Why are we here?
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited NASA for the first time. During his tour of the facility, he met a janitor who was carrying a broom down the hallway. The President then casually asked the janitor what he did for NASA, and the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
This NASA story embodies to me like no other the meaning and the power of Purpose. This janitor, with his broom in hand, knew something that many employees in today's organisation do not know: The purpose of their work, to what bigger idea they are contributing to. The janitor saw to it, that the building was clean so that the NASA engineers, scientists and astronauts could focus on their objective to "put a man on the moon." He was proud of his contribution to the organization and the common purpose.
How would your janitor answer the question?
Having been to Kenya in February, July and October 2022 was very helpful to think about what it is that I actually pursue. What is the purpose of what I am intending to create. When talking to people, I sometimes was faced with people who had large variety of immediate needs and challenges. And sure, you can help that person right then and there. And yes, that's good thing to do.
You can also work on the underlying problem and provide the tools to create a more sustainable solution. In my conversations, I often thought of the proverb "Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime." Taking that to heart means that it cannot be just about providing a product, it needs to be about...
Purpose is for an organization - as is true for an individual - its reason for being. Why are we here? It is not an easy question to answer. You can also ask the question from a different of view: If your organzation / company would cease to exist tomorrow, who would miss what? If we are a "me too" organization, what is the answer to that question? No one will notice anything. If you haven't figured out your purpose yet, you better start now. It is one of the supreme acts of leadership to instil that purpose, that what makes us different, onto your organization.
But Purpose cannot stand alone for a company to be successful, it has to be paired with Core Values, Culture and Ambition (The Governing Ideas of the Firm, from "The Fifth Discipline", by Peter M. Senge)
Purpose can be summarized as definitive statement about the difference you're trying to make. What is the difference your organization is trying to make, in the landscape in which it is operating.
If you have that core purpose you change the contractual relationship you have with your employees from "I pay you in exchange for work" to belonging, committed members that are willing to go the extra mile. You create emotional capital.
In his book "Drive", Daniel Pink, writes about the three things that drive people (in non-mechanical jobs). He calls it Motivation 3.0:
Values und culture provide the glue that holds an organization together as it grows, decentralizes, expands and develops workplace diversity.
Values and culture instruct us how we will operate on a daily basis as we pursue our objectives.
Professor Sumantra Ghoshal describes in his speech at the 1995 World Economic Forum in Davos what he calls "The Smell of the Place": Individuals do not change fundamentally who they are. They do, though, behave differently in different contexts and it is the quality of an other act of leadership to create the right context - the right smell of the place - around their people to improve their contribution to the company.
It is the people that translate the values and culture into behavior and actions.
The shared ambition is the share image of a desired future - your "I have dream!"
A possibility to find it could be the "newspaper exercise" - I have used this successfully in the past - by writing a headline or even a small article about your organization 5 years in the future. What will the article be about? How will people talk about the organization? What will the organization look like? What will it have achieved?
The important thing about ambition: Break....it....down !!! Ambition has to be - as the the word says - ambitious. There will be setbacks and questions if you are on track. When you set small, visible goals and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed.
My professor would have a football analogy now...but everyone who knows me, knows that I don't know anything about football ;).
«When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.»
If this topic moves you as well, then don't hesitate to contact me to find out, how we can learn and make progress together.
Photo credit Title Picture: shutterstock.com