Connect every job role to purpose

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Recently, I was a guest on a podcast with Wanda Wallace. She posed some great questions, including one about how to connect every job role, including support roles that operate behind the scenes, to the organization’s purpose.

In reflecting on the question, I am reminded of three priorities:

  1. Relevance trumps virtue.
  2. Everyone contributes.
  3. Don’t settle.

Relevance trumps virtue.

The most effective mission, vision, and purpose statements are written in a way that is authentic yet inclusive of every job role within the organization.

If these guiding statements are too abstract, they may not resonate equally at all levels of the organization. They may be viewed with skepticism as being too far removed from the day-to-day job responsibilities of the workforce they’re meant to inspire.

Take, for instance, Kroger’s purpose statement: To feed the human spirit.

While noble, it is rather lofty and amorphous and doesn’t pertain directly to the job role of, say, an employee whose responsibilities include sacking groceries, bringing carts inside the store from the parking lot, or cleaning up the occasional spill. If I were this employee’s supervisor, I would find it awkward to cajole him into mopping up a spill on aisle 10 by championing the job purpose: “Feed the human spirit, Todd!”

A better illustration is Deloitte’s purpose statement: To make an impact that matters.

This purpose is concrete and applies to every job role in the organization. Whether one is client facing, as a consultant, or works behind the scenes as an analyst, engineer, or developer, the higher purpose of the job role is authentic and applies universally across the company, regardless of region, division, department, or job role.

Everyone contributes.

Each individual job role’s purpose reflects the unique role-based contribution made by the employee in support of the overarching organizational purpose.

Hyatt’s purpose is to care for people so they can be their best. This is universal in that it applies to every job role, whether a housekeeper, laundry attendant, front desk agent, restaurant server, maintenance engineer, human resources director, or general manager.

A housekeeper contributes to the purpose by ensuring that the early-morning alarm set by the previous guest is deactivated so as not to interrupt the guest’s sleep—so she can be at her best that day.

A catering services employee contributes by making sure the markers that accompany the flip chart in the meeting room are fresh, rather than dried out or dry-erase markers that appear faint by comparison—so the presenter can be at his best.

A maintenance employee contributes by verifying that everything is in working order (in the guest room and throughout the facility) such as the WiFi and health club equipment—so the guest can be at her best.

Every role contributes in a unique way to the organization’s higher purpose: to care for people so they can be their best.

Many years ago, I came across this creative reminder of the importance of each individual’s unique contribution to the success of the team:

Xvxryonx makxs a diffxrxncx.

Somxtimxs I gxt to thinking that what I do doxsn’t mattxr. But whxn I start thinking that way, I rxmxmbxr my old laptop. Most of thx kxys workxd finx most of thx timx. But onx day, onx of thx kxys stoppxd working altogxthxr. And that rxally mxssxd xvxrything up. So whxn I’m txmptxd to say, I’m only onx pxrson, it won’t makx much diffxrxncx if I don’t do this quitx right, I rxmxmbxr my old laptop. And I say to mysxlf: “I am a kxy pxrson and nxxdxd vxry much.”

Adapted from the book Inside the Magic Kingdom. Used with the permission of the publisher.

Don’t settle.

When determining the purpose of a job role, don’t settle for the obvious.

United Airlines’ purpose is “Connecting people. Uniting the world.”

This purpose applies universally across many job roles. Whether a pilot who connects passengers between points of origin and their destinations, a mechanic who keeps planes in service, or a reservations agent who facilitates a complicated itinerary, all reflect the airline’s raison d’être, its reason for being—to connect people and, in doing so, unite the world.

But what about an employee who works behind the scenes to ensure passengers are reunited with their baggage at their final destination? To me, it’s unnatural to say that baggage handlers’ single highest priority at work is to connect people and unite the world. Connect people with their bags? Maybe. Reunite passengers with their bags? Possibly. But even these read more like job functions than aspirational pursuits.

Rather than settling for the obvious in a way that may inhibit employees from realizing their higher purpose at work, it’s important to honor the over-arching purpose of the airline while articulating a credible and relevant single highest priority of baggage handlers’ job role. One way to approach this is to ask “why” multiple times.

Q1   Why do we route baggage from the terminal to the correct airplane?

A     To ensure passengers don’t become separated from their belongings.

Q2   Why is it important that passengers don’t become separated from their belongings?

A     So they have access to their belongings at their final destination.

Q3   Why is it important that they have access to their belongings at their final destination?

A     So they can accomplish the objective of their trip, whether business or leisure.

Q4   Why is it important for them to accomplish the objective of their trip?

A     To achieve their personal or professional goals.

Now, you have drilled down to an area that reflects job purpose. In particular, the link between the efficient handling of baggage and customers’ ability to achieve their personal or professional goals. A viable candidate for a baggage handler’s single highest priority at work is

To support our customers’ success.

This statement is aspirational in nature. It cannot be quantified like Left Behind Index (LBI), Mishandled Baggage Index (MBI), or similar industry metrics. It can serve as a North Star that guides employee behavior, prompting them to be observant, pay special attention to detail, display a sense of urgency, handle with care, follow up, and, in a word, care.

If the customer arrives at her final destination to pitch investors and doesn’t receive the checked baggage containing her suit and bound copies of the presentation deck, her ability to accomplish the objective of her trip is in jeopardy—as is her success.

By articulating the higher purpose of the job role, you’re expanding the role’s objective from execution and delivery (the what and how elements of a job role) to contribution and purpose (the why element of a job role).

It is imperative to connect every job role, including support roles that operate behind the scenes, to the organization’s purpose. When considering how to accomplish this, first recall that relevance trumps virtue. If the stated purpose sounds noble but doesn’t apply to an employee’s job role, then it’s irrelevant. Second, everyone contributes. Each job role reflections the unique contribution made by the employee to the higher purpose of the organization. And third, don’t settle for the obvious. Know that you may have to dig to get past the veneer of job functions to get to the higher purpose of the job role.

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