The Secret to Discovering The Business You’re In

In Beliefs & Philosophy, Culture, Purpose, Mission & Values

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Years ago, working with a national fashion retailer, I was asked to address an area of growing concern. There was a general consensus at the leadership level that significant change initiatives over the years had eroded employee understanding of the company’s vision and values. They worried that people didn’t really know what business they were in, and that this lack of understanding was leading to issues of disengagement and turnover.

I interviewed dozens of employees at every level over several weeks, and there was one young lady who stood out. So much so that our videotaped interview with her became the inspiration and keystone in our resulting engagement campaign.

She was a young salesperson running a high-volume store in NYC, selling women’s apparel to the thousands of young professionals who passed through the store every week. She was good at her job, and clearly passionate about it. When asked why she loved her job, she replied simply: “Because I get to change people’s lives.”

A bold statement for a young salesperson to make. She went on to explain that it made her proud when her customers stopped by her store to tell her how she had changed their lives: like the woman who bought the suit that made a good impression in the interview where she landed the job that would help her build a better life for her family. Or the woman who found the perfect dress for the party that gave her the confidence to speak to the man who would become her fiancé and the love of her life.

This young salesperson did not see herself in the business of selling clothes. She saw herself in the business of changing lives. That was her why. Her how was to spend her life preparing her customers to improve theirs. It just so happened that she used fashion-forward outfits to do it.

I was reminded of this young woman when I read Bruce Pfau’s insightful article yesterday in the Harvard Business Review, “How an Accounting Firm Convinced Its Employees They Could Change the World.” As KPMG launched their purpose-driven brand, they abandoned an initially academic focus to encourage their employees to tell their own stories, in their own words.

As Pauf explained, “We recognized that just telling people from the top down about their higher purpose would not succeed. We encouraged everyone—from our interns to our Chairman—to share their own stories about how their work is making a difference.”

And employees did — in overwhelming numbers. With a team of 27,000 partners and employees worldwide, KPMG received over 42,000 stories from employees celebrating the difference they make in the lives of their clients, communities, and society as a whole. Six months into their purpose initiative, 76 percent of KPMG’s employees said their “job had special meaning (and was not just a job),” six points higher than the average of their “Big Four” accounting firm competitors and a four-point jump year over year.

Employees – especially those in direct contact with the customer – generally have a very clear understanding of what business they are really in. Whether your employees are selling suits on the floor of a clothing shop or certifying the results of a highly contentious national election (as KPMG did in South Africa), their purpose is personal, and the best way for leaders to discover it is not to talk … but to listen.

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Recommended Reading
How to Define Your Purpose Footprint
Why People, Process and Product are Not Enough
Purpose Before Strategy: Changing Course to Stay Alive


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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.