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The One Huge Mistake Companies Make When They Focus On Purpose

Written by: Dr. Max Klau, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a training on the topic of “Leading with Purpose” to a group of employees at a global professional services firm. The organization had recently decided to make purpose a core element of its brand and had already made considerable progress at building a focus on purpose into many facets of organizational culture. In fact, just prior to my session this group had watched a brief video from the CEO talking about the importance of purpose. I was invited to present this session because the content seemed so clearly aligned with this company-wide focus.

As part of my session, I invited participants to craft their own personal mission statement, as an expression of their own individual sense of purpose. I explained the exercise and provided a few moments for reflection before debriefing the experience. What happened next surprised me completely.

Many individuals in this group reported that the exercise was challenging and uncomfortable. One participant announced that he had not written a single word. “I have no idea what my mission is”, he said. “I’ve never thought about it before.”

This was a successful, highly compensated professional doing sophisticated work at an organization that claimed to be devoted to the clarity of purpose. Yet his own personal sources of meaning and motivation remained unexplored and unexamined.

Over the years, I’ve learned that this situation is not all that unusual. When organizational leaders decide to focus on purpose, they often act as though the work begins and ends with clarifying and aligning around organizational purpose. Much time and effort is dedicated to clarifying organizational purpose and then aligning individual and team efforts with that overarching purpose. Employees are invited to reflect on why that purpose is meaningful to them, and how they can support it through their work.

While there is much that is valuable and productive about this approach, it is incomplete in a highly problematic way. Employees are not empty vessels that can be “filled” with organizational purpose. They arrive with years of life experience and their own uniquely personal inner sources of meaning and motivation. They will do their best work when they are deeply connected to their own personal purpose and feel that the work they do every day is aligned with that purpose. In an optimal situation, an organization with a clear purpose is powered by employees who are connected to their own purpose. These individuals have chosen to work at this particular organization because of the high level of alignment they experience between personal and organizational purposes.

When organizations devote all their energy to promoting and discussing organizational purpose, they are often keeping individuals from connecting with personal purpose in ways that are unintentional but powerful. They create conditions that produce the individual in my leadership training: A staff person who is competent and comfortable in the organization but disconnected from his or her own sources of meaning and motivation. When things are going well these individuals may be content and reasonably productive, but when the pressure builds, the industry shifts, or things get challenging on either the personal or professional front, they are compelled to turn inwards and ask hard questions about what they really care most about. Organizations make a huge mistake by not inviting staff to do that personal inner work as a natural extension of their belief in the power of purpose for the organization.

To learn more about how organizations can provide powerful, scalable experiences of exploring personal purpose, check out my consulting work for purpose-driven organizations.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Dr. Max Klau, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Max Klau is an Integral Master coach, author, speaker, and consultant based in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2005 with a focus on leadership development. He currently serves as the Chief Program Office at the New Politics Leadership Academy, an organization focused on bringing more servant leaders into politics. His writing about leadership has appeared in Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review and his first book, Race & Social Change: A Quest, A Study, A Call to Action, was published in 2017.



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