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Q&A With Dan Pontefract, Author of The Purpose Effect

Q&A With Dan Pontefract, Author of <I>The Purpose Effect</I>

Your people are your most valuable asset, and if you want them to excel―and your profits to soar―you need to abandon your traditional management style and adopt a collaborative, open leadership approach—one that engages and empowers your staff. Dan Pontefract shares leadership tools that push the boundaries of organizational change to create workplace cultures that shine. He has just released his new book, The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning In Yourself, Your Role And Your Organization, and talks about it below:

How do you define purpose especially when applied to our personal and work lives?

I have discovered that purpose is defined by three distinct categories: personal, role and organizational. The majority of us have to work in order to live. We have bills to pay. We have to save for holidays. We either work independently (as a self-proprietor, contractor or part-time employee) or we work for an organization. Wherever we work, each and every day we must bring our personal selves to a place of work. But we don’t wake up at work. We wake up in our homes. And it’s in these homes where we identify our personal purpose. What am I about? Where am I heading in life? How am I going to show up each and every day? Therefore, we define our personal purpose first. But, we must work … and if our personal purpose is not aligned with the organization’s purpose, often people will fall into a job or career mindset. This results in such outcomes as disengaged employees or career laddering bullying. However, when personal purpose becomes aligned with an organization’s higher purpose, more often than not people will shift to a purpose mindset in their roles. When all three categories of purpose are aligned (personal, role and organizational) the “sweet spot” emerges, and all stakeholders (employees, organizations, customers, society) will benefit.

How do you define purpose for an organization?

An organization’s (be it a for-profit or a nonprofit) purpose is tied to how its principles, ethics and culture inform its ways of operating. If an organization demonstrates what I refer to as the “Good DEEDS” framework, it will be known as a purpose-driven organization by its employees, stakeholders and customers. It’s defined as follows:

  • Delight your customers.
  • Engage your team members.
  • Ethical within society.
  • Deliver fair practices.
  • Serve all stakeholders.

If the purpose of the organization and its team members is aligned—and the organization is operating in an open, collaborative and harmonious culture—it delivers societal, employee and organizational benefits. This is the advantage of establishing the “sweet spot” of The Purpose Effect. If you are a school, hopefully your purpose is to educate the students and not to increase profit margins. If you are a car manufacturer, hopefully your purpose is to provide safe, reliable and environmentally friendly vehicles and not ones that cheat emission tests or catch on fire upon impact.

Could you describe what you mean by “The Purpose Effect,” the title of your new book?

The Purpose Effect is a three-way relationship between an individual’s personal sense of purpose in life, the organization’s purpose and a person’s purpose in their role at work.

When all three aspects of purpose are properly defined, are well aligned, and function in partnership with one another, then the employee, the organization and society mutually benefit. When they are not in alignment, it can lead to significant damage in society and in the organization. The Purpose Effect is the pattern I have exposed.

Ultimately, The Purpose Effect results in a higher calling, where individuals and organizations seek to improve society to benefit all stakeholders. When all three categories of purpose are aligned, I describe The Purpose Effect as having reached the “sweet spot” denoted by the following diagram:

How can employees continue to develop and strengthen their sense of personal purpose?  

Personal purpose, in essence, is a lifetime journey. Many individuals make the mistake of believing once they “find themselves” there is no need to further develop or strengthen their personal purpose. This is where a lot of trouble begins for people—where disengagement or disaffection can creep in. We ought to yearn for new experiences, knowledge and acumen whether through projects, roles, rotations, mentors, further education, and so on.  People should consciously choose whether to operate with truth or dishonesty, with openness or intolerance, with grit or timidity, with love or hostility. Every decision—every day of our being—is a decision on how we choose to act with personal purpose…or not.

What should you do if you discover that your role at work is not fulfilling your personal purpose? (In other words, what steps can you take to address this?)

