When I was a teenager, I got a summer job working in a grocery store. All day long, I took vegetable cans out of boxes, hit each one with a price tag gun, and placed them on the shelf. Again. And again. And again. I felt every minute of every hour stretch to a standstill. I had no contact with customers, and I hardly ever saw a manager.
Then I got lucky: I was hit by a forklift behind the store. A bruised tailbone got me paid sick leave until the end of the summer. Since the only reason I took the job was to earn money to buy myself a new bike, I was very happy!
But of course there’s something wrong with this story. Is work really just something we must endure so we can afford to do something else — like riding a bike? Or is there more? Why do we work?
I believe this question carries fundamental implications for business leaders, as I’ve described in my recent book The Heart of Business. The answer each of us gives influences our attitude toward work and how invested we are willing to be as individuals, and thus whether we and our companies thrive. As the CEO of Best Buy many years after my stint in the grocery store, I saw firsthand how recognizing the intrinsic human value of work makes for happier and healthier employees and a more grounded and successful company — in both good and challenging times. As we now face complex health, social, economic, and environmental crises, being strongly connected to a positive answer to the question of why we work is more important than ever.
Cynical answers to that question are deeply seated in our culture, however. The conception of work as a chore, curse, or punishment dates as far back as Greek antiquity, continues all the way to the Industrial Revolution, and still impacts how society today tends to think and feel about the professional world today. In this view, work is, at best, a means to an end: You make some money so you can pay the bills (or buy a new bike), go on holidays, and retire. No wonder more than 8 out of 10 workers do not feel engaged, and less than a quarter of C-suite or VP level executives do. Even as much work has shifted away from backbreaking or mind-numbing labor towards less physically demanding, more agile and creative work, this uninspiring view of work remains prevalent.
The consequences are tragic. How people approach work dictates how much effort and energy they put into it. Because leaders often don’t see or think about this connection, so much personal potential remains unfulfilled — a loss in human terms. But it is also a loss of unfulfilled economic potential: this disengagement epidemic has been estimated to cost a hefty $7 trillion in lost productivity. Business units that are the most engaged are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable that those that are the least. More engaged, happier employees directly reflect on the bottom line and on stock price. Imagine what would become possible if, instead of less than 20%, more than 80% of people gave their very best.
This article is one in a series on “The Human Imperative,” the theme of the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum. See the conference program here.
What would that take? It starts with a different view of work. Whether we’re talking about manual labor or creative work, instead of treating it as a chore or a curse, we can choose to approach work as what I feel it is: An essential element of our humanity, a key to our search for meaning as individuals, and a way to find fulfillment in our life.
This vision of work also has some precedent in our culture, as dominant as the more cynical view may be. Poet Khalil Gibran eloquently described work as love made visible. Many religions consider it a way to help others and honor God. And according to psychologist Viktor Frankl, work that serves a higher purpose can be a fundamental part of our quest for meaning and fulfillment.
Easy enough for the creative types, you might say. But can all work be meaningful? I firmly believe so. When I remember my boring summer job, I contrast it with Wegmans, the chain of grocery stores famous for its service and engaged employees. Or the story of two masons during the Middle Ages, performing the exact same tasks, who were asked about their work. “Don’t you see? I’m cutting stones,” said the first one, whereas the second took an entirely different view. “I’m building a cathedral,” he replied. Like the first mason, today’s zookeepers, for example, could consider their work cleaning out cages and feeding animals as dull and dirty, or somehow beneath them given that four out of five of them have a college degree. Instead, research has shown that few ever quit, because most view their work as a meaningful personal calling to care for animals. No matter our role, we get to choose our purpose, and we get to consider how our work is connected to it.
This perspective has shaped how I’ve approached my own work at Best Buy and beyond. I believe it carries three crucial steps for today’s business leaders.
