Finding Your Significant Purpose

Maybe it’s happened to you: You have a vision of what you want to accomplish. You begin to tackle the job. Suddenly, hours have flown by and you’re astonished by what you’ve achieved.

When work is connected to what we deeply desire, we can tap into energy and creativity we don’t even know we have. But to reach that seemingly effortless productivity, it’s not enough to simply have a vision of what we want to accomplish; our work also must have a purpose that is significant to us.

Jesse Stoner and I have written extensively on the creation of an effective vision, which is comprised of three elements: a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. Today I’m going to focus on that first element, a significant purpose.

Zeroing In on Your Significant Purpose

An organization can begin to find its significant purpose by answering the question, “What business are we in?” If your first thought was, “We’re in business to make money,” you’re missing the point. As author and speaker Simon Sinek says, “Profit isn’t a purpose.”

A significant purpose is bigger than what your company does. Rather than simply explaining what you do or what products you provide, your significant purpose must answer this question:

“Why?”

Your significant purpose must clarify—from your customer’s point of view—what business you’re really in.

For example, a mattress company with a significant purpose doesn’t simply sell mattresses and make profits; it’s in the business of providing people with a good night’s rest. An insurance company with a significant purpose doesn’t simply sell policies; it’s in the business of giving customers peace of mind.

A couple of real-world examples include Tesla, whose significant purpose isn’t simply to sell cars; it’s “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Technology Education and Design—otherwise known as TED of TED Talks fame—has a simple yet powerful significant purpose: “Spread Ideas.”

The CEO of outdoor apparel company Patagonia, Rose Marcario, beautifully articulates the concept of a significant purpose. “If you want to retain great people and have a great company, then you have to inspire the people to a greater, bigger purpose than themselves, and for us it’s saving the planet,” she says.

Patagonia’s significant purpose—saving the planet—seems to be working well. Since Marcario took the helm, the company has quadrupled its revenue and profit while setting the standard for sustainable clothing production. The company’s significant purpose overrides the traditional economic model of growth at any cost; Patagonia encourages customers to get their gear repaired rather than buy new things. The company’s purpose also guides decision making: Last year, Patagonia announced it would donate $10 million from the recent tax cuts to grassroots environmental organizations.

A Significant Purpose Must Inspire

The fact that Patagonia is succeeding financially points to a key element of a successful significant purpose: it must inspire people’s excitement and commitment. The key word here is “inspire.” If people are not fired up by your significant purpose, the words you use to describe it—no matter how lofty—won’t matter.

Too many companies make the mistake of having a purpose that merely describes their products and services or promotes a meaningless assortment of cringe-worthy platitudes. If people can’t make a heartfelt connection to the meaning behind the words, your significant purpose will be worthless. But if you work together to find an inspiring purpose, those words will fuel everything your company does.

Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance in developing a significant purpose. Back in 2004, our company helped Petco Park—the newly-built home of the San Diego Padres—to find their “why.” Rather than merely providing customer service to baseball fans, passionate employees rallied around their new significant purpose: “to create Major League memories.”

Did it make a difference? It sure did. People connected to the vision and found all kinds of creative ways to wow their customers. That summer Petco Park got 7,500 unsolicited notes and letters from fans telling stories about how they’d been blown away by the service they’d received.

Now, I call that a grand slam.

Be an Agile Leader

In business today, there’s a growing trend toward agile leadership: a focus on fast decision making, short-term goals, and the empowerment of individuals. What began as a leadership approach confined to IT departments—business units that must respond quickly to rapidly changing technology—has become a way of life for leaders generally.

Today, it’s not just IT departments that have to be on their toes—everybody in an organization must adapt quickly to change. People are recognizing that yesterday’s hierarchical structures and top-down management styles simply don’t allow for the flexibility and innovation required to compete in today’s fast-paced business environments.

That’s why the term agile leadership has expanded to include general leadership skills like acting on a shared vision, creating empowered teams, leading change, and sharing decision-making.

 

Agile Leadership at the Manager Level

Just as top-down management no longer works at the organizational level, it no longer works one-on-one, either. Agile leaders practice side-by-side leadership, partnering with their direct reports to provide the direction and support they need for their level of development on any given task.

Agile leaders are servant leaders, because they recognize that there are two aspects of servant leadership: vision and implementation. Creating a shared vision is the leadership part of servant leadership; helping people implement that vision is the servant part of servant leadership.

For many years, The Ken Blanchard Companies has been teaching SLII®, a servant leadership model that is based on the belief that leadership style should be tailored to the situation. This kind of flexibility is a key principle of agile organizations.

