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5 reasons why your company gets purpose terribly wrong

It was Sunday morning, May 6th 2012, on a bench overlooking the beautiful Alster River in Hamburg, Germany. I had just been personally shaken by my own words: What I was doing with my talents, energy and life was a waste of the most precious good - time. That morning, my mentor challenged me to a dead honest inventory of my life, capacities and ambitions. Without me noticing, he was preparing me for this moment for over a couple of months. This morning fundamentally changed my perspective. If I wanted to leave the downward spiral of extrinsic motivation, I needed to dodge the tempting promises of a brighter future’s tale. Instead, I needed to set my ambitions and convictions clear and live them in every single moment. I needed to shift from goal-orientation to purpose-orientation.

Today, 7 purpose-led years later, igniting the shift to purpose in people and organizations has become my job. And this job has never been easier: Drawn by the measurable dominance of purpose-orientation over conventional (self-)management philosophies, more and more companies are on their way to discover purpose (if your right brain hemisphere demands some metrics, www.scienceofpurpose.org will give you a fair overview). However, most of them stand in the way of their own success by regarding purpose as something like an “add-on” to their existing brand strategy or employee satisfaction programs. Companies once made the mistake to regard digitization as an “add-on” to their core business. And they are doing it again.

Therefore, to keep you from running into a dead end, I want to share with you the top five misconceptions that are hindering you and your company from adopting purpose.

1. You think purpose is fun

Purpose is found on the basis of critical examination of your own existence. This is not to yield the job interview kind of weak spots (‘I am too dedicated’). It is about the inconvenient truths about your fundamental self (‘I am living a lie’). This applies for organizations, too. Take the example of the transportation industry. Once truly embodying freedom, it’s inconvenient truth is, that it has become an ecologic disaster. Questioning - and very likely shattering - your self-image is as tough as it is liberating. Is it fun? Not so much. Is it rewarding? Hell yeah.

2. You think purpose at your company is about your company

Often, companies seek to frame and match their employees’ purposes with their organizations' purpose. If there is no fit, people shall leave. This is the result of an ‘alignment culture’. However, giving meaning is a human domain and finding purpose is a very personal process. Therefore, it is the opposite of alignment. It is cherishing uniqueness. Business strategy or brand identity play absolutely zero role in this process. A couple of years ago, the German police has hunted a new super criminal: Across the country, ‘the phantom’ miraculously appeared on various crime scenes. It took them over a year, to find out that all of their samples were simply spoiled with the DNA of the same laboratory assistant. With purpose, any ‘official narrative’ functions like the assistant’s DNA. It completely spoils the effort. And no, there is no harmless dose.

3. You think you can handle the purpose effect

Finding and living your purpose means to know and unleash your inner drive. That this would mean a significant but mere increase in productivity, is one of the first misconceptions of our clients we clear up at Millennial Superstars. With their purpose set clear, employees will not shy away from making significant contributions. They will question and ideate whole product portfolios, push for (or against) structures and – most importantly – just do. Think about how many times fear, perceived hierarchy or an ‘official position’ stood in your way of expressing a very relevant concern or idea. Managers usually have not the slightest idea what it means to deal with people who actually know who they are and what they stand for. How could they? They have themselves been brought up in a world where their human nature and beliefs are considered as noise or weakness. In any case, your management claim will be put to the toughest of tests: eye-level.

4. You employ the wrong people to do the job

History repeats itself: After companies missed the opportunity of the early days of digital transformation, they rushed into digital innovation programs with the help of ‘digital strategists’. As a result, we can all observe numerous and likewise unsuccessful ‘new digital business models’ while core processes remain widely antiquated. If you employ strategists, what you get is a strategy – not transformation. This is happening again with purpose: You employ brand strategists? You will receive a brand strategy. You rather employ marketers? You will basically receive commercials. By doing so, companies even increase the gap between inner drive and external image. Hence, ‘burning the subject’. Sounds familiar? Yes, you are doing it again. Rule of thumb: If there are only happy faces, it’s probably just marketing.

5. You are underestimating the urgency

Applying common sense, it becomes obvious that in a few decades, large parts of our economic activity will be either illegal or ostracized (consider again the above example of the transportation industry). Even sooner, a purpose-oriented generation of consumers, employees and investors will make up the majority of stakeholders for virtually every company. They will quite literally not buy any purpose-less products and principles anymore. Like every major change, the shift towards purpose will create winners and losers. It is highly questionable if regarding purpose as a mere “add-on” to corporate social responsibility or employee satisfaction activities will suffice to make it to the bright side. The good news is: Once you found your purpose, it will tell you exactly what to do.

Overcoming my own misconceptions was a steep but rewarding process. Today, I can look back on 7 astonishing purpose-led years (ful)filled with encounters, conversations and experiences that would be enough for an entire life (text me if you would like to hear the story about my initiation ritual with the Ni-Van, the tiger or the last moment with my grandmother). What stands out, is the single most important lesson I learned: Fulfilment does not happen in your spare time and it starts with relinquishing control. Professional success – as both an employee and an entrepreneur – has then always been the consequence of living up to my purpose.

What I personally needed as an eye-opener, was the morning on the bench overlooking the river back in 2012. It was the last time my mentor and I had met. After seeing me shaken by my own words he considered his job done. He was right.

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