Find Your Personal Purpose
First, believing that work can be meaningful suggests that you as a leader must be clear about your own personal purpose. Invest time and focus figuring out why you work. What do you truly and profoundly aspire to? Start with what gives you energy and joy — in short, what drives you?
For example, my own self-reflection years ago led me to conclude that what drives me is making a positive difference for people around me and using the platform I have to make a positive difference in the world; this is why I am now teaching at Harvard Business School, why I coach and mentor senior executives, and why I wrote my book.
Encourage Your Employees to Find Their Purpose
Next, it is just as critical for leaders to encourage everyone in the company to do the same introspection — and to share its results with those around them. Best Buy employees, for example, are regularly encouraged to reflect on what drives them. When I was CEO, I was always moved by the generosity of their answers, which typically involved doing something good for someone else. I heard much the same at company get-togethers, where we deliberately scheduled time for employees to share stories of personal purpose. This makes an enormous difference.
In a Best Buy store in Florida, for example, a strong sense of personal purpose drove two sales associates to become dinosaur surgeons. When a mom brought her devastated toddler back to the store after he’d broken his favorite T-rex toy, which had been purchased there, the associates immediately took the dinosaur in for “surgery” behind the counter. While narrating the life-saving procedure, they discreetly exchanged the broken toy for a new one. A few minutes later, they handed over the “cured” dinosaur. Without their clear sense of purpose — that they wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives — they would, at best, have directed the boy and his mom to the shelf carrying a replacement toy. But instead they put a grin back on a little boy’s face.
Besides encouraging others to reflect on their personal purpose, it is essential for business leaders to understand what motivates individuals around them. To find out what drove each member of Best Buy’s executive team and how their work fit in their lives and histories, I organized a dinner during one of our regular quarterly retreats and simply asked: “What is your life story? What drives you? How does your personal purpose connect with what you’re doing at work?” Through the course of the evening, we all learned that each of us was not just an executive but a whole, beautiful, complex human being. We also learned that, with few exceptions, we all shared the same purpose in life: make a positive difference on the lives of other people.
What might sound like a warm and fuzzy sidebar turned into a pivotal moment. These discoveries lent clarity to our ongoing project to define our corporate purpose. We realized that we wanted to use Best Buy to be a force for good in the world. We wanted to build a company that employees and customers would love, that honored and respected our partners and the world we live in, and that used this as a basis to reward shareholders.
Connect Personal and Company Purpose
This brings me to the third implication of the belief that all work can be meaningful: A critical element of leadership is to help individuals at all levels of the company not only reflect on what drives them, but also connect this to the company’s collective purpose. When I was at Best Buy, there was a manager at a store near Boston who would ask every single person on his team, “What is your dream?” He’d work with them to help achieve it, but he’d also link their dream to the company’s purpose. That gave everyone the energy that, combined with their skills, drove much of the store’s superior performance by making each and every employee feel personally invested in the company’s purpose.
One of the store’s sales associates, for example, dreamed of leaving her parents’ house and living in her own apartment —something she could not achieve on her hourly wage. The store manager helped her see how better helping customers by making a difference in their lives, in line with Best Buy’s corporate purpose, would also make a difference in hers and her parents’: she could get her own apartment if she became a supervisor or assistant manager. Once that connection was made, she became far more invested in her work, and with the support of the store manager and her team, she eventually obtained her promotion and fulfilled her dream.
Today, a lot is being said and written about company purpose. This is a good thing, but without linking it to individual drive, a company purpose has no soul and no legs. Clearly articulating and feeding the connection between personal and company purpose is therefore one of the most crucial roles of any leader, from top executives to store managers.
Applying this very human sense of purpose to work changes how we approach it and therefore how much we engage in it. Does it make work always easy and always fun? No. Everyone has bad days. Every job comes with its challenges. A personal sense of purpose is not in and of itself the only thing that fires people up at work. But being able to connect what we do every day with a bigger sense of why we do it helps infuse us humans with energy, drive, and direction. And this is a good start — whether you are a mason or a CEO.