If your role is in direct conflict with your personal purpose (whether by a newly revised personal purpose or because the organization’s purpose has changed) there are really three actions to take.

First, quit the role outright and trust yourself to secure employment in an organization and in a role that brings the “sweet spot” back into alignment. I mention in the book that I employed this strategy in 2008.

Second, continue to perform in the current role while simultaneously sorting out what role and organization to shift into. This may be more feasible for those who still require the paycheck in order to pay the bills. I also personally employed this option.

Third, discuss with your manager the option to either take some holiday time and/or an extended unpaid leave to sort through your options.

In any and all cases, I also recommend that you should talk with as many people as possible within their direct network, to ensure all angles, opportunities and options are being discussed before any rash decisions are made, including whether to leave a role or to join a new role.

Could you share a few meaningful stories of people who have achieved a strong sense of personal purpose at work?

Mary Hewitt worked with me for a few years. She was not particularly motivated in her role, so I helped her try several other roles on the team. None of them worked. In the end, I recommended to her that I terminate her (with a nice severance package) so she could go figure out what her true personal purpose was. She accepted and although it took another five or so years for her truly to define her personal purpose, she found her way and became a social worker, employed by a fantastic organization that now sees her (and her organization) in the “sweet spot.”

Tim McDonald is another example. Tim started out his professional life in real estate. He was very successful. But something was not right. He eventually became the Director of Communications at the Social Media Club Chicago. That did not fill the nagging void of personal purpose either. He was still empty. Based on his work in Chicago, The Huffington Post approached him to relocate to New York City and become its first community manager for their HuffPost Live service. But a funny thing happened during his time at The Huffington Post.

While Tim was working in a role that fueled some of his passions, he still found he was not entirely fulfilled. While taking part in a Changers of Commerce meeting in Dallas where he was speaking on stage about his role at HuffPost, leaders from Be The Change (BTC) Revolutions—an organization that aims to mix communities with social good—approached him. They asked Tim if he might be interested in joining their social council for the No Kid Hungry foundation. He jumped at the chance, but after a few months of his volunteer efforts—and realizing that his true purpose and focus in life was one of giving—he was asked by BTC to join them in a full-time capacity. He accepted and has been in the “sweet spot” ever since.

You write that the relationship between individual employees and managers (or leaders) is key when it comes to having a purpose-oriented work culture. What do the best leaders do to help cultivate purpose within organizations?  Could you share a few examples?

When team members are given permission to innovate, contribute, or to own their specific actions, their commitment to the organization increases exponentially. When this occurs, the team member has a greater chance of achieving purpose in their role.

Leaders who are open (even so far as being vulnerable) also assist employees to achieve the purpose mindset in their roles.

Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin empire highlights the need for purpose and culture at work. He said, “We give our people real autonomy, and celebrate their achievements by identifying star contributors, highlighting brand ambassadors in our internal newsletters and hosting parties for individual employees.”

During a devastating fire at one of its production facilities, Johnsonville Sausage made the decision to keep its employees “whole” by paying their salaries for the entire time it took to rebuild the plant. The organization had employees spend 20 hours per week volunteering time in the community and another 20 hours per week learning new skills through professional development courses, etc. Leadership was balancing its purpose with its culture in this case, and the employees were able to recommit to their personal and role-based purpose. The beauty of this example is that it took over six months for the plant to be rebuilt. Imagine that!

Why is it important for companies to go beyond committing to customer satisfaction (even delighting their customers) in terms of having a purpose-oriented culture?

Customer satisfaction scores (or net promoter scores for some organizations) should be thought of as an outcome of both an engaged culture and a purpose-driven organization.  Sadly, far too many organizations treat their customer satisfaction scores as the goal. The goal is not a high customer satisfaction score. Indeed, the goal is not higher shareholder value or return for those companies publicly traded on the stock markets. The goal is to delight your customers, engage with your team members, become ethical within society, deliver fair practices and serve all stakeholders.

