The Importance of Being Purposeful

When I first came to Vancouver to take up my new role as a Human Resources Consultant with a major bank, my boss and I agreed that I should go on a road trip and meet with as many corporate banking employees as possible.  It was sort of an orientation thing for me and perhaps provided a chance for everyone else to give me the “once over”. Coming from Toronto, it seemed I was automatically not to be trusted.

On one occasion, I was to talk with a number of Corporate Account Managers.  My purpose was to get to know them as individuals; to learn about their ambitions; their challenges; and how we might better support their efforts.  It is entirely possible though that I did not adequately declare my intent, because the first person I encountered, pulled his chair very close to mine; stared sharply into my face and said, “I make money for the bank.  What do you do?”

Aside from the obvious attempt to intimidate me, his question was meant to suggest that as a person who made no direct contribution to the bottom line, whatever my purpose, I was an expense to the organization and thus unimportant.

This is not an uncommon perspective to take, especially in large organizations.  But at the time, I couldn’t help but think that there was something gravely missing from this outlook.

It occurs to me now that “making money for the bank”, while an admirable outcome, did not tell me anything about what this fellow saw as his purpose.  And, for me at least, there is something lost when a person seems to view his primary raison d’être as making money.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I like money as well as the next person and there is a primal need to earn it and manage it prudently.  But, the purpose of most jobs, or even most businesses is probably not principally about money.  It is more than likely something else, something that has to do with being of service.  Making money is an outcome of providing that service. The amount of money earned is usually determined by the quality and consistency of the service delivered and the ability of those who deliver it, to engender loyalty among a growing constituency.

But sometimes I think we forget.  We take our eye away from our fundamental purpose and allow ourselves to get fixated on the dollars.  And that’s when we risk running afoul of ourselves.  We get greedy.  We get parsimonious. We get our priorities out of order. And then we get into trouble.

For instance, there are a number of “recall” situations in the automobile industry. Somewhere along the line, I suspect these companies have strayed from their fundamental purpose, which to me goes something like, Make good, reliable cars & keep people safe, or something to that effect.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  People just have to know what it is and be able to access it when they need to re-focus.

And that is where good leadership is key. People need to know why their jobs exist; whom they are there to serve; and how it all fits together.

I think this is so because…

  1. It helps us in making good decisions and prioritizing appropriately. If we train ourselves to ask the question, how will doing this, (or not doing this) help me to serve my purpose? The answer will often give us the information we need to move forward.
  2. It helps us when we tackle problems.  Often problems can start to build on each other and become so complex that we get lost in them. When this happens, it sometimes helps to get back to the basic questions like, what is my main purpose and who am I here to serve?
  3. It helps us stay connected to the overall purpose of the organization. Knowing why our jobs exist and how they fit into the bigger picture makes it easier to stay focused on what’s important.
  4. It gives value to every role in the organization, not just a few. If you nurture a culture that identifies the purpose and value of each job in relation to the overall vision and to each other, everyone in the organization has an opportunity to feel important.
  5. It promotes good stewardship. If we are clear about our purpose, it is that much easier to recognize and fulfill our responsibilities to those we serve. 

So, what do you think?  What have I missed?  When you think about your job, what do you see as its purpose?  Knowing that, does it make it easier? Harder? Or does it make no difference at all? You tell me.


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11 responses to “The Importance of Being Purposeful

  1. Gywn this is a great post. I think its all about values isn’t it? Sometimes we get lost and forget our core values. For others, they never had such things, they were always “just there for the money”. Its not always possible to avoid such people in the hiring process, but one should certainly try. A banker who focuses solely on making money isn’t going to serve the customer nearly as well as those who don’t. They will choose products/services with the highest margins, regardless of whether that suits the customer best. It might work for a while but sooner rather than later, the customer will sense it and move on. On the other hand, a banker with the right values (and therefore focus) will make a lifetime customer for herself…and I think will make a much happier worklife in the process!

    best, David

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi David,

      Yes, it *is* about values and, it’s also about being able to rise above the immediacy of your tasks and connecting with something bigger than yourself.
      I think you are right when you say there are people whose focus is more self-serving than anything else. I think though, that some people who take this perspective have not had the opportunity to observe and appreciate what being purposeful can bring them. And this is where good leadership comes in.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for coming by! 🙂

  2. What an excellent article! Thank you for so concisely what I’ve been preaching for years. I’m saving – and sharing – this one.

