Toward the end of a workshop I facilitated on purpose-driven work, a regional manager of a large electronics supplier tentatively raised her hand.
"About a year ago, I figured out why I do my job," she said. "As I was sitting in the hospital waiting for the CT scan that could save my life, I remember thinking, 'my company helped build this machine.'"
Before my eyes, I could see her colleagues becoming more engaged in their work.
The energy in the room changed. People were smiling more and telling stories about their own experiences of feeling pride in the company. A sense of solidarity that hadn't existed five minutes prior took over the hotel ballroom.
The moment they collectively heard their co-worker's personal story, they finally got it.
Outside of profit, strategy, sales goals, and targets, she is why their job exists.
This sense of authentic purpose, the true reason for a company's or product's existence in the world, can be powerful and compelling.
In a controlled experiment, Wharton School management professor Adam Grant found that callers at a university fundraising center who spent just ten minutes directly listening to a scholarship recipient's story spent more than double the amount of time on the phone and generated triple the donations compared to the callers who had no contact.
Yet, despite this scientific research, surge of bestsellers, and TED Talks on the the power of purpose at work, it remains under-leveraged and often hidden as a business advantage.
Purpose as The Ultimate Competitive Advantage
Last week, I was charged with "firing up" the sales team of a Fortune 500 engineering firm.
In preparation for the talk, I did what I always do and spent two weeks pretending to be a new customer in the industry. I shopped around, downloaded brochures, and made inquiries to their best salespeople.
Competitor A told me that they could increase my profitability and competitiveness, provide world-class customer service, and were industry-leading.
Competitor B told me that they could increase my profitability and competitiveness, provide world-class customer service, and were industry-leading.
And the company that hired me told me that they could increase my profitability and competitiveness, provide world-class customer service, and were industry-leading.
I had no clue who to "buy" from, and naturally had to look at price and product specifications. No help there, they all looked the same!
These companies were spending millions on differentiating strategy. The problem? Their value propositions were nearly identical.
A Better World, A Better Value Proposition
As I dug deeper into the company I was working with, I noticed that "...a better world." was inscribed on logos, office walls, and on their marketing materials. Yet, I couldn't find this authentic purpose anywhere in their strategy.
To "create a better world" was why the company really existed. And not one of their competitors could compete with that.
Imagine if the salesperson said to me, "I love my job because we make the world better and we care about helping you deliver your own purpose. And what's great is we can increase your profitability and competitiveness, provide you world-class customer service, and together we can be industry-leading."
I would have placed my "order" right then and there.
Wired for Purpose
As human beings our brains are wired to search for meaning and purpose.
In 1944, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel developed an animation with black triangles, a rectangle, and a circle. The shapes moved around the screen at random.
Heider and Simmel showed it to hundreds of study participants and were astonished at what they found: Nearly every person who viewed the random animation assigned emotional and complex stories to the simple objects.
Participants gave the simple shapes intentions, genders, and purpose.
Their brains were searching for purpose.
This classic experiment proves that all human beings' brains are wired this way; including your employees and customers.
The experiment also highlights that when people can't find an explicitly-stated purpose, they make up their own. By focusing on definable "things" like price and specifications, for example, they try to make sense of things to make a decision. In turn, differentiation becomes more difficult.
However, you and your employees have the power to explicitly state and cultivate a common sense of authentic purpose that is communicated to customers but also felt throughout the organization.
An authentic purpose is not a mission statement. Mission statements live in filing cabinets, an authentic purpose lives in hearts and souls.
"We Shape History"
KPMG, one of the "Big 4" accounting firms was faced with the pressure to differentiate in their very competitive industry.
Their leadership responded with a simple reflective question: Why does KPMG exist in the world?
In a recent Harvard Business Review piece, Bruce Pfau, KPMG's Vice Chair of Human Resources and Communications, wrote "We needed to do more than simply announce our purpose and expect it to take hold. We needed employees to experience it for themselves."
To do this they launched a "We Shape History" campaign that re-framed the nature of KPMG's work.
The campaign talked about KPMG's role in significant historic events like certifying the election of Nelson Mandela and helping with the release of the Iran hostages.
The campaign was successful, but KPMG was not done. They wanted this to be personal.
So they asked their employees to share their "why" and created an app where employees could upload a picture and a statement of why their job existed. They initially set a goal of 10,000 entries with the incentive of 2 paid days off if they reached the goal.
Employees submitted over 40,000 stories.
Compelling phrases like "we champion democracy" and "I help farmers" started being used to describe KPMG's work.
The results followed.
When surveyed, over 90% of employees said that the purpose initiative helped them feel more pride in their work, global growth topped 8%, and KPMG rose 17 spots on Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work list.
Talk about a competitive advantage.
Why does your company exist in the world?
The answer could be your powerful hidden secret to success.
Follow Zach on Twitter: @ZachMercurio