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How companies can "major" in finding purpose

Much is written and discussed about purpose, both in organizational terms - what is a company's mission - and in terms of individuals - how can we tap into our own reasons for being? Holly Brittingham, SVP, global talent & organizational development at FCB reveals all...

There is something essential and powerful about understanding and acting out of a sense of purpose and having this be the basis for our work. Human beings in all societies spend more time in productive activity – work – than any other behavior. It is only natural to want to find meaning in this pursuit.

Given that we are living in an era marked by vast political, social and economic shifts, perhaps it is not so surprising that existential considerations about the meaning of life and work are commonplace, to the point of becoming punchlines. In one of the final episodes of Tina Fey’s razor-sharp series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Xan, the college-age daughter of socialite Jacqueline Voorhees, deadpans that she’s "majoring in finding her purpose" at Columbia University.

While it may be easy to poke fun, today’s organizations need to understand how essential the topic is to a growing segment of the workforce. Research out of the E.Y. Beacon Institute and Harvard Business School showed that 85% of purpose-driven companies showed positive growth, while 42% of non-purpose-driven organizations showed a drop in revenue.

A study from the consultancy Imperative and NYU found that purpose-oriented employees are better performers; they are 50% more likely to be in leadership positions, and 47% more likely to speak favorably about the organizations where they work. Given the enormous influence of social media and tools like Glass Door and Fishbowl, this is a big deal.

In subsequent research from Imperative and LinkedIn, the correlation of personal purpose to job satisfaction is consistent across the globe, and it serves as a motivator regardless of differences in religion, language, culture and industry/occupation. 

When organizations support employees in identifying their individual purpose, there is greater opportunity to align it with a broader organizational mission, resulting in a win-win: employees who are driven by an opportunity to make a positive impact through their work, and an organization powered by that collective energy.

Obviously, this is not a light switch to flip overnight, but with sustained attention and a spirit of inquiry and openness, organizations can foster the kinds of environments where employees feel a sense of purpose in their day-to-day work while at the same time fulfilling an organizational mission. 

What does this look like in practice? A purpose-oriented culture must be cultivated at multiple levels simultaneously: at a broad level through the actions of leadership in defining the company’s values and guiding principles, and at hyper local levels through each and every interaction that a manger has with an employee.

At FCB, we work hard at this, refining our network’s broad positioning to the marketplace, while considering how our talent strategy needs to adapt to support this. Our global leaders are purpose-driven: their work matters deeply to them and they believe in the power of what we do to make a positive difference in the world. As for the day-to-day interactions between managers and employees, we’ve recently launched a program that is in part designed to encourage conversations about purpose in a structured way that helps employees to see where their natural sense of fulfillment at work lies, and how to leverage that. It is also designed to help managers think in new ways about how to delegate and manage work to maximize purpose.

This process is never finished, but we are proud to say that a sense of purpose underscores our journey.

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