Purposeful Careers – what gets you out of bed for work every morning?

My first book “Designing the Purposeful Organization”  emphasized the need for alignment and ownership of purpose at every level of an organization.  In summary, there should be line-of-sight between the purpose of any individual employee, to that of their team(s), to their function and to the organization.  Typically, the work to determine and articulate the inspiring and unifying purpose of the organization begins with the senior leadership team.  This work should also involve key stakeholder groups to ensure what the organization says about its role is meaningful and acceptable.  It should motivate all parties to be enthusiastically involved.  This is a challenging yet powerful activity and is an essential precursor to the work of co-creating a compelling vision for all levels. The latter is something that should happen every year and at any time when there is a significant shift in context, i.e. before an acquisition, during a financial crisis or an unexpected market opportunity.  Read more about the power of leader alignment in ‘The Power of Leader Alignment‘.

Personal alignment to the organizational purpose

The focus of this article is the ‘space’ where personal purpose meets the organizational purpose.  Just to be clear, ‘personal purpose’ in this context refers to the employee’s career purpose; it’s the ‘why’ that gets them out of bed each morning, keen to go to work and make a difference.  Clearly the greater the alignment between personal and organizational purpose, the greater the motivation of the individual and the greater likelihood that they will excel at what they do.  This can be visually represented in the following diagram:

In the first example, the employee (which could be someone at any level, including a senior leader) has a personal career purpose that is totally different (misaligned) from that of the organization.  In this situation the employee is likely to become distracted from the work of the organization as it is not meeting their own needs.  In the second example, which probably represents the majority of the working population, there is a partial alignment between the employee and the organization.  This does not mean they are be unproductive. Indeed, if there is healthy and positive collaboration and contracting between the two parties, it is perfectly possible that the employee can work enthusiastically to deliver the organizational purpose while at work and attend to the own ‘tangential’ purpose needs away from the workplace.  This can be seen in the work of school governors who may be employed as managers in a business and yet give further service to education for which they are unpaid but nevertheless make a significant contribution.  Note that, in this example, the two roles could be related by a single connective purpose ‘to create great places where people can learn and grow’.  The third example shows an employee who is totally aligned to the work of the organization.  All other things being equal (e.g. the culture, leadership and relationships), this person is likely to be highly motivated to deliver and go the extra mile. This is often seen in vocational careers where the traditional driver of financial compensation may be lower, yet employees are committed to serve, deliver for their stakeholders and do impactful work.

Providing space to be purposeful

One of the big challenges is that very few people get the opportunity to consider, articulate and work on their career purpose and the extent to which it aligns to that of their organization.  Of course, if the organization hasn’t made the organizational purpose clear, that creates an additional barrier.  One of the privileges of working with people on the subject of ‘purpose’ is watching them become visibly inspired when they realize the potential power of the work they do.  One example comes from a global clinical trial team who we were working together at a kick-off meeting for a multi-country, multi-million-dollar project.  The facilitators had scheduled space in the workshop timetable for the lead scientist, whose life’s work had been invested in the cancer treatment that was the focus of this trial to describe the opportunity the project presented. As they listened the team which comprised about fifty people, became increasingly energized as they were reminded that they were truly in the business of saving lives as opposed to just running an administrative process.  This ‘epiphany’ or ‘aha moment’ was noted by the client’s leadership team as being a critical point that led to exceptionally high performance throughout the course of the trial and project efficiencies of approx. $30m.

Career coaching

Truly purposeful organizations, not only invest in their big purpose, they also invest in the purposes of each career that is being played out ‘on their watch’.  Cue the career coach, a trusted professional who will spend time with people in the workplace, in groups and one-to-one, helping them make sense of their current roles and aspirations.  Great career coaches will pose questions such as:

  1. What is it that inspires you about the work of this organization?
  2. What is it that you care about in your work?
  3. What talents and strengths do you bring to the workplace?
  4. To what extent are you able to bring the best of who you are into play in support of the things you care about?
  5. How would you describe your career purpose?  (the big ‘Why?’ for the work you do)
  6. How will you be of service in the future?
  7. What developmental or other steps do you need to take to make sure you can be of greatest service?

Of course, you don’t necessarily need a coach; it’s perfectly possible to ask these questions of ourselves, our colleagues, friends and family members. What is most important is to recognize that asking these and similar questions can both confirm you are on the right path or equally to prompt life-changing decisions.  What do you need to do today to inspire your own purposeful career, or the careers of others?

  • Clive Wilson, director at Primeast  
  • If you want to talk to Clive or any one else at Primeast about the topics covered in this Insights article, or any other development challenges, please email us by clicking here.