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The importance of purpose in this new world of work

Purpose has always been at the heart of organizations, although more overtly in not-for-profits, where an organization's existence is defined by its cause: whether it's feeding inner city youth, finding a cure for cancer or ending human trafficking.

Purpose is deeper than strategy – it is the reason for which the company exists beyond making money. It is what a company stands for, what makes it different from its competitors – not just what is written on a website, but what is known to be true because it shows up in moments that matter, consistently, for employees, customers and other stakeholders. As Larry Fink, chief executive of asset manager Blackrock, recently challenged his fellow corporate CEOs: "Society is demanding that companies, both private and public, serve a social purpose."

A famous story goes that former U.S. president John F. Kennedy once asked a janitor at NASA what he was doing, to which he responded that he was putting a man on the moon– a vivid example of an organization's purpose and its power in engaging employees.

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Particularly in this new world of work – in which millennials, hungry for careers with purpose (and, really, aren't we all?), will make up 50 per cent of the work force by 2020 – companies can ill afford not making organizational purpose a priority. It is the tie that binds the employee and customer experience.

Purpose is more important than ever because of the blurred lines between customer and employee and because, with the diverse and sometimes dispersed worker ecosystem, purpose is the anchor that connects workers to the company, regardless of employment relationship.

Purpose and customer/employee engagement

In the age of social media and big data, the line between customer and employee is increasingly blurred. Employees are some of your most valuable customers and most loyal ambassadors. On the flip side, customers also "work for you"– through the data they provide just by browsing your website, which feeds algorithms that drive your marketing strategies and tactics.

If customer and employee experience is not aligned through a common purpose, there is a risk of confusion, mistrust and, ultimately, attrition of not only top talent, but top customers as well.

You don't need to be sending people into space to be purpose-driven. Town Shoes Ltd.'s purpose is to provide "Happiness through self-expression," which resonates with employees and customers alike – passionate not only about footwear, but also about making the world a happier, more inclusive place.

Purpose also drives an organization's corporate social responsibility choices. In Town Shoes' case, White Ribbon – the movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls – is one of the charities it supports through various initiatives that align with its purpose (the annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser and the Lace up, Speak Out campaign).

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Purpose and the new worker ecosystem

The new worker ecosystem is defined by:

  • Workers that are on site and remote, permanent and temporary, full-time and part-time (and even crowdsourced or robotic);
  • Shorter employee tenure at a company or in a job;
  • Large representation of millennials (again, seeking work with purpose)

In short, a one-sized-fits-all engagement strategy does not work. However, a strong organizational purpose will connect with the hearts and minds of all types of workers. Why? Because workers are able to make connections between their day-to-day work and a bigger picture. The result? They're more engaged, less likely to leave and more likely to represent your company consistently.

Canadian companies have some work to do on this front: according to HR management software and services company ADP's annual Evolution of Work study, only 51 per cent of workers feel their work is purposeful. Perhaps as a result, one in five workers are actively looking for new gigs, while an additional 43 per cent would be open to one.

Connecting to your inner purpose

You can think about your purpose as the intersection between what you love to do or are most interested in (passion), what you are naturally good at (skills and talents) and what you want to leave behind (impact or legacy).

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Particularly in this new world of work in which the half-life of a skill is three to five years, purpose is the common thread that guides individuals to the roles and companies that are the best fit and where they can have the most meaningful impact.

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