Does purpose truly drive profit? Or is it just some words on a poster next to the fire alarm?

In her book, Leading with Noble Purpose, Lisa Earle McLeod asks a powerful question: "What if your work mattered so much to you that---on your deathbed---you found yourself wishing for one more day at the office?"

She suggests that while we may have all heard that no one on their deathbed wishes that they'd spent more time at the office, what if we did? What if we authentically felt that way because we had found the same quality of experiences and relationships in our professional lives that we expect and nurture in our personal lives?

Boy would that shatter the current apathy and indifference represented by the Gallup research that states 70 percent of today's workforce is not engaged and is merely sleepwalking though their work-a-day life. Better yet, what if we lived one life where a day with those we love, and the day at the office had the same sense of importance, meaning, and joy?

Changing the Story we Tell our People

The best comment McLeod leaves us with is that we have made some faulty assumptions about work, and those assumptions support a belief structure that meaningless work is ok. "We have allowed the money story to replace the meaning story," she says.

When you think about it, most of the stories we tell our people at town halls, roadshows, and strategy launches are about the acronym-rich and meaning-poor money language of EBITDA, ROIC, operating margin, and revenue growth.

The narrative in the vast majority of our organizations is more about "what's in it for me" (WIIFM), earning and incentives rather than about the power of doing work that matters. It is as if we believe measuring money will produce more money.

However, it is increasingly clearer that the most profitable companies we know, the companies that are able to sustain that profit, put purpose at their centers. It may very well be that we still blindly follow the beliefs and behaviors of Adam Smith, one of the inventors of the free market and author of The Wealth of Nations. Smith wrote, "It is in the inherent interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner that authority will permit."

What he's essentially saying is: if we're going to get to the same place no matter what we do or how we do it, let's exert as little effort as possible. Let's just skate by. Let's not really put in our all, because, well, we probably don't need to.

Putting Purpose at the Core

This mindset may have gotten many of us through grade school, perhaps even college. And many of us still - knowingly or not - hold onto the belief that our sole motivation for working is money. So as we become leaders of companies, builders of businesses, we end up assuming the same of our people and therefore we act as though we're not interested in getting their minds, their passions or their hearts at work. We're just getting usable labor for a fee.

Sure, work can be difficult, soaked in adversity and challenge, exhausting. But it shouldn't be a soul draining. It shouldn't literally suck the life out of us. Rather, our work should provide a noble purpose we vigorously pursue while feeling inspired to give the best of what we have to offer.

How are you approaching work? What are your assumptions and beliefs for those you lead and for yourself?

Here are 3 quick yes-or-no questions to test your purpose IQ:

  1. Are you focused on profit instead of purpose? Are you so intent on making money, serving shareholders, and driving revenue that you miss the purpose and meaning in your business that actually drives results? Purpose creates profits... not the other way around. Check your beliefs, and then check the growing body of research that describes the difference in business results for companies that put purpose at the center of all they do.
  2. Are you telling a money story or a meaning story? Look at your presentations, your roadmaps, your dashboards. What do you have on them and what stories do you tell? Are they stories tracking metrics exclusively, or are they stories about how what you do impacts the lives of other human beings?
  3. Are you making purpose personal? If you were at a reunion and a relative you hadn't seen in a while asked what you do, how would you answer? Would you talk about the tasks? Or the purpose? Would you say that you drive a truck? Or you deliver fresh food to markets in out-of-the-way locales so people can eat nutritiously? When you respond with your purpose, you start by addressing who you do it for, what their needs are, and how they change as a result of what you provide. And the whole thing feels, sounds and actually IS different.

Wishing for one more day at the office starts with your beliefs and behaviors - and where you stand on the relationship between purpose and profit. Are your stories ones of earnings and incentives, or are they of how your work impacts the lives of other human beings?

Being purpose-driven is what kicks disengagement out the top-floor window. It's what makes your people run to the office every day, knowing what they do means something to you, to their colleagues and to the people they serve. Every job has a purpose - something people can connect to that's bigger than themselves or their paycheck. As leaders, we must shift our mindsets from Smith to McLeod - from money to meaning - and the rest will flow from there.