Shortly before the end of 2017, I spent some time reflecting on some of the recurring themes and ideas I’ve written and spoken about within the year. Among these various leadership topics and issues was the subject of finding a sense of purpose in what we do, a topic which also served as the focus of the TEDx talk I gave in September 2017 in Montreal.
With this in mind, I’d like to share the story of a student who attends my daughters’ high school and what his example reveals about the role leaders play in helping their employees find a sense of purpose in what they do.
At our school’s Governing Board meeting few weeks back, we had two teachers who shared a new project they run for students who are at-risk of dropping out of high school. In this program, these students spend half their school day learning core curriculum subjects and the other half is spent learning vocational skills on-site. This way, when they graduate, they already have hands-on experience to help them enter the workforce.
One of the latest projects involves rebuilding and restoring bikes confiscated by the police. As we toured the bike workshop, I couldn’t help but notice how clean this machinery shop was, especially given the kind of work that gets done there.
I was told by one of the teachers running the program that at the beginning of the school year, one of these at-risk students told him “I don’t want to work on fixing bikes. I just want to work on keeping this place clean. I want to broom the floors, wipe clean the work surfaces, and take care of the garbage.” So, this teacher decided to give this student a pass on teaching him how to repair bikes and instead, guided him on how he could keep the place tidy and putting things back where they belong.
As I looked around the workshop, I couldn’t help but be impressed that the reason why this workshop was so clean was because one of the students had stepped forward saying the skills he’d like to learn were how to keep a machinery workshop clean and organized.
Since our board meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about this boy; of how at such a young age, he had figured out an important truth about the nature of purpose – our sense of purpose is not simply created by the work we do, but through the choices we make.
In terms of leadership, what this means is that we don’t have to be spending our time creating purpose for our employees. Instead, we need to provide opportunities for our employees to do work that they themselves will see purpose in doing.
Consider again the actions of this teenage boy. He didn’t wait for the teachers to assign him work, hoping that he might find it more satisfying over being in the regular academic stream. Rather, he had a very specific idea of what he wanted to do; of what would make him feel like he was making a difference within this specialized program for at-risk students.
And it was only because the teachers had this open mind of not slotting students into assigned roles, but giving them that flexibility to pursue what interests them that this student was able to do work that has motivated him to only show up for regular class periods, but to be more committed in doing school work that he once shrugged off.
In today’s faster-paced, ever-changing work environment, the easiest thing we as leaders can do is simply assign people tasks that will help us get things done. However, to succeed at achieving your goals, leaders need to truly listen and understand what their employees need to thrive as this teenage boy does through his work keeping this high school workshop clean.
Of course, some might argue that their employees don’t know what their real purpose is. In fact, whenever I give talks around the subject of leadership and purpose, I often have people coming up to me asking how do they go about finding that inner sense of purpose I speak of.
In fact, after I gave that TEDx talk I mentioned above, one of the conference attendees came up to me during the cocktail party with this very question. Although she had a clear sense of what career path she wanted to take, she didn’t necessarily feel that inner sense of purpose I had spoken about.
And yet, over the course of our conversation where I asked her about her past work experiences and what moments she’d put in a “This is Your Life” spotlight reel, I saw this woman transform from not knowing how she could find that sense of purpose, to having an epiphany about what her life’s work really is and where she needs to put her focus next. And all of this happened in the span of a couple of minutes.
It’s a situation that I’ve encountered many times in my work and it just goes to show that all of us intuitively know what fuels that inner drive to push ourselves; to show up and deliver our best regardless of what conditions we face. It’s something we see in every successful person out there. Namely, that what successful people share in common is they know what their purpose is and focus all their efforts on only doing that.
So, trust me when I say your employees know what their inner purpose is. They know what’s that internal catalyst that will drive them to deliver the best of their talents, knowledge, creativity, and experience towards helping your organization achieve its long-term goals.
For some, the answer is clear as day, but for others, some guidance might be needed from you to help them find their true north and how to align that with your organization’s vision.
That’s why if we want to get the best from our employees, we need to provide them with opportunities to deliver their best because they care about the work they do. They’re invested beyond pay checks, perks, and status to help our organization to succeed because their contributions are directly connected to what matters most to them.
As the example of this high school student demonstrates, we can achieve this not by having to promise great things to our employees. Instead, we can accomplish this by allowing them to do what they see for themselves as being great work. And that’s something leaders everywhere have the choice to make in terms of the opportunities they provide to those under their care.