From Pain In the Ass to Purpose

Driving along the beautiful waterfront in Tacoma, Washington I noticed a guy up a ladder watering flower baskets. His truck had a Metropolitan Park District emblem on its door so I decided to pull over because Metro Parks had just posted a request for proposals to find a consultant to help them develop a strategic plan. I thought I could talk to this man to get an inside scoop that might help me get the work.

“How ya doing?” I asked.

“Well, I gotta water these damn plants every other day and it’s a pain in the ass. That’s how I’m doing.”

Don’t hold back buddy, tell me how you really feel, I thought to myself. At least he was honest and cut right to the chase. We talked for a little while, I submitted my proposal and won the business.

To begin the planning process, every single Metro Parks employee joined in group conversations about the deepest purpose of their work and what they wanted to create as a result. That was it – just talking about how they wanted to impact the community and what it would look like. We held conversations at the zoo, in the parks, and on the playing fields. After several months a statement that captured their desires emerged: “Make Tacoma the most vibrant, active and engaged city in America.” From that foundation everyone went off and got to work.

About a year later, walking out of a favorite lunch spot, The Spar in Old Town Tacoma, I noticed limbs falling from a tree that was growing out of the sidewalk. Looking up the ladder who did I see? Yup, my old buddy the pain in the ass man.

“So what are you up to?”

“Well, if you look up the hill you’ll see the rest of my team. We’re making sure the trees along 30th Street look their best because it’s part of what will make Tacoma a vibrant city.”

He was sincere. He was changed. I could see it in his eyes. He went from being one of the millions of disengaged workers in America to feeling like his work mattered. I wonder how this shift in attitude and perspective impacted his sense of fulfillment in his work. How did it impact his personal life? How did it impact his co-workers and the city of Tacoma? All I know is that I saw life in his eyes, not the disillusionment I’d seen a year earlier.

Gallup’s research on engagement tells us that organizations with higher employee engagement have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings, less turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents. That’s great. Business performance matters for many reasons. But what about the positive impact to a person’s spirit and the ripple effect that lifts more spirits? That’s priceless in my book.

Holding conversations in small groups is a powerful way to identify and connect to your organization’s inspiring purpose that can form the foundation for focused action and meaningful results. Here are some questions to explore in your company-wide conversations:

  • What inspires you about your work?
  • How does your work make life better for others?
  • What legacy do you want to leave in our company, community, and with our customers?
  • What do you see, in your mind’s eye, as a result of our company’s work?

As you hold these conversations capture what’s being said. Following the conversations have a small team review the comments, identifying key themes that emerge. Review those key themes with the entire company, sharing specific comments as examples, and have another round of conversations to reflect on what’s emerged so far. Once again, capture the comments shared during this review and use them to refine your key themes. The small team can now create a draft statement that summarizes the deeper purpose for your company.

It’s really important that this is the beginning of an ongoing conversation, not a one-time event. Once you’ve had this initial round it’s important to keep the conversation about your purpose alive. Take five minutes at the beginning of team meetings to talk about what people are doing to bring your purpose to life. Recognize each other for activity that brings your purpose to life. Some organizations I’ve worked with invite key stakeholders like customers and members of the community to participate in the conversations.

The important thing to understand is that this process enables people to connect with the company and your deeper purpose. Connecting with a deeper purpose establishes a foundation where people are moved to take focused action because they are inspired.

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