Why do you think employee engagement levels are so pervasively low in companies? How did you help increase employee engagement levels at TELUS?

In my first-hand experience and through my research, there are two key reasons.

First, leadership practices are stuck in an extremely hierarchical, non-collaborative, fiefdom-driven operating model. It is far easier, quicker and, at times, pathologically pleasing to order people around than it is to connect with people first, consider the options and then decide what to do. Command and control leadership habits are prevalent if not inherent in today’s organizations.

Second, the organization has lost sight of what its true purpose ought to be. As a result, employees have fallen into a job mindset in their roles (often in direct conflict with their personal purpose), but because individuals need to pay their mortgage, buy groceries and ballet lessons, they remain locked into a tractor beam of unfulfilling work, in an unfulfilling organization.

At TELUS, the entire team rallied around one unifying common goal—putting our Customers First. From there, we rewired what leadership, learning, recognition, performance management, hiring, succession planning, flexible work and collaboration actually meant. In parallel, we redefined the organization’s purpose to serve four key stakeholders: customers, business, team members and community. Since then, employee engagement has risen from 53 percent to 87 percent and shareholder return has crossed 300 percent. All customer satisfaction metrics (and other business metrics) have improved across the board. In support of the community philosophy to give where we live (part of TELUS’ redefined purpose) team members and retirees have contributed $440 million to charitable and not-for-profit organizations and volunteered more than 6.8 million hours of service to local communities. TELUS has become a formidable example of an organization that decided to improve its culture and purpose, in order to become more than a profit-seeking company.

What does the culture of an organization that has arrived at its “sweet spot” in purpose look like? Could you share a few examples to illustrate this?

You can see a “sweet spot” organization a mile away. Either it has reinstituted its organizational purpose or people are constantly talking about it (TELUS is an example) or the company has been built from scratch and it has become a story of purpose legend. Fairphone is an example to highlight.

Fairphone is the world’s first socially responsible and sustainable company to design, manufacture and sell mobile phones. As the name suggests, the company manufactures mobile phones that are ethical in that they are made from conflict-free minerals assembled by firms who also ensure fair wages for the factory workers. The forty employees who work directly at Fairphone in Amsterdam think of themselves as caretakers of the Earth. They make a mobile phone, but do so ensuring they keep the greater good of society in mind.

Bas van Abel is the Founder and CEO of Fairphone and clearly wants to change the world. In particular, Bas sees the world needing to evolve from what he calls its “pernicious and unsustainable ways.” His perspective is both reactive and inclusive: “We are part of everything. None of us at Fairphone feels as though the financial system is connected to who we are, and as a result, we all need to collaboratively think differently and act differently, too.”

Like most companies, Fairphone aims to make a profit. But less common is that the company refuses to do so at the expense of its purpose. Fairness, balance and accountability to all stakeholders—including its employees—sits at the center of the organization’s purpose.  This is what a purpose-driven, “sweet spot” organization looks like.

Conversely, could you describe what happens when an organization lacks a purpose driven culture? Any example? 

An illustrative case in point was the exit of CEO Martin Winterkorn from Volkswagen in September 2015 in the wake of a scandal relating to the rigging of emission tests on diesel engines. Volkswagen previously possessed a highly engaged and purpose-driven workforce across the planet. The actions of a few—shifting the company into a myopic profit-only mindset—has caused untold effects on employees, customers, society and the organization’s future. The U.S. government, for example, has sued VW for up to $46 billion for violating various environmental rules. It has also extended its case to include bank fraud.

Wolfsburg is a perfect example. This German town of 125,000 people employs roughly 60,000 at a Volkswagen automobile factory. The mayor of the town, Klaus Mohrs, predicts city taxes will decrease by 147 million euros in 2016 as a direct result of Volkswagen downsizing, lawsuits, penalties and other related costs. The impacts will be felt hard and wide in this one-industry town, something that will undoubtedly affect the personal and role purpose of so many of its citizens. It all could have been avoided if Volkswagen’s organizational purpose was to seek something more than profit, which resulted in rigging environmental tests and regulations.

