HBR IdeaCast: Turning Purpose into Performance

1077 JulAug18 Cover.inddOn June 22nd, I posted about the cover story on HBR that I wrote with Anjan Thakor about the economics of higher purpose.  We were thrilled to be invited by the HBR IdeaCast group to participate in a podcast on the subject.  The most compelling part of our podcast is hearing the CEO of DTE Energy, Gerry Anderson, share his story of how purpose turned around and saved his company.  His commitment to purpose is inspiring.

The podcast is titled, “Turning Purpose Into Performance.


Higher Purpose & Authentic Decisions

REI is an outdoor recreation company based in Seattle. Their mission orbits around this statement, “being outside makes our lives better.” In 2015, their CEO announced that they would close their 143 stores on Black Friday, the biggest retail day of the year. He indicated that the company would pay employees for the day, and he invited customers to also spend the day outside. This, of course, is economic madness. You do not close all your stores and pay your employees to not work on the busiest day of the year.

Yet there were some gains. REI had a 10% increase in online traffic on Thanksgiving and 26% increase on Black Friday. Customers were apparently more interested in the company and they were spending longer on the website. REI was becoming better known as a company worth dealing with. I doubt, however, that the increase in online traffic or image was the objective of the decision. I believe the real objective was to get people outside.

In a company that has an authentic higher purpose, all decisions are arbitrated by the purpose. This leads the company to principle driven, rather than expedient, decisions. The organization therefore does hard things and doing hard things leads to new internal and external capacities.

Internally the employees get value beyond the paycheck. In an organization of higher purpose, the culture is proactive rather than reactive. So there is more confidence and less fear. Employees have a clearer vision of what drives decisions and this clarity allows them to make their own courageous decisions at the lowest levels. In such an organization there is more understanding, trust, commitment, engagement, collaboration and learning. It is an empowering environment.

Externally, customers begin to see the company as operating beyond conventional logic. This creates interest, exploration, and learning. Customers perceive they are obtaining added value by dealing with a company of authentic leadership, authentic employees, authentic brand and authentic products.

Purpose driven organizations have to deliver the same basics as others, yet they do so in a different way.   An organization with an authentic culture is attractive to employees, customers and suppliers. Resources flow to the attractive culture.



  • What is the highest purpose of your unit?
  • What authentic decisions have differentiated your unit from others?
  • How authentic is your culture and what unique resources are attracted?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Purpose and Leading Up

We have a close friend who holds a senior position in a large organization. She is a purpose driven person who is deeply versed in the principles of positive psychology. So much so, that we once quizzed her about extensive ability to influence, even in situations where most of us would believe influence is not possible.

She told us about her grandfather. She spent much time with him. He was an extraordinary man who loved her and at every turn did things to bring out her potential. He challenged her, supported her, and expected her to succeed. She said that this relationship laid an important foundation. Over the years she has had to struggle to learn to lead but the process always seemed aided by her relationship with her grandfather. In other words, she had a transformational grandfather and knowing him has aided her in becoming a transformational leader.

As she told this story she naturally flowed into a second story illustrating how she has been able to succeed where everyone else failed. She had a boss who was very experienced in terms of content and this allowed him to acquire the very high level, well paid job above her. Unfortunately, when it came to relationships, he was extremely toxic.

Toxic means poisonous, deadly, lethal, or noxious. In this case it means his behavior killed relationships. When he took a flawed position and someone tried to assist, he would fly into a tantrum. The behavior was so extreme that ninety percent of his direct reports quit. After many failures, he was eventually removed.

While he had nothing good to say about anyone, there was an exception. He would regularly share deep praise for our friend. This claim caught our attention. We asked her how it was possible.

She told us that when he would come to a flawed decision, she always challenged it in a supportive way. He would go into a tantrum. Unlike everyone else, she refused to retreat. Because she was purpose driven she knew to always put the collective good ahead of anyone’s self-interest. She never lacked courage when it came to this principle.   So she would clarify the collective purpose, and ask questions that would expose the flawed logic. The man thus would come to his own discovery of his mistakes and adjust. In other words, she was using her transformational influence skills to lead her boss.

We asked her how her relationship was different from all the other relationships he had. She said, “I was the only one he ever trusted.”


  • Have you ever known such a toxic authority figure, how did you react?
  • What does purpose have to do with courage?
  • How would you explain the success of this person?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Purpose, Work and Family

I was speaking at the annual meeting of a company I work with. I gave the audience an exercise to do and asked them what it said about the positive perspective. A man responded, “It orients you to possibility.” A woman I had previously taught, and who I knew to be filled with purpose, raised her hand and said, “It orients you to endless possibility.”

