It Matters How We Think About Work

June 20, 2019

Several years ago, the Principal Financial Group ran an advertisement showing an athletic woman in her sixties wearing a wet suit, carrying a surfboard, and delightedly heading to the shore.  The question was posed “Why do we work?” and then subsequently answered, “For the freedom that a secure retirement brings.”  It ended by stating, “We understand what you’re working for.” It is clear in this ad, and many like it, that “you” are not working for the sake of the work itself.  You are working toward liberation from work.  The problem with this is that you cannot experience financial freedom if the central activity which provides financial resources is something you merely “put up with” or suffer through. True freedom is not contingent on a change in circumstances. To be free is not to be liberated from work, but rather to be liberated in work. Consider Your Rationale for Working There are practical questions to consider when thinking of ‘why’ any of us do what we do:

  • Do doctors practice medicine primarily in order to make a living or to relieve suffering?
  • Do lawyers accept briefs because it is the profession that enables them to live or because of their passion for justice?
But then, does it actually matter why we do the work we do? To answer this question, we’ll look at the business world.  What makes certain companies so successful?  It’s more than having a motivated, passionate employee base.  It’s also more than just trying to make a lot of money.  The best companies in the world are the ones that have put purpose before profit.  They have a grand vision of making the world – or some little corner of it – somehow better off.  The employees of these companies are doing work that matters to them. In Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras showed that organizations driven by purpose and values outperformed the general market 15:1.1  Another book called Firms of Endearment identifies thirty companies that are driven by a clear sense of purpose and that put their employees and customers ahead of the needs of shareholders.2 The stocks of these purpose-driven firms have outperformed their more conventional competitors by a ratio of 8-to-1.  The outperforming ones are the ones steered by their purpose above all else that are much less influenced by the movement in their stock price.  Ironically, it is those firms that are almost exclusively transfixed on profit and shareholders that continually underperform. The Importance of Purpose Jim Stengel, the former global marketing officer of Proctor and Gamble, said “The power of purpose is not a marketing idea or a sales idea.  It’s a company idea.  Purpose drives an entire organization and it answers why the brand exists.” 3 Southwest Airlines is by far the most successful company in the airline industry.  Herb Kelleher founded Southwest nearly 40 years ago.  At the time the company was founded, there were immensely high cost structures associated with air travel.  As a result, only 15% of the American public had ever flown at that time, since no one but the upper class could afford to fly. So, Kelleher, started Southwest with a very basic but powerful purpose.  He wanted to “democratize the skies” by giving people “the freedom to fly”.  It is no coincidence that, since the time Southwest airlines was founded; the percentage of Americans who have flown has leaped from 15% to over 85%. In order to achieve the purpose of his company, Kelleher has maintained a laser-like focus to drastically reduce the price of flying.  In order to do that, his company had to completely rethink the prevailing economic model of the airline industry.  Among other ideas, Southwest established a point-to-point system rather than the less efficient “hub and spoke” model. The Source of Motivation The key part of the story of successful companies is the effect that purpose has on the employees.  In his book, It’s Not What You Sell, Roy Spence states, “Purpose turns employees into evangelists, which turns strangers into customers, and customers into fans.  It’s absolutely contagious.”  4 You can see this sort of corporate “evangelism” from employees at firms such as Whole Foods, John Deere, and BMW.  Each of these companies has a focused sense of purpose that has rallied the workforce and turned them into advocates.  That same sense of purpose that has guided the world’s most successful companies and inspired their employees can and should guide each of us as we navigate our daily lives. Too many people go through life without much enthusiasm or a sense of excitement.  Frequently this is due to the fact that they are doing or being something or someone who they are not.  It is incongruent, and it often leads to depression, burnout, or just being ineffective.  That’s why it is important to gain a much better understanding of what is truly important to you and develop a strong sense of purpose around that theme. Roy Spence says it this way:  “If you have a purpose and can articulate it with clarity and passion, then everything makes sense and everything flows.  You feel good about what you’re doing and clear about how to get there.  You’re excited to get up in the morning and you sleep easier at night.” 4 In other words, our work matters.  In the aforementioned examples, the functional reason for employees of these firms do the job they do is because it helps other people. As Dorothy Sayers articulated 70 years ago, “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.” 5 At Brown and Company, we work a lot with people who are nearing retirement. In those cases, it’s important to consider what life will look like when your work is reduced, changed, or ended altogether.  We’ve developed an assessment to help with that.  You can click here to learn more about it.   Sources: 1 Collins, Jim & Porra, Jerry. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994. 2 Sisodia, Raj & Wolfe David B. & Sheth, Jag. Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion & Purpose. New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing, 2007. 3 Stengel, Jim. Grow: How Ideals Power Growth & Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2011. 4 Spence, Roy M., Jr. It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. 5 Sayers, Dorothy L. “Why Work,” Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine. 1942. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004.