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Organizational Change
How to Coach Employees on Purpose

This is the fifth in a series of articles examining how business leaders and companies can transform their corporate culture in order to succeed in the midst of the impending Purpose Revolution. Find links to the full series below.

This is the fifth in a series of articles examining how business leaders and companies can transform their corporate culture in order to succeed in the midst of the impending Purpose Revolution. Find links to the full series below.

Great business leaders today know how to coach their employees around purpose. They encourage finding individual purpose for each person, as well as a shared sense of purpose for the organization. When intention and engagement on purpose take hold, great leaders truly connect with their teams and motivate them in an authentic way. Employees want this coaching because today’s workers are hungry for purpose. Employees want meaningful jobs where they can make a difference, not just get a paycheck.

In our new book, The Purpose Revolution: How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good, we explain why leaders frequently miss the mark on coaching purpose, and tips for how you can engage teams that are more excited, engaged and empowered to live their purpose.

Every employee has a purpose

Every employee has a purpose. It is the reason they get up in the morning and come to work, and it is more than simply about compensation and status. We all desire to create meaning in our lives and the effort we contribute towards a positive outcome is called our purpose.

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Purpose is also the belief that the work we do serves to make a difference in the world. We feel a sense of pride about our work that is not simply about salary or status, but a sense that our work has meaning and connects us to something bigger than ourselves. Regardless of our actual day-to-day tasks, when we evaluate our jobs through the lens of purpose, we see how important our roles are to the world. For instance: Hospital cleaners sanitize important areas so the surroundings are clean for patients to regain health. Mechanics fix and maintain vehicles so that accidents are prevented and people can move about more safely in their lives.

Purpose is the fire in the belly of the engine, so why aren’t leaders coaching it?

Employees want their organizations to have a purpose focus: Research shows that 60 percent of employees want their work to have purpose and 86 percent of employees “believe it’s important that their employer is responsible to society and the environment, with over half (55 percent) feeling it is very important,” so we know that leaders should be paying attention when it comes to purpose.

But leaders are falling short of expectations. Almost 70 percent of employees say the company they work for is mostly interested in profits and serving its own needs rather than the needs of the community, including customers and employees. That’s unfortunate, because we know that employees who are working with purpose perform better on almost every metric we care about as leaders — including productivity, engagement and service — even calling in sick less often because they see their job as a calling, not just a career. Talk about missed opportunities!

Many leaders have a hard time coaching purpose for a variety of reasons. It’s all too common that many do not have training or experience on how to lead purpose. Others lack the internal resources, including making time for dedicated coaching or staff meetings, or are simply overwhelmed in their roles and don’t have the right mindset to activate purpose in themselves and others.

Drive job purpose not job function

One of the key ways to connect employees with their purpose is to dialogue about job purpose over job function. A great example happens at Disney parks, where employees are challenged to understand that no matter their job function, the primary job purpose for everyone is spreading happiness! The job function may be collecting tickets, cleaning bathrooms, serving food, but the deeper purpose of every person’s job is to make park guests happier. It’s not hard to imagine how this mindset helps bring more purpose to jobs that might otherwise seem less meaningful. When you can help people connect with their job purpose — so that they see it as separate from their job function — they discover how their position can be a calling and not merely a job. Their engagement and performance will increase, and they will be more content at work and in their personal lives. Explaining purpose to others and driving purpose in an organization take practice, but once mastered these skills can make a big difference to the success of a team or company.

To coach purpose effectively, leaders must both communicate job purpose as well as coach team members to identify their own purpose. The way to drive purpose and connect employees with their job purpose over their job function is to directly explain the greater value behind their tasks. A very successful Molly Maid franchisee often tells her team that in their jobs they aren’t just cleaning homes but are giving clients the “gift of time.” They also “alleviate loneliness” because they clean for many elderly people who live alone. As leaders, we need to get in touch with the purpose behind jobs. For example, a customer service representative at a large hardware retailer has the function of answering questions and stocking shelves, but his/her real purpose might be to help customers find cost-effective solutions to their problems and to empower them to learn new skills. It may be necessary to reiterate the job purpose for each employee during group meetings, but once they internalize it, they are likely to view their jobs in a different, more positive way.

As important as it is for leaders to communicate job purpose, the most effective way to coach is to share your personal purpose statement and then have team members identify their own job purpose. We led this discussion with a large law firm; when it came time for the receptionist to identify her purpose, the senior partner of the firm said, “Lisa, your purpose is to make that first big impression for our clients!” While Lisa said she agreed, she added, “My job purpose is bigger than that. I am a very positive person and many people in the world aren’t that way. So, my purpose is that every person who deals with me all day long will get a shot of positivity and optimism and feel better about the world and themselves after being with me for thirty seconds or three minutes.” Naming that purpose ignited her engagement at work and her leader could now recognize and reinforce her true purpose.

Begin the coaching conversation before it’s too late

Leaders kick themselves when they lose a good employee because of a failure to recognize someone’s true purpose. The unrecognized employee will often leave for greener pastures — for a different position where they can apply their skills and talents to make a greater impact. The University of Montana Law School once had an employee whose purpose was unrecognized until the day he retired. Max was the lead custodian who polished and maintained the facility for decades, but it wasn’t until Max retired that the Dean of Law understood Max’s true purpose. Prior to the day of the retirement party, the Dean only knew Max to be a hardworking, conscientious maintenance worker; he had failed to see the great impact that Max had on the student body (hear more of Max’s story here).

As many can attest, law school is demanding and students have difficulty coping with the rigor it takes to get through the program. Fortunately for the University of Montana law students, they had Max the custodian as their friend and encourager. Many former students came to his retirement party and spoke about how he helped them when no one else was there — one student was ready to quit school when his grades and his marriage were failing, and Max talked him through one day at a time until he graduated; for another student reeling from the death of her father, Max sat with her as often as she needed because he, too, had lost a father and understood her pain.

Had the Dean of Law gotten to know Max, he too would have been touched by Max’s warmth and generosity of spirit. For Max, his real purpose was the students. He kept the building so meticulous for them and personally saw them through their struggles because he cared about them so much.

After Max’s retirement, the Dean began to connect to the purpose of team members and it transformed his work, as well. Here’s how you can start to coach on purpose:

  1. Ask people why they come to work besides money — What gets them up in the morning and what makes for a day when they feel they made a difference?
  2. Focus our communication on the purpose of jobs, not just the function — How does each role matter to customers, colleagues and the organization?
  3. Recognize people for living their purpose. Once we know their purpose, focus our appreciation on seeing them “live their purpose.”

Once you start the dialogue, you begin to recognize each individual’s purpose, see the value of each person’s role in the organization and truly appreciate them for doing their work and living their purpose. Let’s not wait until our good employees are gone before we talk to them about their purpose.

Creating Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good, the series:

  1. Purpose Differentiates in an Age of Disruption
  2. Winning Over the Purpose-Focused Employee
  3. Why Most Companies Are Failing at Purpose (And How You Can Succeed!)
  4. Employees Are Your Best Purpose Ambassadors