During the break the woman approached me and said she wanted to introduce me to someone. She turned to a radiant, teenage girl. She said, “This is my daughter Julia.”

I asked Julia some basic questions and she explained that she came to her mother’s professional meeting so she could hear my presentation. She said she loved leadership and wanted to learn all she could. I asked this sixteen year-old where her life was going and she said, “To endless possibility.”

As we were parting, her purpose-driven mother told me she loved raising her children and she loved her work. It was a declaration of living an integrated life. I was so moved by her words that when I began the next session, I called her to the front of the room and I asked her to introduce all of us to Julia, and to tell everyone what she just told me. She did so with pride and with love and the audience hung on her every word.

I then told the audience that the conflicting demands between work and family are real. There are two different sets of expectations. Yet there is only one me. When we live with a contributive orientation and a clear sense of purpose, we still have the external conflicts, but we have a different internal response. We have more clarity, more courage and more kindness for ourselves and others. We become more able to transcend conflicts and more able to live an integrated life. When we have a higher purpose we live in endless possibility.



Purpose and Accelerated Learning

We spent a day with a group of experienced, senior executives. It was a day of introduction to a week we would soon spend together. We spoke of leadership from the perspective of mastery. The participants were engaged because what we were saying was not what they usually hear. We were helping them explore the notion of the mastery of leadership.

At the end a woman approached us. She was excited. She explained that she is a world-class musician. She said that when she listened to what we were saying from the perspective of music, it all made sense. She knew that to produce great music she had to integrate opposites. She gave examples such as combining discipline and structure with freedom and creative expression. A great musician does both. Structure makes creative expression possible.

She said that she believes that she is a good leader but she knows that she does not lead at the same level that she plays music. Our discussion led her to hope that by keeping her music in mind, in our week together, she might be able to learn language and concepts that would allow her to understand and enact her own leadership the way she understands and plays her instrument.

Her words excited us. We told her she was exactly right. Her ability to produce great music and to simultaneously think about the process by which she produces great music allows her to learn and grow from her own experience.

When people master a domain they usually have this capacity. They push themselves to the edge where they do new things, as the experiences unfold in the short or the long term, they reflect deeply on the experience and this leads to adjustments and new initiatives. They become self-aware and gain the capacity to become their own coach.

This unusual suggestion is consistent with research. People of authentic influence have four characteristics (Avolio, Griffith, Wernsing, Walumbawa, 2010). They are not defensive but are open to information. They are guided by internal moral standards as opposed to situational pressures. They are transparent and openly share appropriate thoughts and feelings. They are self-aware in that they understand their strengths, weaknesses and how their patterns impact others.

This research suggests that the process of learning from one’s own experience is important. People who become authentic leaders tend to believe that personal growth and change is possible so they are more likely to invest in learning about their own strengths and biases. A person who operates at a higher level of self-awareness can more effectively adapt to changing situations. A person who is confident in their ability to learn and adapt is more willing to leave prevailing expectations and try new approaches. This creates new experiences upon which the person can further reflect. People with a purpose and a desire to pursue the purpose are less defensive and more likely to embrace surprises, disruptions and even traumas as learning experiences. Instead of defending their values, beliefs and behaviors they are willing to challenge them and grow.

This process of deep learning through self-coaching is at the heart of mastery. Learning to become a self-coach is important. Here is an illustration of the process.

Brian Townsend played football for the University of Michigan and then went on to the NFL. Later he became a high school basketball coach. When he first secured the basketball job many criticized the hiring because Townsend had never coached basketball. In a short time he won the Michigan state championship and was recognized as a gifted basketball coach. How is this possible?

Once we got into a discussion with Brian about the notion of being a self-coach with the capacity to learn from experience. He told two interesting stories.

He said that when he first arrived at Michigan the football experience was incredibly competitive. He worked intensely to please the coach and get playing time. This went on for four years. In his fifth year he had an insight: He had to play for something other than the coach. He stopped worrying about what the coach thought. He said this was a defining moment in his life. From then on he began to learn in a new way. If he was with the team watching game films and the coach complemented him, but he felt he did not execute perfectly, he noted what he had to do better. If he was criticized, but he felt he did well, then he gave himself a pat on the back. He became his own coach. He was now being internally and not externally driven. He described it as one of the biggest breakthroughs in his life. It was a point of high joy. Through such learning he was regularly finding ways to create his best self. He opened the path to mastery.

