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Finding Purpose at Work
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Finding Purpose at Work: A Conversation with Aaron Hurst

A globally recognized entrepreneur, author and thought leader, Aaron Hurst is the CEO of Imperative, a technology platform that enables people to discover, connect and act on what gives them purpose in their work.

HRPS: How do you define the Purpose Economy?

Aaron Hurst: The Purpose Economy is emerging as the fourth economy in history, evolving out of the Information Economy. It is an economy that is driven and organized around the creation of purpose for people, not just information, goods, and services. The Purpose Economy explains where markets meet individuals as they step out to create their own means of finding purpose through work.

The pioneers of this new economy exist in a wide variety of sectors and industries, from John Mackey at Whole Foods creating a market for healthy and sustainable food, to One Medical making medicine personal again, to Jonathan Rapping at Gideon’s Promise redesigning the role of the public defender in the legal system to be empathetic. Each operates with the understanding that purpose and meaning are at the core of what it takes to move markets, provide value, and reach people in the new economy.

HRPS: You have said that much of what we think we know about purpose is wrong. What do you mean?

Aaron Hurst: There are three things that most people misunderstand about purpose. 

The first is that purpose is a cause. While working for a cause is important for many, we only have to look at the high burnout rates in many nonprofits and social services to see that working for a cause isn’t enough for a sustained sense of purpose. 

The second myth is that purpose comes through a revelation. Many people are looking for a stroke of inspiration to find their purpose. Unfortunately, people can miss out on the chance to create purpose each day while they wait for purpose to happen to them.

Finally, people often assume that purpose is a luxury and only for those with means. Fortunately, research increasingly shows the opposite: people experience purpose in all kinds of jobs, from janitor to CEO. It’s an empowering finding: Our ability to connect to a deep sense of purpose is within our reach no matter what situation we find ourselves in.

HRPS: How do companies and employees benefit when employees experience a healthy sense of purpose in their work?

Aaron Hurst: Purpose is what employeesparticularly the millennial generationwant in their work. And it’s what companies need in their teams to produce the goods and services millennials and others want to buy.

Therefore, employers are starting to recognize the value of attracting people with purpose. At the core of this innovation is seminal research by Yale’s Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues, who found that people tend to identify with one of three work orientations. These orientations are defined as: job, career, or calling.

People who approach work as a job see it as a vehicle for material reward, but not fulfilling in and of itself. They are the TGIF crowd, enduring the work week in order to financially support interests outside their jobs. The second group define work as a careera means toward social status, achievement, and prestige. They work to fuel a positive sense of identity and are likely the first to sign up to attend high-school reunions so they can report on their success to their peers.

The final group, who approach their work as a calling, find the act of work inherently meaningful and rich in purpose. For them, work is the manifestation of their passions and, often, a force for good in the world. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found that this third group has higher job and life satisfaction than people with other work orientations have. They also tend to be more successful and higher performers, in large part because they are more loyal and better collaborators. Therefore, the organizations that are able to build calling-oriented teams and cultures are likely to experience lower turnover, and thrive in the new economy where the millennial generation is demanding purpose in their work as well as in their decisions as consumers.

HRPS: What can senior-level HR leaders do to foster an environment that makes it easier for people throughout an organization to find their own sense of purpose?

Aaron Hurst: HR leaders can maximize purpose for their people by facilitating (and participating in) four key activities:

Foster self-awareness around purpose. You need to understand what generates purpose for youbecause not everyone gets purpose from the same things. That’s why, for our very first project at Imperative, we created a purpose diagnostic that can help you determine which of 24 different purpose types you are. Armed with this awareness, you and your people can get at the core of what makes work truly meaningful for each person.

Tailor your job to fit your purpose. Jobs are like a nice suit: a few adjustments in just the right place can take it from awkward to impeccable.  In the case of our jobs, focusing on adjustments to our relationships, the impact we’re making, and on how we’re growing can make all the difference. By taking your core job description and making a few key decisions to execute it in a way that aligns with your purpose, you can transform your current role to feel a much deeper sense of purpose.

Connect personal purpose to organizational purpose. Understanding where your purpose aligns with your organization allows you spend your time and energy where you can make the biggest impact. It also lets people see and appreciate the different roles and responsibilities across the organization, reducing both friction and the temptation to promote an idealized vision of an engaged employee, at the expense of all others.

Celebrate and connect around purpose. How you celebrate successes speaks volumes to your people. The next time you meet your quarterly earnings goals or get featured in the New York Times, celebrate the parts that brought purpose to your people along the way, not just the end result. Companies that actually celebrate the generation of purpose are much more likely to reap the benefits of building  a culture that supports the purpose of its people. 

HRPS: HR and other functions are giving way to new ways of working. How do you think the HR function as a whole will change in the future? Will this be in response to the purpose economy?

Aaron Hurst: HR and marketing are traditionally the two core functions in a company concerned with people. They both focus on how to attract and engage people in the mission of the company. For a long time they have been able to operate in a largely disconnected fashion but that is decreasingly possible or desirable.

The emerging model is a merged role within organizations that is focused on communities that cut across employees, contractors, partners and customers. This new model is designed to build long-term communities that support the mission of the firm where, at any given time, a member could be a shareholder, customer and employee. It is an organizational structure that in many ways represents the talents and needs of Millennials. It connects people to purpose and enables them to work without as many boundaries and traditional lines of hierarchy. 

In the next decade we are likely to see the emergence of a new standard organizational structure with Chief Community Officers (CCO) replacing Chief Marketing Officers and their HR counterparts. The CCO success will be measured in human capital, sales, innovation, and brand loyalty. They will be the heart and soul of organizations. 

By combining these functions, organizations are not only more efficient and effective, they begin to become something far more important. By centralizing the people-oriented parts of an organization they begin to become more human-centered. They become organizations that are driven by purpose and care deeply about well-being of the members of their community.

HRPS: Does a sense of purpose typically change at different levels within an organization? If so, how might this affect the way HR professionals help workers at different levels find their purpose?

Aaron Hurst: It’s often easiest for people in entry-level positions to find purpose in their craft and the relationships they have with customers and colleagues. Think of the sales associate who charms every customer or the barista who takes pride in making the perfect cappuccino.

In managerial positions, however,  it’s easier to find purpose in caring for direct reports and seeing them succeed. HR professionals can especially help people who transition from entry-level to management by highlighting this difference and helping managers find purpose in the activities that will make them successful instead of holding onto their old patterns of finding purpose that don’t fit their new role as well.

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