To become agile, SLII® leaders, managers must master three skills: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching. Goal setting involves aligning on what needs to be done, and when. SLII® managers make sure people know what they are being asked to do and what good performance looks like. Diagnosis involves determining a direct report’s development level—their competence and commitment to accomplish the goal. Matching involves aligning leadership style to a direct report’s development level. The goal of the SLII® leader is to develop direct reports so they can perform at a high level on goals without supervision.

Agile leaders trained in SLII® provide direction and support in the proper amounts to help fill in what direct reports can’t provide for themselves. When someone is new to a task, this means providing specific direction; when someone gets discouraged, it means providing coaching. As the person gains competence in the task, the leader pulls back on the amount of direction they provide as they support the person’s continued development. And when the person demonstrates self-reliance on the goal or task, the leader moves to a delegating style, giving direct reports the autonomy characteristic of people in agile organizations.

An agile leader can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles. As a leader’s direct report moves from one development level to the next on any given task, the leader’s management style changes accordingly. When leaders can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles, they have mastered the flexibility required by agile organizations.

 

A Real World Example

Let’s see how an agile leader can use SLII® to develop the empowered individuals needed in agile organizations.

Suppose you hire a 22-year-old salesperson with little actual sales experience. She has a high commitment to becoming good at sales and is curious, hopeful, and excited. Someone at this level is an enthusiastic beginner. A directing leadership style is appropriate at this stage. You need to teach your new hire everything about the sales process—from making a sales call to closing the sale—and lay out a step-by-step plan for her self-development, teaching her what experienced salespeople do and letting her practice in low risk sales situations.

Now, suppose your new hire has had a few weeks of sales training. She understands the basics of selling but is finding it more difficult than she expected. She’s not quite as excited as she was before and looks discouraged at times. At this stage, your salesperson is a disillusioned learner. What’s needed now is a coaching leadership style, which is high on both direction and support. You continue to direct and closely monitor her sales efforts, and you also engage her in two-way conversations. You provide a lot of praise and support at this stage because you want to build her confidence, restore her commitment, and encourage her initiative.

In time the young woman learns the day-to-day responsibilities of her position and has acquired some good sales skills. She still has some self-doubt and questions whether she can sell well without your help. At this stage, she is a capable but cautious performer. This is where a supporting leadership style is called for. Since her selling skills are good, she doesn’t need direction. She needs you to listen to her concerns and suggestions, and be there to support her. Encourage and praise, but rarely direct her efforts. Help her reach her own sales solutions by asking questions and encouraging risk-taking.

Eventually, your former new salesperson becomes a key player on your team. Not only has she mastered her sales tasks and skills, she’s also working successfully with some of your most challenging clients. She anticipates problems, is ready with solutions, works successfully on her own, and inspires others. At this stage, she is a self-reliant achiever. At this level of development, a delegating leadership style is best. Turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving; empower her and allow her to act independently. Challenge her to continue to grow and cheer her on to even higher levels of success.

Using the servant leadership skills of SLII®, leaders develop employees who are more proactive, engaged, and ultimately, self-reliant—in short, ready to meet the needs of the agile organization.

What’s Your Leadership Point of View?

Margie and I recently spent a wonderful weekend teaching our “Determining Your Leadership Point of View” class at the University of San Diego. It’s part of the Master of Science in Executive Leadership (MSEL) degree program offered by USD in partnership with our company.

I often start off training sessions with managers by asking: “How many of you consider yourself a leader?” Amazingly, only about 20 percent raise their hands. I think a lot of people believe that to be a leader you have to have a certain amount of power or an executive position—and for some reason they don’t think they have enough power or the right title yet. The second thing I say is: “Tell me about one or two people who have impacted your life the most.” Almost no one names a manager or supervisor; they all identify a parent, grandparent, their spouse or significant other, or a relative, coach, friend, or neighbor.

In life, everyone has the opportunity to lead. In fact, we all are leaders right now. Why do I say that? Because there are two different kinds of leadership roles: life (as a spouse, parent, or friend) and organizational (as a manager, supervisor, etc.). So everyone is a leader in some aspect of their life—even if they are a follower! In fact, my wife, Margie, wrote an article titled “In Praise of Followership” for the book Servant Leadership in Action. It’s all about how followers are also leaders.

Research proves that effective leaders exemplify and communicate to their followers a clear and consistent Leadership Point of View. The students in our MSEL class develop their own unique Leadership Point of View that they will be able to demonstrate to people who work with them. So often in organizations, people can’t figure out what’s important to their boss—what “makes them tick.” When direct reports are aware of their manager’s Leadership Point of View, that mystery is solved.

