Cash, Career, and Calling: Why DO People Work?

Three key reasons people work are for cash, a career, and/or a calling.  Mike Morrison from Toyota Motor Sales put together the Meaning Meter.  If you come to work only for cash, it’s a start; you do what you have to do, but your meaning meter is not high.  If career advancement is your primary objective, it is certainly a responsible activity to work at bettering your position in life; but again, your meaning meter may be low.  However, if you come to work because the contribution you are making is a unique contribution to a higher purpose, your meaning meter rises. Today, one thing we know for certain: young people coming into the workforce want a high meaning meter!      

As leaders move people up the meaning meter, they create higher engagement, higher commitment, more innovation, and ultimately better financial results.  Why?  Because people put their hearts and souls into their work.   

A transformational leader is one who transforms what is potentially mundane work into purposeful, inspirational work. You may have heard the medieval story of the two stone masons carrying huge blocks of stone from the quarry.  A bystander asks the first man, “What are you doing?” and the man says, “I’m carrying this heavy stone and I have to cut it later in the heat of the day.”  The bystander then walks down the road and asks the next man, “What are you doing?” The man looks up proudly and says, “I’m building a cathedral.”  

In this story, the first man has a boss focused on getting the stone cut and pays for performance per stone.  The second man’s  boss focused on why the stone was being cut, engaging every employee around a noble effort.  The first boss is tough minded and expects an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.  The second boss knows that as the culture of meaning is created, there is a higher chance the work people do will be exceptional, done with love and care.  

If you want to optimize the potential of your people, raise the meaning meter.  Create the knowledge, feeling, and belief people come to work for a greater purpose than just money and career.  For example, a health care provider taught all of the nurse’s aides about the power of connecting with patients.  Instead of just changing bed pans and doing routine checks on patients, the company invested in training around the soft skills of what they considered a “sacred calling” - taking care of people at their most vulnerable moments.  Nurse’s aides became important care providers in the overall chain of human healing.   As a leader, think through how to humanize and elevate the interactions of each and every activity.  You are inspiring people to a consistent and committed purpose.  

Three initial practices to get you started follow. 

1. Always start by engaging employees around the values.  Research from MIT Sloan points out that most companies have values, but the true leader  emphasizes these values as core to the culture.  For instance, if you are in health care and your value is to put the patient first, then all communication must put this priority front and center.  If financial goals are given prominence, they will displace the purpose-driven goals of the company. In other words, emphasize that the financials results are a natural consequence of focusing on your core values. 

2.  Start every major management review with a story of how a customer’s life was impacted by your product or service.  Ask a couple of people to come prepared to share their story.  At board meetings, don’t start with the financials.  

3.  Start with a review of how you are achieving your core purpose as a company: why you exist.  Ratan Tata, the recently retired CEO of the Tata Group in India says that purpose is “a spiritual and moral call to action; it is what a person or company stands for.”  People in your company want to buy into something they believe in.  They want to make money, but they also want to create a meaningful place to work, a stronger community, and a better world.  If you don’t model this, you are stuck with employees there to make cash and build a career, both of which are good enough. But is that enough for you? With courageous action, you can inspire people to engage their hearts and souls in a clear sense of purpose.  

Our Purpose: The Thread that Binds Us All

Flawless execution, focus on the customer, leading with values, knowing your mission, partnering with stakeholders: all pieces of the cloth critical to the success of any organization. With these, a leadership team can build an excellent company. Today though, it may not be enough. There’s one more element that can raise performance a significant notch higher: an integrating thread of purpose woven among many pieces.  Why are we doing what we are doing?  How does what we are doing bring meaning to our work on a daily basis?  How do I as a leader take our purpose and empower others to express it through channels no one might have dreamed?  


Here’s an example. Larry Webb, my long time friend, is the CEO of New Home Company, which just went public on January 31st.  New Home builds beautiful production housing and is known for extremely happy buyers who love not only their home but the experience they had in buying it. In the CNBC interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Larry said, “We build homes, and for each of us at New Home Company we see it as a noble purpose. To provide a new home for a person is to provide a future of wonderful experiences.” I spoke with Larry after the interview and he said, “Many builders try to push flawless execution or operational excellence, but you can only push this so far. I’ve found that if we talk about a higher purpose in our work, people bring more meaning to their job.  They know they can’t do shoddy work and if they do, it will defeat the noble purpose of what we are about. Our people really believe we are doing something important and they evaluate their decision making based on this.”  

Larry understands the power of purpose. As my friend, Dick Gochnauer, the former CEO of United Stationers, a Fortune 500 business products wholesaler says, “A leader’s role is to to weave all of the pieces together under a broader purpose. A leader shows people how the purpose can create alignment with all of the other elements. Purpose plays an incredible role in creating motivation.”

Larry Webb

Larry Webb

Here’s another example. Last week Satya Nadella was appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, replacing Steve Ballmer. Satya wrote a memo that went out to 100,000 employees. The memo did not focus on the need to work harder, be more creative, or execute more carefully. Instead, it outlined the purpose Microsoft serves in the world and why, through this purpose, employees can drive the values and ideas necessary to support a dramatic shift at Microsoft. Here are some excerpts of what Satya said:

Why am I here?

I am here for the same reason I think most people join Microsoft — to change the world through technology that empowers people to do amazing things.


“To paraphrase a quote from Oscar Wilde — we need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable.  This starts with clarity of purpose and sense of mission that will lead us to imagine the impossible and deliver it.”


“We need to prioritize innovation that is centered on our core value of empowering users and organizations to ‘do more.’ ” 


“Finally, I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it's not just work, but something that will improve other people's lives. This is the opportunity that drives each of us at this company.”  

Satya Nadella gets it! Frankly, with this kind of leadership Microsoft may reassert a leadership role in mobile and the cloud.  With Satya’s leadership, we may see massive value added to the company. Financial value creation is the result of a clear and powerful purpose. In other words, the power of leadership, by weaving purpose into everything you do, can accomplish amazing things.  

So what is your company’s purpose? You may already have it down clearly and now it’s a matter of finding ways to express this purpose through your team’s behaviors and attitudes. If you are still pondering your purpose, I suggest you don’t rush in quickly with an answer. The question is complicated. Purpose needs to link to your strategy, your mission, your values, and your tactics.  Purpose supports strategic execution. Here are some questions and suggestions to help you along the way:

1.  What do you do that contributes to a better world?  

2.  If you are successful, who will benefit and why?  

3.  Write down 10 things you do that benefit others. Is there an integrating theme here?

4.  If you are successful in your efforts, how will all of your stakeholders benefit?  What do you see as the underlying purpose here?  

5.  Test out ideas. Don’t jump the gun too quickly. Form an idea, get a dialogue going, and then enhance the idea. You will be surprised at what you learn.  

I’ll be giving more examples of companies who lead through a well defined, inspiring purpose statement. Why? Because purpose is at the roots of leadership. It involves moral judgements. Purpose is aspirational and inspirational. It focuses on the future and what role a leader plays in that future. If purpose is defined clearly from a moral foundation, it can redirect an entire company and for that matter, an entire world.


* Picture of Larry Webb courtesy of Bay Area BIA