From Paycheck to Purpose: The Shift That Has Leaders Scrambling For A New Playbook

By Rich Johnson | March 04, 2019

In the summer of 1998, Jay Laabs graduated from the University of Wisconsin and was hired as a consultant for a Chicago-based software company. There was the promise of a career path, a decent benefits package, and most importantly for a recent college grad, a real salary. Over the years, Laabs would step into management, grow and then sell his own company, and eventually become a senior leader for a major consulting firm. Yet even as the compensation increased and the perks got more extravagant, Jay, as have many others in corporate America, found that those things didn’t provide the same motivation they once did.

After flirting with early retirement, Jay recently stepped back into the game, starting a new advisory and IT consulting firm called Spaulding Ridge. As he launched, he thought long and hard about the kind of company he wanted to lead, and what would keep him and his employees inspired. He knew it had to go beyond paychecks and perks. It was about offering work that had an impact, caring about the people you do it with, and having the sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself. Over the last year, Jay recruited talented team members from across the country who have affirmed his vision and together they are figuring out how to create a more purpose-driven company. But where do they go to find the rules and strategies for this new season?

Jay’s journey points not only to a major change in the employer-employee relationship but to a tectonic shift in the broader economy. It wasn’t long ago, people looked to their companies for a decent salary, benefits, and a path to move up in the organization. Work and personal life were usually more segmented, with the latter being where people invested their time and energy to gain a sense of purpose. While the pursuit of purpose in the form of “workism” can be dangerous, most employees today appropriately expect a new level of fulfillment from their jobs. Technology and a broadening definition of community have integrated our lives, and in this new reality decisions about where to work and how long to stay are now based on more than just compensation and career advancement...whether we like it or not.

This move towards more purpose at work is not simply a millennial trend or an idea unique to socially conscious companies, it is a powerful force that is redefining the corporate landscape as we know it...and keeping many leaders awake at night. So what does a purpose-driven company look like, and what role do leaders have in this new world?

Aligning to a Shared Vision for Impact

The demands of creating purpose and offering impact at work often make executives nervous. Do we have to be saving the planet? No. But leaders of purpose-driven companies need to identify the company's reason for being, in other words - how it positively impacts the employees, the customers, the world.

From that reason for being, leaders create a vision for impact around which the company is oriented. Whether you deliver a product or service, sell to businesses or consumers, whether you are the CEO or a first-time manager, it’s essential for you to understand your company’s impact. Because as a leader, you will need to communicate it through storytelling and values, integrate it into your strategy and operations, and prioritize it throughout your culture and resource allocation. Most critically, leaders will motivate and inspire their employees by providing a line of sight to how each person's work contributes to that impact.

Cultivating a People-First Culture

A purpose-driven company is also characterized by a people-first culture, and leaders are the primary cultivators of that environment. You've heard the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but these days both are needed in healthy portions at the leadership table. Ensuring a collaborative, empowering, and inclusive culture is actually a profound strategy decision. A people-first culture is about recognizing that employees are our most valuable resource, and their personal and professional growth should be one of a leader's highest priority.

But maintaining those competitive advantages will require a diverse and thriving environment. Leaders at purpose-driven companies cultivate a culture where people can bring their full selves to the job, where authentic connection and meaningful relationships result in a sense of belonging that is core to fulfillment at work.

Leadership Development for the Purpose-Driven Economy

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg recently wrote in the New York Times, "...a job is usually more than just a means to a paycheck. It’s a source of purpose and meaning, a place in the world." People want to work at purpose-driven companies, where leaders create a shared vision for impact and cultivate a people-first culture. This kind of leader though is not produced through a traditional training program with classroom lectures or online technical modules. As Harvard Business Review notes, much of today’s leadership development is broken.

Leadership is the greatest determining factor in providing employees more purpose at work, and while it requires significant effort and investment, the return is evident as purpose-driven companies are outperforming their counterparts by a factor of twelve.

So where to begin? Consider one or more of the following:

  • Motivate and inspire first-time managers through an experience that provides them a line of sight to their impact
  • Create a workshop to Cultivate a growth-mindset with your middle managers or high potentials
  • Launch a coaching initiative to Strengthen emotional intelligence in your senior leaders and executives
  • Infuse your on-boarding with storytelling to help all employees understand their responsibility to Promote inclusion

As humans beings, we spend more time working than most other activities in our lifetime. We are often with our colleagues more than our own families. So, it’s no wonder that people are now demanding that their work experience be something that contributes to a sense of purpose and greater fulfillment. Purpose at work is here to stay, and companies need leaders willing and capable to steward this amazing opportunity. It’s time to join the movement.  


"Your Move" By Henri Liriani (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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