"Our firm's growth was twenty percent last year, and I'm still frustrated," he said. He was a new client, running a $30 Million a year fee-based professional services firm in San Francisco. His frustration wasn't based on a monetary or a revenue issue. It was a performance issue. To his competitors, at least those who were still in business at the end of 2003, his growth was enviable. But he knew his staff wasn't performing at their peak levels. In fact, they were underperforming. "How can I motivate my staff to give it their all throughout the whole day?"
"Let's talk about that, Bob. Let's start with your company's purpose. Why do you exist?"
"Well…" he paused in careful thought, “to generate profits for the shareholders and the employees." I could tell by his hesitation that it had been a very long time since he had considered the answer to this fundamental question.
"So what you're telling me is that your sole purpose of existence is based on your company profit margins. Am I understanding you correctly?" I asked in my infamous and challenging style as the "tough love" management consultant.
"Yeah. That's about it, I suppose. Our purpose is to decrease our costs, build up our revenues, and expand our profits."
"That's your problem, Bob. It's a blah blah blah purpose that really misses the mark of what a company is all about. You haven't even told me about your contribution to the world or what sort of value you create. If you fixate your purpose on profit margins or revenue, then you'll eventually fail. If you focus on the contribution to others who can benefit from your service, then the profits will take care of themselves."
To build a company or any well-functioning organization, first you start with building a purpose. Forget about making a profit. Instead, make a difference. The purpose of your organization has to be rooted in a fundamental resolution of an issue that can benefit some other person or organization significantly. In this increasingly competitive market, the difference that you make in the world is what makes the difference in your business. And when it comes to creating a motivated workforce, remember that everyone wants to make a difference. Profit generation is a byproduct of a solid and crystal clear purpose.
So here's the question you need to bring to your next staff meeting, the same question that I asked my client in California:
"What is the purpose of our organization?"
Think in terms of the contribution that you make to your customer. Focus on a tangible benefit felt on a personal level to the end user. Crystalize it. Commit it to memory. Create a short paragraph of a mission statement or a purpose statement. Train everyone in your staff on what that purpose is, and by all means, seek their input when you develop this statement of purpose. This purpose cannot be self-serving, self-seeking, or related to the growth of your company. It must be external if your organization's success is measured in terms of serving an external entity.
A few years ago I was talking with a field superintendent of a major high school construction project. "What motivates you on this project?" I asked him. He told me that he wasn't just building a school. He was building a crucible for the hope of the future. His motivation was intrinsic and came from within. He had a clear understanding of his mission at work and he was a highly motivated employee, all because of his clarity of purpose.
The difference between a high performing organization and one that just performs is the difference that your leadership can make by helping your employees understand why they come to work everyday. Remember that true achievement results from making minor changes in major areas, and by sharpening the focus of your team, you will never suffer from an underperforming organization.