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Apr 15, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The search for purpose and meaning is an age-old, existential quest that humans have embarked upon for, well actually, as long as humans have been on Earth.

Some search for it through their religion, others in their political affiliations, some through sports, others with volunteering, some their professions, and yet others through their community.

Books and philosophers have explored it endlessly through the centuries, including Plato, Aristotle, Sartre, Nietzsche. Those are just a few of the famous handful among thousands. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning remains in the top 200 of all books on Amazon today despite being published nearly 23 years ago.

Why the constant fixation? Simply put, it boils down to our basic needs and physiological well-being as humans.

Looking for a connection

If you take a moment to notice what’s in common with the majority of ways that people seek to fulfill their own individual purpose in life, you’ll see that it comes down to connection. That is, being in community and individuals contributing to something bigger than themselves.

As humans we want to thrive through community and be supported. We desire to contribute and be valued.

If the need for finding purpose and meaning through connection is greater than most any need we have, it’s curious and baffling to look at our workplaces of the last century. The relationship between employer and employee has been largely set up as a transactional one, designed around the idea that people come to work to just do what they’re told and collect their paycheck.

The idea has been that businesses need to minimize any “social distraction” in order to make people as productive as possible — essentially leaving their most fundamental needs at the door where they swipe their badge and enter.

But that’s all changing.

Searching for purpose and fulfillment

New era beliefs are radically different. An individual’s personal fulfillment and finding one’s purpose – their why – is something they seek in every aspect of their life, but particularly in their career. We are social beings.

Renowned psychologist Matthew Lieberman in his recent book, Social, shows that people don’t focus on connection to extract money and other resources from people. After all, being connected needs no ulterior motive.

An employee today, with easy access and ample opportunities to be mobile, is not interested in “keeping their head down.” They want to contribute and will seek career opportunities and companies that allow them to fulfill that.

Take recent research on the Millennial generation and you find that as a population, a significant driving force is purpose. For six in 10 Millennials, a “sense of purpose” is part of the reason they chose to work for their current employers. The emerging workforce is more interested in how companies impact society than they are about profit. Meaning is a driving force in their lives — and they have every intention of finding that with or without your company.

What’s becoming very clear with the companies that are moving this way is that they have created something very unique.

They’ve been able to create exponential impact by connecting their organizational purpose with the individual purpose and passions of their employees. We call that a Connected Culture.

Of course we’ll share a little more on how they do this but first we should land on some definitions for those who are wondering what we mean by “purpose.”

Similarly to an individual’s, an organization’s purpose is its why. It’s its reason for being.

Finding that “North Star”

For every organization, purpose should serve as the “North Star.” It is the beacon of light that remains fixed in place when everything else seems to be swirling in complexity. It expresses the core of why you exist, what you are organized to accomplish, and who or what you aim to serve.

Take Nintendo’s purpose that aims to “put smiles on the faces of everyone we touch.” Or, Nike’s “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” And, John Deere’s to “help farmers do a better job feeding the world.”

All these companies have purpose statements that focus on their customers — People; athletes; farmers. They want to make them smile. To inspire them. To nourish them. This is why these companies exist.

Organizational purpose is just some words on a page, though, if it’s not seen, felt, and engaged with by people throughout the organization.

For an organization’s purpose to take flight, employees must feel the purpose and personally identify with it – making the purpose more real and explicit allows employees to connect on a deeper level. For us as individuals, our purpose, particularly in respects to our careers, shows up at the intersection of doing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you’re paid for.

Creating a “line of sight”

Getting back to the how, we’ve seen these progressive organizations do this in numerous ways, however we believe, and creating a “line of sight” is one of the most powerful ones. Many organizations spend time attempting to align employees with the company’s larger strategic goals but that doesn’t go far enough for the “line of sight” we feel that must be created.

In our view, the best way to create line of sight is to take what we call a very “outro-spective” position — by literally stepping into your customer’s shoes.

Certainly this can be challenging, especially if you are in a business or a role where you don’t interface with your customer on a day-to-day basis. It’s far from impossible, though.

Procter & Gamble is one such company that has a number of purpose and customer-centric practices to connect their employees’ passions and purpose with delivering on their own. They have created “Working It” and “Living It” programs where employees work in a retail store for a day, or spend a day doing laundry and chores with P&G customers. John Deere has an Executive Connection Program, which sends their leaders out to work side-by-side with farmers in their fields.

Building clarity and connection

It doesn’t even take elaborate programs such as this to make it happen. It’s time to get this conversation out on to the table with employees on a day-to-day basis.

Gone are the days of waiting for that annual one directional employee engagement survey to facilitate this essential conversation. Engage your employees by pulsing positive questions like “What inspires you most about delivering on our purpose?” and “Please share an energizing story where you recently saw us living our purpose with a colleague or customer?” Start your next team meeting by having each individual share their purpose and how they can uniquely bring that to their team and to the customer.

By building clarity and connection to customers, employees will ultimately become more empathetic and understanding of customer needs, creating a greater desire to create impact.

Building a connected culture takes forethought and intentionality, but once you get purposeful, you will find yours and your employees’ purpose alike taking flight like never before.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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