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The Purpose Conflict: Confessions of a Purpose-Driven Agency Founder

Image Credit: Corporate Essentials

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Imperative’s Purpose Leadership training. While there, I took the time to reflect – not only on my own journey as the leader of a purpose-driven agency, but on a common challenge that our clients often face when it comes to "purpose," which is:

“What’s the relationship between my company’s purpose and the sense of purpose that individual employees feel in their daily work?”

At thinkPARALLAX, our purpose is to create a better world through strategy and storytelling. A lofty statement, but I truly believe that’s what we’re doing, sometimes more effectively and powerfully than other times. But we’re making a difference, and I feel really good about that. We do a lot of pro-bono work, we have awesome volunteering and travel programs in place, and resumes from people all over the world – dying to work for a company like ours – stream in. So who wouldn’t feel great working for a firm like ours?

While this line of thinking may seem logical on its surface, it actually demonstrates a critical mistake that we often see in dealing with purpose-driven clients.

The reality is, simply working for a purpose-driven company doesn’t necessarily mean that employees will feel a sense of purpose. In other words, working for a purpose-driven company such as TOMS Shoes, Warby Parker or Patagonia is no guarantee that you, as an individual employee, will feel a greater sense of purpose in your day-to-day work.

That’s because individual purpose – the sense of fulfillment that we all seek in our jobs – is different from organizational purpose. Where the purpose of an organization is simply the reason for its being, one’s individual purpose goes beyond satisfaction or even engagement. It is about finding fulfillment in what you do and how and why you do it. While you can support the purpose of your organization full-heartedly, you may not find fulfillment in what seems like such an awesome company. So even for organizations such as Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy or Method, whose purposes goes well beyond making money, the expectation that this higher purpose alone will magically enhance engagement levels is shortsighted.

Leaders of any organization, and especially those that lead purpose-driven companies, need to go beyond identifying their organizational “why.” They need to give their teams the space and tools to help every individual realize or discover their purpose, and their intrinsic motivators that need to be scratched in order to feel fulfilled and happy. For some employees, their internal motivators – what makes them ‘show up’ at work – may have little to do with your organization’s purpose. While as an employee you can ask your employer to give you that discovery space, only if you have the self-awareness and desire to bring your whole selves to work can you feel fulfilled in your job.

Rather than doing yet another engagement survey, purpose-driven employers should consider measuring employee fulfillment. Much more than an engaged workforce, a purpose-oriented workforce feels inspired and fulfilled, which increases productivity and quality.

And last but not least, while it is my job to help companies surface their purpose and to align and communicate about that, the most effective, purpose-driven organizations recognize the difference between their company purpose and the individual sense of purpose that work can give employees. So have a look at your company, the alignment (or lack thereof) of all your stakeholders with your organizational purpose and how you can improve this – But most of all, engage with your employees on this topic specifically, and help them figure out how to be purpose-oriented. You owe that to them, and to yourself – since leading a company that is completely in flow is so much easier and will generate greater results.


Guusje Bendeler is co-founder and Chief Strategy & Creative of thinkPARALLAX, a creative marketing and communications consultancy committed to building brands with purpose. Her work with clients such as Southwest Airlines, Qualcomm, International Paper, and Beam Suntory — has included… [Read more about Guusje Bendeler]


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