Q&A: Why Purpose Matters, with author Dan Pontefract

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The Purpose Effect author shares how purpose can help your company hire the right people, strengthen its team, serve customers and benefit society – while generating profit.

Dan Pontefract, author of “The Purpose Effect”

Dan Pontefract is an expert in employee engagement, behavior, and culture, the chief envisioner at the TELUS Transformation Office, a sought-after speaker, and the author of The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization. We got on the phone to discuss why purpose matters, how organizations can find their purpose “sweet spot”, and what managers can do to hire and lead with purpose.

“It’s as simple as this: purpose equals higher calling.”

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What is purpose, in a business context?

It’s as simple as this: purpose equals higher calling. It comes from the organization itself, it comes from individuals – both leaders and team members in the organization, people like you and me – and it comes from the roles through which we serve the organization. If all those entities agree that their purpose is to serve society and bring benefit all of the organization’s stakeholders, including customers and team members, then we have what I call the purpose “sweet spot”.

Why is the purpose “sweet spot” so hard to reach?

There’s a correlation between what the organization actually believes its purpose is, and whether the organization’s people have defined their own personal purpose, or whether they are just going through the motions and thus disenfranchised, disengaged and disconnected. And so you have this cauldron of mixed or missed expectations.

Many leaders believe that the purpose of an organization is profit or shareholder return. But that’s the wrong motive, because only a small number of the organization’s stakeholders benefit. Individual team members are apt to think, “I don’t get that, I’m not part of that,” and the workforce becomes disengaged. But they, too, are culpable; they have a responsibility to define who they are as individuals and what their purpose is in life. Far too many individuals run on the assumption that “I just have this job and it’s always going to be this way.”

So it’s a bit like a middle school dance: you’ve got the boys on one side of the gymnasium, and the girls on the other side, and they can’t really figure out how to meet in the middle and dance together. It’s awkward. However, if the organization were to say, “look, we’re in this to serve all our stakeholders – including customers, team members, and wider society. And yes, to do that we need to make a profit,” then you have an opening for the boys and girls to come together in the middle of the gym and start dancing.

Can you share an example or two of companies that have achieved that sweet spot?

One that’s not in the book, but is a powerful example, is Salesforce. When founder, CEO and chairman Mark Benioff launched the company back in 1999, he insisted they weren’t just in business to make money, but that “the business of business is improving the state of the world.” Since then, the company’s 1–1–1 Model of philanthropy dedicates one percent of equity, one percent of product and one percent of Salesforce employees’ time back to communities around the world. That’s a higher calling. And the company still needs profit to do that, right? It’s a balance of purpose and profit.

A smaller example is a company called LSTN Sound Co. Its founder Bridget Hilton was working in the music industry when she found a YouTube video of a deaf little girl experiencing hearing for the first time thanks to special headphones. Watching the girl’s reaction moved her, and she thought, “how can I help make that happen for more people?” So she rounded up her buddy Joe Huff and together they launched the for-purpose company that produces premium audio products and uses the proceeds to help people hear for the first time. Here were two people trying to figure out their own personal purpose. They started a company whose organizational purpose serves all its stakeholders: helping members of society who can’t hear, providing quality products to customers, and aligning and engaging team members with a higher calling.

“A purpose that addresses how your organization serves all stakeholders will attract people who have defined their lives in a way that matches that purpose.”

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What role does purpose need to play in the hiring process?

Hires should align with your purpose – even if your purpose isn’t about a higher calling. If you’re a company whose purpose is to make money, then I suppose you’re going to want to set up a way to hire people who are like-minded.

If your organization is aiming to be driven by a higher calling, you need to ask, “Who are we? What are we about? How are we going to operate each and every day?” A purpose that addresses how your organization serves all stakeholders will attract people who have defined their lives in a way that matches that purpose.

And those are the people you want to hire. To put it into context: do you think Salesforce wants to hire individuals who don’t believe in the 1–1–1 Model? Do you think LSTN Sound Co. wants to hire people that don’t give a hoot about helping someone hear for the first time?

What if the organizations hasn’t identified or articulated that higher calling? Can managers still incorporate purpose in how they lead, and how they hire?

Just substitute the word “organization” with the word “team”. It can take time for an organization to shift its purpose, but a manager can still impact how their team is run – how they’re going to operate, how they’re going to serve their stakeholders. You can start in a team, easily.

Is there a process for defining purpose?

Purpose is tied to how you operate, so in the book I define what I call “Good DEEDS”:

  • Delighting your customers,
  • Engaging your team members,
  • Ethical within society,
  • Delivering fair practices, and
  • Serving all stakeholders.

By demonstrating each of the DEEDS, tracking them using what I call a “purpose scorecard,” your organization defines itself as purpose-driven. This isn’t just traditional corporate social responsibility – this is looking at customers, team members, shareholders and community.

“Ask yourself if you have a declaration of purpose. If not, write one.”

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What’s the first thing leaders and managers should do to help their organization find its purpose “sweet spot”?

One of the first things I would encourage an individual to do is ask yourself if you have a declaration of purpose. If not, write one. What is it that you are? Write it out in one or two lines, maybe a few bullet points. A defining statement of purpose acts as a North Star.

Mine, incidentally, is: “We’re not here to see through each other, we’re here to see each other through.” It’s been this reminder that I ought to be reciprocal, I ought to pay it forward. I ought to take that call, answer that email, give a buck to the guy in Times Square with the “give me a dollar or I’ll vote Trump” sign – that actually happened last week [laughs]. My purpose statement has grounded and guided me. So if anything, I encourage you to figure out “Who am I? What am I about? How am I going to show up each and every day?”

Learn more about the The Purpose Effect at danpontefract.com and order your copy of the book on Amazon.

Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content

About the author

Christian De Pape is Head of Marketing and Content at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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