial novelty wears off.


2. Attend to your personal purpose first.


Context of how and where you do this matters. I find it’s best to think about purpose outside of work, the more detached you can get the better.


We hit a wall at that meeting when asked “why we do what we do” because we were primed with corporate purpose statements first.


Leadership books keep rotating the same examples of companies with purpose, like Google, Patagonia, Southwest Airlines. But most people I work with are not inspired by the purpose of their employer. Many are not even finding it believable.


The positive news is that more and more companies start shifting the way they manage, moving away from maximising near term shareholder value but instead prioritising the health of their organisations, as well as the long term societal impact (in other words, purpose).


But that shift won't happen overnight.


Yet talking about purpose at a company offsite makes us assume that our personal purpose should be aligned.


But that's not true. Purpose is not a financial goal that cascades down from your boss’ target. It's more of an identity and therefore likely to be completely different and very personal to you. It's likely to span across more than one employment and also evolve as your priorities change.


That doesn't mean that you should disregard your employer's purpose altogether. Consider if it inspires you and makes you proud to work there. It's just a matter of attending to your own purpose first.


3. Figure it out from events in the past.


They key here is to search for meaning. But I’d avoid coming up with possible future scenarios in which we imagine what might be meaningful to us. Also, I'd separate what is impressive from what makes a job personally satisfying to you.


Turn to your past instead. It’s likely to be full of insight about where you found meaning.


What are your proudest moments? Don’t forget to comb through the seemingly minor things that you got no recognition for, but that made you come alive.


You are likely to find that work gives you meaning in areas that are not aligned with your company’s purpose at all.


And that may be fine. One of my recent clients coined her purpose as: “to serve and inspire other women as a leader and mentor”. While it might not be what your financial services employer does day to day, you might be getting plenty of opportunities to exercise that purpose.


But if your job makes your purpose collect dust, or if that purpose is at conflict with how your organisation operates, you might want to have a deeper think about your options.


4. Identify with your purpose to make it happen.


There is a relationship between identity and behavioural change.


Here’s how it works: a person who wants to develop a certain behaviour, e.g. go running regularly, has a much higher chance of succeeding once they develop a new identity and start thinking of themselves as a runner.


Your fundamental beliefs about who you are drive your actions. If you think of yourself as a runner you're less likely to skip training over a Netflix binge. It’s just not what a dedicated runner would do.


Following this logic, clarifying your purpose (identity) will impact how you behave and the decisions you make.


If you think of yourself as an innovator with courage to go against the status quo, you’ll be evaluating opportunities from the perspective of that identity. You'll also be more alert to projects or jobs that might force you to stagnate.


5. Share it so others can help you advance it.


Very few people can clearly articulate what their aspirations and values are.

We often go through our professional lives on autopilot, changing jobs out of dissatisfaction, inability to progress, or boredom.


Being clear on your purpose not only helps you test opportunities that come your way (see point #4 above) but it also allows others to bring those opportunities to you in the first place.


If you’re a leader, sharing your personal purpose with your team and getting them to do the same can be a very energising experience, and a great way to build trust. Your people are likely tired of hiding their true selves and pretending to conform.


A former boss came to my desk once with details of a project in a different department. The work had only vague links to what we did day to day but he knew me and my aspirations well. He asked: “Do you want it? It has your name all over it”.


It was one of the most enjoyable pieces of work that I’ve ever done in my corporate past before I changed careers. [The project was all about having conversations, which thankfully now is a significant part of what I do for a living.]


In summary


I invite you to have a think about your purpose, or a work identity, even if it feels a bit awkward at first. A good start is to think through your proudest moments.


Is it in alignment with your current job?


What small actions might you take to exercise your purpose at work more?


How might you help your team bring more meaning to what they do day to day?


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Working through the building blocks of your purpose is part of my Career Reboot 1-on-1 coaching programme. Please get in touch if you'd like to know more.