Purpose is a strategic imperative, for you and your business


Karl Moore

May 12, 2016

This was written with Aya Schechner, an undergraduate at McGill University

The need for purpose is not new. “To make a living is no longer enough. Work also has to make a life,” wrote management guru Peter Drucker. What is new, however, is the expectation and desire to be purposeful in life and at work by Millennials, and increasingly others. Indeed, over the last several years, a sense of purpose has become a true strategic imperative in business.

Organizations who wish to prosper will focus more time on meaning at work, have an organizational purpose and contribution which gives people a sense of satisfaction and a genuine feeling that they’re making the world a better place. Millennials are constantly seeking purpose in what they do for a living and want to know how their job is helping them get to the top. If your organization can’t tell them that, they’ll seek out another firm that will.

I discuss this in the soon forthcoming book co-written with Margaret Snell, Leading, Managing, Working More Effectively with Millennials. As Millennials continue to make up an increasing part of our workforce, helping employees find a sense of purpose will only become more important to leaders and managers.


In The Purpose Effect, Dan Pontefract explores the 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. Personal purpose is about what motivates someone in his or her life. Organizational purpose is the opportunity for a firm to define its principles, ethics, leadership, and culture. Finally, role purpose deals with why a particular role exists in an organization.

When all three aspects of purpose are properly defined and are well aligned, then the employee, the organization, and society as a whole mutually benefit. Pontefract coins this balanced state the sweet spot. Any lack of alignment between the three categories of purpose can have devastating consequences at both an individual and a collective level.

The ultimate question is how both an individual and the organization might achieve their own respective sweet spot. To materialize The Purpose Effect, it is not sufficient to merely answer the question of “why”; the three categories of purpose must be actively defined, aligned, and enacted. Purpose is not something that just materializes out of thin air. Pontefract explains that achieving the sweet spot requires a new way of thinking about the relationship between an individual and an organizational definition of purpose.

Personal purpose is the perpetual journey to develop, define and decide your what, who, and how. What am I doing to evolve myself? Who am I in life and at work? How will I operate and be perceived by others?

Karl spoke with John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, a global non-profit organization that promotes literacy and gender equality in education. Previously, John held a very senior position at Microsoft Corp, with a full-time car and driver. He left this life behind in order to deliver books on the backs of yaks to people in rural Himalayan villages. He said, “It wasn’t an easy transition. I learned a lot at Microsoft and I really enjoyed it, but there was something inside me that felt that too many kids in the world today lose the lottery of life. I wanted to do something about it.” John’s sense of personal purpose evolved over time, and he left his corer office at Microsoft to pursue the sweet spot of alignment between personal, organizational, and role purpose.

Pontefract argues that the purpose of an organization is to “provide service to benefit all intended stakeholders” by delighting their customers, engaging their team members, being ethical within society, and delivering fair practices. There are strong links between organizational purpose and culture. An engaged and purposeful workforce results in less turnover, less absenteeism, greater productivity, and greater customer satisfaction.

Five key symptoms or obstacles, at team member and organizational level, can cause purpose to remain misaligned. These obstacles prevent the sweet spot from being achieved, whether for team members or for the organization itself. Pontefract describes these harms as:

  1. Remuneration. Money and a widening compensation gap are likely contributors to misaligned purpose.
  2. Profit. A myopic pursuit of profit may fail to create The Purpose Effect
  3. Role. If a leader doesn’t create a trusting environment or team members are not recognized for their efforts, the three categories of purpose might not align
  4. Power. If a team member feels as though power is being used to thwart role progression or other forms of development, a sense of purpose in their role will diminish
  5. Performance. Managers must carefully consider whether the performance management process that is utilized in the organization helps achieve The Purpose Effect.

In The Purpose Effect, Pontefract offers guidance and tips, for both the individual and the organization to help and create and maintain the sweet spot. The sweet spot is not the final destination; it is an outcome of the alignment between personal, organizational and role purpose.

Two of Pontefract’s tips for individuals are:

  1. Write a personal declaration of purpose, incorporating your strengths, interests, and core attributes. Then, act upon your personal declaration of purpose!
  2. Don’t stop developing. For individuals to achieve personal purpose, they need to come into contact with a multitude of situations and projects in order to grow. Building upon your network of skills and relationships can assist in the development of personal purpose.

Finally, two of Pontefract’s tips for organizations are:

  1. Write an organizational declaration of purpose. Organizations that fixate solely on profit or power often don’t enable an individual’s personal or role-based purpose. Embed stakeholders into the declaration, and make it relatable to both customers and team members.
  2. Serve all stakeholders. This includes customers, team members, the community and society, and owners or shareholders.

Overall, an excellent book that we would highly recommend!

This article was written by Karl Moore from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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