The Power of Purpose in Motivating a Workforce

Waco Bankston, General Manager Corporate Services, Senior Leadership Team, STP Nuclear Operating Company

Waco Bankston, General Manager Corporate Services, Senior Leadership Team, STP Nuclear Operating Company

Purpose is defined as “the reason for existing”. This is a seemingly benign question, but once contemplated the answer can become quite complex and daunting. Research conducted at MIT’s Sloan School of Business has indicated that for true ownership to occur with a firm’s employees, there needs to be an emotional connection and an acute sense of purpose. Without this, employees go through the motions, but are disengaged. And disengaged employees are not as productive as they would be otherwise. Defining a sense of purpose may be quite easy for employees of a cancer research hospital, but can prove to be more complicated for employees who work for a utility company. For instance, if one produces electricity or any other market commodity as the customer product, how can these employees connect themselves passionately and emotionally to their sense of “purpose” or reason for existing in the marketplace? As leaders, we must provide and articulate this connection.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Alan Mulally, one of the best leaders of our modern times who perfectly articulated how leaders can go about capturing their employee’s hearts and minds resulting in true ownership. Mulally was at the helm of both Boeing and Ford Motor Company and was instrumental in these firms' success and sustainability. In fact, at Ford Motor Company, Alan was noted as one of the only CEO's of auto manufacturers to refuse Government handouts during the 2008 recession. Not only did he refuse the handout, but he was extraordinarily successful at leading Ford and its employees through this pivotal time in our Nation's history. In fact, the ONE Ford team was galvanized more than ever around the firm's mission and vision and determined to execute upon the strategies the firm (and its people) had developed. This was all done through shared purpose and meaning among the Ford employees. How was this done?

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 ​Imagine what would transpire at our organizations and the business results achievable if each and every solitary individual felt an emotional connection to the firm's ‘reason for being’ 

I was able to meet Mulally through MIT's Executive Education program--an extraordinary program in its own right. The primary topic of discussion was how leaders go about creating "Game-Changing Organizations" at the individual level. Among the lecturers, Boeing and Ford's ex-boss spoke to the body of participants on creating a strong, emotionally-connected sense of purpose. His primary message was one of inclusiveness and rigorous follow-up. Throughout the program, the central theme was the need for individuals -- each and every person in a company -- to have an acute sense of PURPOSE. In other words, each individual within a firm should be able to answer the question of "Why they exist?" So often companies create Visions and Missions which are well documented and discussed, but lack a stated Purpose that in and of itself inspires and connects individuals on an emotional level.

In addition, a PURPOSE statement is not the same thing as a VISION statement. A vision is a simple statement of aspiration or where one will be in the future. A purpose statement on the other hand answers the question of why an organization exists in the here and now. Why are we here right now?

Does your firm or organization know why they exist in the World? If asked, what would they answer? And would that answer have an emotional and dramatic connection for that individual? The answer to the last question is, "it should". Based on MIT's research of successful organizations, Dr. Douglas Ready, Senior Lecturer for the Sloan Business School, indicated leaders who are able to articulate a firm's purpose with a sense of drama and emotion are more successful at gaining individual employee engagement and ownership than those who lack a strong sense of purpose backed by emotion and dramatic elements. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do not believe Dr. Ready is advocating for "over the top" Broadway productions on purpose as that would be inauthentic. The point is this. For an individual to really connect with their firm's Vision and reason for being, they must feel connected to it in a significant way. And we human beings tend to connect through emotion. One way to elicit this emotion is through dramatic stories and statements designed to inspire and motivate. To compel individuals to action by clearly articulating a sense of purpose or "why one exists in the World" creates enthusiastic participation and a sense of Ownership by all.

If you believe you may be lacking employee ownership and passionate participation, perhaps the following questions will help in moving industry leaders to action:

1. Do your employees know WHY the firm or organization exists?
2. Is this reason for existence compelling? Exciting? Dramatic? Emotional? If not, it's a leader's job to create this emotional connection.
3. Do they feel involved and included? Is the culture one of inclusiveness?

So, what about working in the Utilities industry? Can this co-exist with dramatic, emotionally-driven purpose statements? Absolutely. Think about the generation of electricity or the production of gas. Recall the hospital example above? These hospitals can’t run without commodities such as electricity and fuel. They need these products to operate life-saving equipment. And thus, one can quickly see that a distinct line can be drawn between the production of a commodity and that of life-altering outcomes for human beings. Electricity usage is at the heart of human civilization and provides a mechanism for which all innovation is built. This product has and continues to change and shape lives. My point is that we as leaders must articulate for our organizations and employees a keen and dramatic sense of purpose.

Imagine what would transpire at our organizations and the business results achievable if each and every solitary individual felt an emotional connection to the firm's "reason for being". Ownership and passion for success would prevail. Extraordinary success would result! But we can't achieve this without a strategic mindset of inclusiveness and without one's true sense of PURPOSE. 

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