Millennials cite a sense of  purpose as one of their top priorities in choosing - and staying in - a job. But in speaking with the millennials on my own team, I've learned that a "sense of purpose" means different things to different people.

Typically, it veers towards contributing to something with greater meaning in the world. Sometimes, however, people are more interested in organizational purpose, or how their day-to-day work impacts the company as a whole.

The organizational purpose side of things is often overlooked, simply because we tend to assume that employees understand their purpose in the company. But don't mistake understanding the responsibilities of a role for understanding the role's purpose.

Without a bigger picture view of how their specific role fits into a larger goal or vision, an employee won't have the power of perspective to understand the impact of their work.

Often the organization itself does a good job of writing out mission statements and the like to clarify the overall purpose of the company, operating with the assumption that employees will understand their individual contributions within that larger effort.

However, it can be difficult for some employees to connect the dots back from their individual role to the larger purpose of the company.

For example, in a publishing company like ours, it's easy enough for an editor to understand the contributions they make toward helping an author develop his or her ideas...but someone in the accounting department might need a bit more guidance to see the connection.

With some people, all it takes is a little initial help to establish and hold onto that connection. Others, however, need an ongoing sense of contribution to feel truly connected to purpose.

Regardless of whether anyone needs it to feel purpose, reinforcing that sense of contribution is really a no-lose effort. It helps your team feel valued while helping you create alignment. That's just one reason why it's helpful to have some version of the vision principles I wrote about.

Vision principles give employees SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound) goals at the departmental level that tie back to the greater common vision of the company. As the leader, you provide the birds-eye level vision points.

Each department then works independently to develop goals that support that vision. A quarterly check-in presentation by each department features various members of the department talking through how the team performed against their goals.

This structure keeps leadership looped in on each team's progress while simultaneously reinforcing the sense of purpose derived from contributing to the company's overall vision on a regular basis.

The power of purpose is not limited to millennials, of course. Employees of every generation draw empowerment and motivation from feeling a deeper connection to their work and its impact on our world. 

The wiser you get, the more you realize that purpose is more about what you give to the world versus what you get from it - and also that growth in and of itself is a worthwhile purpose, even if it is at times difficult and/or involves failure. 

I once had a conversation with somebody who took issue with the notion of purpose-driven work in the 'greater meaning in the world' capacity.

He said, "All of this 'I need purpose' talk is ridiculous. If everyone held out for a job with purpose, who would be left for jobs like trash collection?" I argued that there is purpose in everything, and it's more about finding what has the strongest pull for you.

I know people in non-profit roles who have lost a feeling of purpose. Purpose is a lot more about attitude than it is about the role itself.

Without this trash collector, for example, our streets would be lined with rotting trash and eventually overrun with disease because of it. In that way, trash collectors are stewards of our cities and health - quite an important purpose, as it turns out.

When considering how to underscore a sense of purpose in your company, bear in mind the different meaning that holds for various employees. Using a tool like vision principles will give you the means to address the need for organizational purpose while also clarifying priorities through a consistent structure.

Published on: Jul 29, 2016
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