Recently, my almost-15-year-old son was assigned a project for his computer science class at school. The task was to profile a technological innovation. Several of his friends chose self-driving cars. He considered studying a technology that enables faster online gaming because let’s face it, games are way too slow these days.
Then over breakfast one day, we chatted about one of my clients, Medtronic’s Neuromodulation division. This company creates technology that truly changes people’s lives. Among other things, it helps those incapacitated by movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease return to a much more normal life by implanting a neurostimulator deep inside those people’s brains.
We watched a video that showed the nearly miraculous transformation produced by these devices in the life of an elderly farmer. (Trust me, it’s worth the 2.5 minutes to watch this video – see 1:15 for the patient’s story and 2:00 for dramatic footage of what happens with and without his device activated.)
My son was captivated. Here was a technology that integrated hardware, software, and the leading edge of neuroscience to help a farmer continue his life. Quite literally, this device rescued this man from shame that had prevented him from going out in public and allowed him to return to the farm work that made him feel worthwhile again. With no disrespect to fast gaming, maybe this was a different level of cool.
Yes, Medtronic has to make money. They’re a publicly traded global company with all of the complexities that that brings. Yes, Medtronic employees sometimes forget that they have a larger purpose and squabble over the usual things: pay, status, and budgets. I’ve been at the scene of some of those fights.
But there is a bedrock purpose to the company. While that purpose may be forgotten for a while, it cannot disappear. When unearthed – usually when they see the impact of their products on real people whose lives are restored to health – it snaps those same employees right back to center. It answers why. It puts them in service of others. It calls them away from the self-destructive and self-defeating paths of selfishness and greed.
Your people may be very sophisticated, but deep down they’re asking the same question 2-year-olds ask about everything: Why? It’s a purpose question. The question is simple, even if it’s asked in a variety of ways:
- Why are we doing this anyway?
- Why do we get up early and stay late?
- What difference is our work going to make?
- Why stay in this organization instead of going somewhere else?
- Why give the next days, weeks, months, and years of my only life to this effort?
While everyone needs to make a living, please make the answers to your organization’s purpose questions better than “bags of money.” When you build a culture on greed, people will engage mostly when it’s in their own self-interest. You wind up with a collection of individuals loosely held together by a comp plan. No higher purpose animates team members in those times when no one is watching and it’s hard and there’s no clear path to a material reward. That’s a lot of the time if we’re honest with ourselves. And yes, you could substitute fear for purpose as the foundation of your culture. Perversely, it will work for a while. But fear is a short-term motivator.
How much better to have a noble purpose that calls people beyond their baser selves? When you have that in place and people really get it, you start to see things happen:
You attract leaders who inspire others, like the hospital CEO I met who has his personal email address on the hospital’s homepage. He gets every complaint and comment delivered to his inbox and responds to each. Recently, a patient submitted feedback simply saying, “You guys suck!” He shocked her by calling her himself. He listened. He told her that his purpose is to serve patients for life. She was convinced. That’s purpose in action.
- Your people desperately want to be at the scene where you live out your purpose. They seek out opportunities to have front row seats for those moments when your organization’s strengths are most in service of others. This is why my friends at Medtronic love hosting patients whose lives have been changed by a device. Seeing someone return to health provides more juice than any motivational speech ever could. That’s purpose in action.
- Stories circulate about how your organization is living up to its best purposes. Better yet, those stories aren’t drummed up by a marketing team trying to hype the brand. The accounts are organic and often sourced from real customers or partners. I saw this once when a retail store associate was recognized for walking a customer out to her car in the middle of a driving rainstorm. He didn’t have to grab that umbrella and brave the elements. But this organization said that they had the customer’s back and wanted to deliver the world’s best retail experience. Better yet, they lived it at the local level. That’s purpose in action.
This is why purpose matters. Margins enable the organization to continue another day. But purpose? Purpose sustains the organization. It holds a group together when the pressures of the real world push on it. It gives them something beyond self to invest in. It instills nobility to work.