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Ideas on Purpose
June 20, 2016 | Cheryl L. Dorsey

Building a Purpose-Driven Workforce is a Process, Not a Project


Photo courtesy of Accountability Lab. 

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Purpose matters in life and in business. This concept has long held a welcome place in the social sector as a driving force behind sustaining the commitment of those doing social change work. Now alongside the rise of social enterprises, the way purpose shows up in the private sector–and is cultivated–is transforming beyond buzzword into a way of doing business. The shift we’re witnessing is in part fueled by a generation looking to make choices where purpose and career go hand in hand.

More than a decade ago, Echoing Green developed programming to create the space where the question “Why do I do what I do?” could be asked authentically. Today, emerging trends in the private sector–including corporate social responsibility initiatives, working to create more inclusive and diverse workplaces, and offering leadership development programs–all fall under the “purpose” umbrella. These developments are good for business, but they’re also good for the world.

More to E​xplore

Why Purpose Matters: It May Be the Ticket to Social Impact – A white paper exploring the purpose field and further investments needed

Is a New Purpose Field Afoot? – Key lessons from the Purpose360 convening

However, picking from a list of purpose-driven initiatives is not enough. People building careers today are looking for roles where innovation, autonomy, and values-driven work are well-regarded. For them, a career goes beyond their 9-to-5 built on a continuous stream of networks and interests inside and outside of the office. To retain and develop this talent, companies should infuse purpose authentically at every link in the chain–a purpose-driven workforce will pair “personal social responsibility” with “corporate social responsibility.”

 Be Prepared: The Need For Meaning Is Showing Up Earlier

As our learning institutions prepare our children for lives where they are mindful of purpose, employers need to catch up to receive and retain them. Driven by curricula offered in classrooms across the U.S. and internationally, secondary schools and universities are places where new generations of students are learning to expect meaning out of their lives. After they graduate, the next generation is looking for roles that will not only help them pay their education debts but will also be a source of meaning. For employers seeking to hire and retain this talent, it’s a missed opportunity if these employees are unable to link personal meaning to these institutions because it’s what they’ve been trained to expect. This same sentiment rings true for those pursuing encore careers; they’re attracted to companies that prove to be genuine, moral, and innovative, where they can boldly live out what’s right for them and good for the world.

 Help Employees Lead With Their Values

Human resources is no longer just about policies, procedures, and talent management. As the edges between career and life continue to blur, HR is the new life coaching. The largest segment of the workforce are millennials–and for them, meaningful work is more important than money. They’re looking for fulfilling roles that align with their values, and they are seeking out institutions that want to help them cultivate their personal social responsibility. Whole Foods’ Academy for Conscious Leadership is one way to take this on, embracing values of Conscious Capitalism to develop leaders and purpose influencers by “guiding them through experiences that identify their higher purpose and create cultures of meaning.” We’ve also found that employees seek out pro-social opportunities to live out their values and use their skill sets outside of work with the support of their companies.

 Place Purpose At The Core

Companies that talk a good game about purpose are seen as cutting-edge and innovative for good reason. When there is room for employees to incorporate their values, it often means there is space for fresh ideas to emerge. From CEO membership in CECP to giving employees the opportunity to do social good outside of work, there are plenty of ways to incorporate initiatives such as diversity & inclusion, leadership development programs, and opportunities to volunteer with the community. Often, these “purpose programs” are part of a company’s CSR or foundation arm but to integrate purpose authentically, purpose needs to be part of the core business. Companies need to do good in the world first before they can deeply connect employees to purpose. By living out values that connect to what employees also care about, these institutions are increasingly attractive to emerging talent. Companies benefit too: Employees with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

Arguably, no company has all the answers, but from my vantage point, the horizon looks good for those who are seeking authentic solutions and understand that creating purposeful workplaces is a process, not a program.  This is not to say there’s an easy road up ahead. But in pursuit of authenticity, it will be baked into every facet of business, because employees and consumers alike will continue to demand it.

Read more about purpose and other topics on our publications page.