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What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up? How to Reclaim Purpose in the Workforce

Dr. John Izzo | Image credit: Randy Tunnell/SB

Think back to when you were a child daydreaming about what you wanted to be as an adult. Did you imagine dancing across stages as a ballerina? Flying into space as an astronaut? When I was little, I daydreamed about becoming a best-selling author, just like my idols Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl.  Generally, children don’t daydream about their actual future careers - as accountants, operations managers, marketing executives or business leaders. I personally never daydreamed about becoming a communications consultant!

What makes these youthful daydreams about “when I grow up” different? They are purely purpose-focused. We imagine realizing our dreams – as performers or trailblazers – and in those imaginings, feel fulfilled.

As professionals, how can we recapture this childlike optimism to infuse a higher order purpose into our everyday work? This is the question Dr. John Izzo and Jeff VanderWielen from Izzo Associates posed Monday afternoon at SB’16 San Diego. Their workshop, focused on embedding purpose into the workforce, provided the audience with practical guidance for how they can encourage people, teams, and organizations to (re)claim their purpose.



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Kicking off the discussion, Izzo reminded us of a quote from Jeffrey Immelt about GE’s ecomagination campaign: “When society makes up its mind about something, you better be ahead of it, not behind it.” How does this relate to brand purpose? Embedding purpose into the workforce is most effective when we democratize the message – when a sense of purpose is owned by every employee, not when it’s a top-down imperative.

Before beginning to integrate purpose into an organizational culture, brands must define purpose for themselves. Izzo defines purpose as “an aspirational reason for being that is about making life better now, and in the future, for all stakeholders – especially people and the planet.”

In his view, the employee engagement business case for purpose can be distilled into three key points, which explain why business leaders should care about embedding purpose into an organizational culture:

  • Purpose helps to recruit and keep the best talent. Data shows that the majority of the workforce – Millennials, Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers – wants to work for an organization with a positive impact on the world. In fact, purpose drives talent to key companies that are authentically committed to sustainability and social impact, such as 3M, Seventh Generation and GE. Employers should take note: Purpose is a key lever of recruiting talent.
  • Purpose drives higher employee engagement and commitment. Research indicates that the most desired talent – those who willingly work longer hours, volunteer for projects and lead teams – are those who are the most likely to say that purpose is important.
  • Purpose enhances corporate reputation – and staff are the best ambassadors. Companies that are seen as ethical and expressing their values benefit from better corporate reputation. Beyond marketing or traditional communications, employees-turned-advocates are the most trusted voices from any brand. Additionally, employees are engaged when they have a clear authentic purpose that is regularly communicated down to individual job levels.

Knowing these “whys” for purpose in the workforce, how can brands guide employees to develop personal connections to purpose in and through their work? They can:

  • Empower all employees to connect their personal values back to brand values, to “live their purpose” on the job
  • Draft a purpose statement, like a mission statement, to inspire and motivate all employees
  • Start internal conversations about seeing jobs as functions vs. callings, and encourage employees to define how they live their vocation at work
  • Sell purpose based on values, not business imperatives
  • Balance messages – equally communicating “margin” and “mission” messages

In sum, Izzo reminds us that discipline is destiny: If we want purpose to become pervasive in an organization, we have to think about which habits, if implemented, would systemically change the culture. In this way, we can recapture the childlike imaginings that inspired us to pursue our dream jobs – and bring that sense of purpose into our workplaces today.


Lauren Hare, an Account Supervisor in Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose practice, has spent her career raising funds and awareness for social impact. At Edelman, she works with brands who are committed to ensuring that people and the… [Read more about Lauren Hare]


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