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Why your work needs to be purpose-driven

Grace loves roadside clean-up. What dog doesn’t enjoy exploring stinky trash? She and I may have different motives but we had a shared purpose in our task, which made the project successful and (mostly) enjoyable for us both. Though I believe she had a better time than I did!

Purpose-driven work might sound like something for non-profits or companies that have some specific do-good mission. But as I was reminded this week, every person and every organization needs work that has a purpose. Working with a shared purpose is an enormous factor as to whether or not your project (no matter how worthy) gains traction or get blocked.

On Wednesday, I attended the annual conference hosted by New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. The event always offers me new perspectives and inspiration and this year was no different. Everyone was buzzing about the content delivered by the morning keynote presenter, Leith Sharp, Director of Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership at Harvard.

Simplest of projects have the same issues as more complicated ones

In her talk, Leith shared amazing stories of her journey at Harvard. There were multiple examples of projects she worked to implement, ultimately taking Harvard to become the largest green campus organization in the world, These situations were of varying scope and complexity. Her opening story illustrated how the simplest of endeavors — replacing light bulbs in one campus facility — is not always quick and easy. “How many people at Harvard does it take to change a light bulb?” she quipped. Apparently, quite a lot! It’s not because the people at Harvard aren’t top of their game nor because people didn’t care. We’ve all been in situations with smart people and worthy efforts, yet the momentum stalls. It boils down to a shared purpose (or lack thereof!).

Having a shared purpose is a foundation for getting things done

So what is a shared purpose? The dictionary has several definitions for the word ‘purpose’. They include the following: ‘the reason for which something exists or is done, made, or used,’ and ‘an intended or desired result or goal’ and ‘determination; resoluteness.’ When we apply these dictionary meanings to how we work on projects–as in sharing a purpose–it’s easy to see the implications. When just one person is at cross-purposes, roadblocks creep into the way and things go haywire. 

On the other hand, when there is alignment of all the players, as to the goals, authority, safety, and risks for all, then things move forward. Even when there is a hiccup (and there will be!), people with a shared purpose will work together to fix it instead of remove themselves from the solution.

Establishing shared purpose

The process for establishing shared purpose happens multiple times throughout the life of a project. Don’t be misled thinking it’s a one-and-done endeavor. As demonstrated by Leith’s volume of examples, implementation of even the best ideas will stray from their course for a number of reasons. Employees may feel insecure in offering ideas, managers may be uncomfortable making a bold decision, or a leader may not understand the consequences of mandating a particular action.

Leith’s point is that you need to continue establishing the shared purpose throughout the life cycle of the project, despite these hurdles, Accept that twists and turns will happen, address them, and move forward until you hit the next stopping point. Learn from the squiggly lines, she said. Don’t expect things to follow a straight path.

It’s tempting to throw up your arms and walk away when things get messy. But that’s exactly when you should dig in more. Establish the shared purpose and when it gets muddled or mucky, seek help from others to find it again. When you do, you’ll witness your project outcomes soar instead of squander.

March 2018 Round Robin

In this month's live Q&A, held on the first day of spring, Robin stresses the importance of all of us to take nature's cue to refresh, renew, and continue our growth, personally and professionally. Listen to a real example from team member Amee Patel Pant of her professional development credentials she recently earned. Listen to discussion of attendees questions about how to measure certain traits and impressions of the pending FMLA legislation.

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Turn obstacles into opportunities for better management outcomes

We had a good-sized winter storm this week, leaving about a foot of heavy, wet snow overnight. Some see this as an obstacle, others an opportunity. For better management outcomes, you can see them as both! 

A deep covering of snow conjures up an array of sentiments, depending on who you talk with. If you love to ski, well, this was a jackpot for the spring sport. But if you’re ready to see your garden flowers emerge, it was a setback.

Workplace obstacles and opportunities

Our workplaces present these same sorts of dilemmas. What is exciting and fun for one person can be an annoying ordeal for another. When you are managing a diverse group — or even just one person who may be very different from yourself — this can be a challenge.

How do you meet the needs of everyone? You can’t. So stop trying.

OK. You know there is a catch here, right? As a manager, you certainly do need to be aware of how those on your team are perceiving and reacting to the environment. But more often than not, you can’t change the situation, so don’t make that your management plan. For example, an employee may request vacation on a certain day that you are holding a key event that has been planned and promoted. Since you likely can’t change the event date, it opens the moment for you to turn this into an opportunity. Explain the value in her work, the importance of her contributions towards the event, and discuss a different perk that will leave her with a sense of satisfaction.

Instead of focusing on removing every bump in the road, focus on improving your communication and actions to move through them. 

Let’s go back to that snowstorm as another example. Upon waking Thursday morning to the drifts outside the door, I knew Grace would not be thrilled with the prospect of forging through the dense wall of snow. At 13 years old, she’s a tad stiff in the morning, and she’s also anxious for her breakfast, which she knows she can’t get until after we go out. If she had to plow her way through to the paved road, she would have ended up wet and cold, not a very motivating experience to start her day. I decided to carry her.

I couldn’t change the fact that we were both faced with this obstacle, but I could show her that I’m not going to make things unnecessarily difficult for her. Once we got up the short distance to our quiet road, I put her down and she was happy moving freely, sniffing all the scents left overnight. She was content to mull around for a while, but what happened next was interesting. Instead of waiting for a free ride back to the warmth of her blanket inside, she took initiative to get there herself. I looked up and in a second, she leapt up as if she had springs in her feet, jumping over a snow bank taller than she was! Off she went, easily moving towards something she wanted — on her own initiative.

Focus on the opportunity not the obstacle

In order to manage successfully, we have to be aware of our employee’s wants and needs. Because it is not realistic that individual and organizational needs will always be aligned, we need another approach. Focus on the opportunities, not the obstacles, and watch your employees take a leap of faith alongside you.