    I have found the attitude you describe in management, and in sales of all levels. People often forget that even the person who cleans the offices makes it possible for others to do their jobs. They also forget that every person in every organization serves the whole – the organization.

    We all exist to serve. Some, like you, have the advantage of _knowing_ it.

    Again, great article. Thanks for sharing.

    Lane Baldwin (.com)

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Lane,

      Thank you so much for your kind remarks! I’m so glad to know there are people, like you, who are actively working to promote the notion that being of service is not about sub-servience, it is more about purpose and meaning.

      Thanks for coming by 🙂

  3. elliotross

    Hi Gwyn – I think your #3 is perfect – because that is often missing

    if you ask someone in your business; What do you do?

    The answer will usually be a functional answer such as I’m in accounting, or I’m in shipping.

    When you can ask that question, and the answer is how that position is benefiting your customer and your business, not just functional, Then you know you have yourself a high performance organization.

    I think most of us can learn from that.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Elliot,

      Yes, the answer to the “What do you do?” question is often telling. In many organizations we are conditioned to remain focused on our own specific function and, for whatever reason, not encouraged to seek the connections we need to really know or appreciate why we are really there.

      Thanks for adding your observations and experience to the post, Elliot!


  4. Gwyn,

    This is a great piece and I think you nailed it when you said the purpose of working is not measured in our bank accounts, but in the value our efforts contribute to the shared purpose or goal of our team or organization.

    I still find it astounding how companies still think that people should be motivated by money when all that creates is the impression of self-serving/self-interest. By demonstrating how critical one’s role is to the organization as a whole, people understand this isn’t just about them; it’s about how their role impacts those around them, how their fellow employees are counting on them, relying on them to help them succeed as well. And let’s face it, that is after all the very definition of teamwork.

    Again, great piece Gwyn. Thanks for sharing.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Tanveer,

      You bring out a great point. That is, while companies talk a lot about how best to engage people, they seem to go for the extrinsic over the intrinsic reward much too often. It could be that that the extrinsic is easier to come up with. But, as you point out, what makes people expend their best effort is usually something that has purpose and meaning for them, something that suggests belonging.

      I understand that this is part of the work you do with organizations. There should be more of you out there.

      Thank you for your comments and for adding value to the post!

  5. Thanks for the post Gwyn. While I wish it were different, I believe your banker whose purpose is to make money and lots of it is not a rare find. People focused on making money as their purpose are not It relates well to a meeting with a potential new client the other day and something I’ve been puzzling over for some time. This person’s number 1,2 and 3 goals are to make a lot of money. He meditates on piles of money as a way to calm himself down and sleep at night. He grew up in a very chaotic environment and had to fend for himself at a young age. I’ve been wondering if money represents a sense of control that was absent yet needed when he was younger and whether in her adult life money has become a sort of “make-up-for” the security & stability that didn’t happen then. I’m raising this conglomerate case because I believe he is not the only one and am curious to hear others’ thoughts.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Anne,

      Well, I tend to be an idealist and often write about the way things “should be” but you have me thinking and acknowledging that “making money” for some people really *is* their main purpose, and no kind of proof to the contrary could convince them otherwise.
      I’m not a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination but your story puts in mind of people who grew up with little to eat and so formed a habit at mealtimes of sitting at the table with both arms protectively “guarding” their food and eating as quickly as possible before someone could take it away.

      Like you, I have encountered quite a number of people who place money above all else. And so, I expect for them, it is a primary purpose.

      But I, like you, think a purpose like that is too fragile and volatile to sustain and build on over time with the consequences of the ups and downs such a purpose suggests being way too heavy for most people to endure.

      Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment!

  6. Gwyn – so glad you posted your response. I’m thinking that talking to people who are money purposed about the unreliability of it all may get them thinking differently. Probably should just work with different clients instead.

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