Brian’s second story links this kind of learning with purpose.   After a couple of years in the pros, Brian was grinding it out in practice one day. He suddenly noted that his pro experience had been joyless. He asked himself why he was there. The answer was clear–money!   Without realizing it, he had made an invisible shift. By becoming money-driven he had moved from being internally driven to being externally driven.

He said, “I grew up in an African-American family of six boys, and to survive it was always family first. When I went to Michigan, the thing that made Michigan special was that it was team first. In the pros, everyone was playing for himself. I realized that a critical value was missing. In the pros my motivation had changed. I try to take that lesson to what I do now. In basketball, that is what I am about–building a real team, a real family, moving them from self-interest to a higher level of motivation. That gives me joy because it allows the boys to experience joy.”

As a coach, Brian was a masterful leader. He created belief and gave people capacity to grow and perform. One explanation of his ability to lead is that he had a big personal breakthrough, and he learned how to become increasingly authentic by learning how to reflect on his own experiences. It is a hallmark of mastery in music, in leadership and in many other areas of endeavor.


When have I seen or experienced mastery?

How is learning music like learning leadership?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




The Power of Purpose

My colleague, Victor Stretcher, recently published a book called Life On Purpose: How Living What Matters Most Changes Everything (2016:16). In the first chapter Vic reviews the scientific literature on the benefits of purpose. The research suggests that having a life purpose will:

  • Add years to your life
  • Reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Cut your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than half
  • Help you relax during the day and sleep better at night
  • Double your chances of staying drug – or alcohol free after treatment
  • Activate your natural killer cells
  • Diminish your inflammatory cells
  • Increase your good cholesterol
  • Give you better sex
  • Give you more friends
  • Give you more happiness
  • Give you deeper engagement in life

Vic asks what would happen if a company produced a drug that could do these things? He suggests that the company would be worth billions. People would flock to buy such a drug.

What the list suggests to me is that we are designed to be purpose seeking beings. When we have and pursue a life purpose we live a proactive life and we function at a higher level.

This raises a question about organizations. Why wouldn’t every organization assist every employee in discovering and recording their life purpose? I know of one organization that considered this alternative but the executives expressed a fear, “If they clarified their life purpose, wouldn’t they all leave the company?”

Stop for a moment and think about this question. It is natural or conventional question. Yet the question exposes many terrible assumptions about the nature of people, work, organizations and management.

In my experience I have observed that executives have many fears about trying to create a purpose driven organization. Thankfully, despite their many fears, the executives in the above organization determined to go ahead. They made an extensive effort to help people clarify their purpose and then helped them link their purpose to the purpose of the company. The result was a dramatic increase in engagement and an increase in financial performance.

Today those same executives are transformed. They are not only fully committed to the notion of having a purpose driven workforce, they continue to learn from the successful process they created. As a result these transformed executives desire to do more.


Do the people in my organization know their personal life purpose?

Do the people in my organization see the link between their purpose and the purpose of the organization?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


The Transformative Power of Purpose

There is a movie called Everest. It is about climbing the world’s highest mountain. At the outset the guide explains to the climbers that when they get to the highest regions of Everest the conditions will be so adverse to life that they will actually be in the process of dying. The challenge will be to reach the peak and leave as quickly as possible, to get to a lower region that better supports survival.

As the movie unfolds the many extraordinary challenges of climbing Everest become clear. The climbers actually note that the process is characterized by suffering and agony. At certain points it appears that it is impossible for a given person to go on, yet, in the face of great danger, the person pushes forward. This hunger gets one exhausted man to the crest and a short time later he dies because of his loss of energy. Shortly thereafter some of the others also die.

Climbing the mountain is a choice. None of the climbers are being paid. Indeed they are paying a very large sum to make the torturous journey. They are there because they want to be there. They are intrinsically motivated and they are giving their all.

At one point, a participant asks the others why they seek to climb Everest. The answers are very general, such as “because it is there.” One mailman explains that he wants to show what an “every day” person can do and says that he has promised a class of public school children that he will plant the flag they gave him at the summit. Later, in a private conversation, one of the climbers says that when he is home in Texas he is often depressed but when he is on the mountain he feels fully alive.

The last sentence is important. When people are authentically pursuing a meaningful purpose, they indeed are more fully alive.

Researchers tell us that to be engaged is to be fully present, which means the people bring their whole self to the task (Rothbard and Patil, 2012: 56-69). They feel challenged by what they are doing. They become absorbed and fully concentrate. They experience extra energy and the energy gives them the ability to persist and move forward. They feel more alive and their unique experiences give rise to learning and growth.