 What are the effects (or benefits) of having a strong sense of purpose for individuals and companies?

When individuals have a strong sense of role purpose, research suggests they are more likely to become leaders in the organization, are dynamic, curious and self-advocates, experience their work as making an impact and are more likely to grow personally and professionally at work. Conversely, those who do not possess role purpose expect to leave their roles sooner, speak poorly of their employers, gain less from their work and lack deep personal or professional relationships at work. If an organization possesses more employees holding a strong sense of role purpose, it becomes far easier for the organization to accomplish new goals, adjust to market changes, anticipate disruptions, or thwart competitive threats.

Why is finding the “sweet spot” so elusive for individuals as well as companies, as you write in your book?

Think of The Purpose Effect as a three-legged barstool. If one of the legs is broken or uneven, either an employee ends up crashing to the ground or there is a perpetual wobble, prompting a feeling of uneasiness, of disequilibrium. Such a lack of balance in the workplace can result in personal disengagement, disbandment of a team, or in the direst instance, the end of the organization itself.

The Purpose Effect requires alignment between a person’s life, the organization where they are employed and their role at work. When this alignment is present, there is strength and unity between the three categories. When such strength and unity is prevalent, it results in psychological and emotional employee commitment. That is, when an employee feels part of something bigger at work and it aligns with their personal sense of purpose, they perform better. The organization also benefits.

When misalignment is the norm, both the organization and the individual fail to achieve the “sweet spot.” If more organizations were to enact the “Good DEEDS”, there would be a greater likelihood of the “sweet spot” being achieved by both parties.

What steps can employees as well as leaders take today to realize their “sweet spot” in purpose?

From an individual perspective,  people need to be constantly challenging themselves to strengthen their own personal purpose first. Without a continuously updated sense of personal purpose there is a greater likelihood for the individual to be devoid of both personal and role-based purpose. They are very likely to adopt a job mindset at work.

For an organization, the first step is to evaluate its current state of purpose. Is it enacting all five components of the “Good DEEDS”? Leaders ought to then develop what I refer to as “The Purpose Effect Scorecard,” a dashboard that is open to the public, outlining and reporting on various sub-drivers that make up its newly defined declaration of organization purpose.

Could you describe your current role? How do you help your clients transform their culture?

I am the Chief Envisioner (yes, we made up a word) of TELUS Transformation Office (TTO), a firm inside of TELUS that I founded in 2014 to assist organizations in their drive to increase employee engagement, achieve internal cultural transformation, improve collaborative behaviors, and instill a sense of organizational purpose while improving financial performance. TTO was created in response to requests from external customers who approached TELUS to learn more about its own organizational transformation.

TTO offers assessment and consulting services to help other organizations with their quest to improve organizational culture and purpose, employee engagement, leadership practices as well as collaborative future-of-work practices. TTO uses an agile, non-traditional consulting approach, working lockstep with the customer to discover and uncover what’s currently working, and what could be improved with respect to any of the aforementioned organizational drivers.

Since launching, TTO has shared expertise and guidance and developed change management strategies with clients that include TD Bank, Cigna, AT&T, PotashCorp, Government of British Columbia, H&R Block, Cameco, KPMG, LCBO, National Bank, CIBC and Loblaw, to name a few.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote The Purpose Effect to prove that there is a link between purpose and culture. The concept of purpose was something I wanted to explore deeply, and prove that an organization and its employees are better off with the dynamic duo of culture + purpose.

If the purpose of the organization and its team members is aligned—and the organization is operating in an open, collaborative and harmonious culture—it delivers the one-two punch of societal (including employees/individuals) and organizational benefits.

Through the three years of writing The Purpose Effect, I have discovered and proved my thesis that purpose is a very close partner of culture.