We tell our students that figuring out their unique Leadership Point of View is like writing a course on themselves. After they identify the people and events that have impacted their life the most, we ask them to think about what they learned from those people and experiences. How did those parts of their life influence their leadership style? What values did they instill? Then, based on those reflections, what do they expect of people who report to them now—and what can their people expect from them as a leader?

It is a fascinating process. As students unearth these thoughts and memories, they write their Leadership Point of View in a story format. Why? It’s a more authentic and personal way of communicating. Stories paint a picture that allows others to see the consistency between values, words, and actions. As students progress in their writing, they share their work in small groups of their classmates. At the end of the course, each student stands in front of the class and tells their leadership point of view story as if their fellow students were their team members at work. They get feedback from their classmates as well as from Margie and me.

What values have you developed through the important people and experiences in your life? Based on those reflections, what do you expect from your people and what can they expect from you as their boss? I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Leadership Point of View process in the comments below.

Now More Than Ever: A Leadership Vision for America

Several years ago, I was struck by how many people were expressing disappointment with what was going on in Washington. No matter which side of the political fence they were on, people agreed that special interests and partisan gridlock were hurting our nation’s ability to govern itself.

It occurred to me that four leadership secrets I’d learned over the years could lead to effective solutions to the problems in our nation’s capital. In response, I wrote a white paper entitled “A Leadership Vision for America: Rebuilding a Divided House.”

Recently, Don Miller—the bestselling author and creator of StoryBrand—was inspired by my four secrets and became determined to share my thinking with key people in Washington. Drawing on his extensive contacts, he and our Blanchard colleague, Sheri Lyons, were able to present my white paper and discuss its ideas with key people in the office of the vice president in Washington, DC.

You may remember the 12-part blog series I wrote from June 2012 – November 2012 about those leadership secrets. Here they are in a nutshell:

  • Create a Compelling Vision. We no longer know what business we are in as a country (our purpose), what we are trying to accomplish (our picture of the future) or what should drive our behavior as a country (our values). The Bible says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” That doesn’t sound promising! We need a big picture vision we can all agree upon.
  • Treat citizens as business partners. Most of us are in the dark about the bills that are being passed and generally what’s going on besides chaos. We need greater transparency in government.
  • Invite every sector of society to the table. There are several sectors in our nation. In the public sector we have government, education, and the military. In the private sector we have business, the media, and the arts. In the social sector we have families, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits. Right now, the only two big voices are government and business; the other sectors are left out of the process. We need all voices to be heard and considered.
  • Elect servant leaders. Servant leaders do not focus on winning. Instead, they focus on the well-being of the communities they serve. Until we elect representatives who put service ahead of ego and ideology, our government won’t improve.

In the years since I wrote “A Leadership Vision for America,” disappointment with Washington has turned to embarrassment. We certainly need some different thinking if we are going to rebuild a divided house. In the meantime, let’s pray that representatives in our nation’s capital start caring more about helping America regain its reputation as “a shining city upon a hill” than getting re-elected.

 

It May Be Time to Revisit Your Vision

Multiple priorities.

Duplication of efforts.

False starts.

Wasted energy.

 

Do any of these working conditions sound familiar? If so, it may be time to revisit your three-part vision:

  • What is your purpose?
  • What will the future look like if you are successful?
  • What values will guide you as you work toward your picture of the future?

I learned the importance of vision from my father when I was still an undergraduate at Cornell University. It was 1959, and Dad had decided to retire early from the Navy as a captain, even though he could have stayed on and been promoted to admiral.

I said, “Dad, why did you quit early?”

He answered, “Ken, I hate to say it, but I liked the wartime Navy better than the peacetime Navy. Not that I like to fight, but in wartime we knew what our purpose was and what we were trying to accomplish. The problem with the peacetime Navy is that nobody knows what we are supposed to be doing. As a result, too many leaders think their full-time job is making other people feel unimportant.”

Dad’s comments made me realize that leadership—whether you’re leading yourself or others—is about going somewhere. Without a vision, you lose direction. As the author and seminar leader Werner Erhard used to say, “You wind up driving your car down the highway of life with your hands on the rearview mirror instead of on the steering wheel, and you have a lot of accidents and a whole big explanation about how driving is very tough.”

My father eventually did become an admiral, because Congress passed a law that said if you got the Medal of Honor or the Silver Star during World War II, the government would “bump you up” one rank upon your retirement. Since Dad got two Silver Stars, he became a retired rear admiral.

Admiral or not, he taught me the importance of having a vision and keeping it up-to-date.

How about you? Are you focused on the rearview mirror—or the road ahead?