The research also suggests when people are fully engaged they feel more invested, proactive, adaptive, creative and authentic. As they act, get feedback and adapt, they are developing into a new version of themselves. The emerging self feels more genuine. They are not “on stage” they are doing what they are doing because they love what they are doing. In the process they tend to express their most central thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

The above are impacts on the individual. The pursuit of purpose often has collective impacts. When people pursue a challenging purpose together, as did the mountain climbers, the sense of ego driven isolation begins to dissolve. As they pursue their purpose, they recognize their interdependence. They cannot get to the top alone. As they begin to authentically communicate and collaborate they discover that they not only are more fully human but so are the others. Whole people begin to see and relate to whole people. Others are no longer transactional objects to be used for our own purposes. Instead they become inherently valuable people. When this happens people see immense potential in others. As this happens the people begin to sacrifice not only for the goal, but for the needs of the other people. In the movie we see an increasing willingness of people to risk their lives to help one another. We see the emergence of a network of high quality relationships, a network of love.

Here there is much to learn. In the conventional mindset we expect senior people to be self-interested and partially engaged managers of a technical-political hierarchy. In the positive mindset we recognize that the senior person can also transcend self-interest and pursue the common good. The primary task of any leader is to be purpose driven, to constantly rediscover and communicate the collective purpose and inspire people to willingly engage it. In the positive mindset the leader is a dynamic whole. He or she nurtures a network of dynamic and whole beings. In that network the people are doing what they do because they want to do it. The organization becomes capable of doing things it cannot do conventionally.


What do you believe about purpose and engagement?

What differentiates a purpose driven organization?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Finding Purpose in Crisis: From Survival to Flourishing

I once had the opportunity to run an organization.  It was populated with magnificent people.  Yet one of the most surprising things to me was their tendency to work mindlessly.  Many would do what they did the day before in the same manner.  There was no sense that they could reinvent what they were doing in ways that were more engaging and more effective.

It turns out that most people on the planet are living in a survival mentality.  This is true of the global workforce and also true of slightly more than half the managerial workforce.  The lives of most of us are not driven by purpose. There is a tendency to drift into a reactive state.

Paradoxically, one thing that tends to transform us is our desire to survive.  We see this in crisis.  As individuals we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss or other life demands. In organizations we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences and many other such challenges.

Dark clouds and other signals of danger usually precede these storms.  The signals often call for a transformation, or deep change. We tend to resist the call. When our old habits of thought and action seem to be ever less effective in the face of the change, we are slow to abandon them in favor of learning our way into an elevated state.

To move forward into the storm of real-time learning is no easy decision.  Often I get frustrated because I am doing everything I can think of to solve a problem, and the more I apply my logic, the worse things get.  This is a sign that I am in a trap.  The more I analyze and work at the issue, the more the problem grows, causing me to work harder.  If I continue, I will eventually have a failure and an ego collapse.

In the crisis I come to the point that I must choose between being a paralyzed victim and moving forward in a proactive way.  Making the decision triggers a process of transformation or deep change.  As I become more intentional, I turn fear into faith.  A vision emerges.  I see possibility and I move forward trying to create it.  I am no longer fleeing from a problem.  I am in the process of creating a result.  It is a different way of being.  I move from an orientation to survival to a focus on flourishing.

Problem Solving and Purpose Finding

We interviewed a man who was a university president and previously a dean of a medical school. He had been purpose driven from a young age and understood how to act as a purpose driven leader. Yet when he became dean he hired a coach. The task of the coach was to tell him over and over that problem solving was not leadership. “An administrator can effectively solve many problems while not advancing the institution at all.” A purpose driven leader understands this and continually orients self and others to purpose. Yet the pull of administrative problem solving never ends.

Most managers become comfortable with solving problems. To be comfort centered is natural. It means we strive to stay on the path of least resistance. We strive to stay in our zone of comfort, to do that which we already know how to do. Such behaviors preserve feelings of safety, security and control and allow us to allocate our energy in efficient ways. Yet over time our comfort zone turns into a prison.

As managers many of us live in such a prison. We call ourselves leaders but we see the management task as problem solving. Our job is to restore order, to return things to normal. We recognize the fact that taking initiative will bring adversity and increase our workload. So we avoid it.

Over time, we become disconnected to the larger, external system.   We lose energy and we experience many negative emotions. Being comfort centered we tend to languish and stagnate. We eventually move towards slow, psychological death. It is natural to manage, it is unnatural to be a purpose driven leader.

The challenge of leadership is to become bilingual. The challenge is to simultaneously solve problems, while continually finding purpose. Purpose finders enjoy motivation from within. They choose to grow and to grow others. They do this while continuing to solve the endless problems of administrative life. They continually solve problem while they continually find purpose.