Purpose in Work

It’s Not Personal. It’s Strictly Business.

Paramount Pictues

I received a referral for a new client a few months ago. The person who sent it was certain this business owner could benefit from working with me. Given the strength of the referral, I worked especially hard to make contact with the prospective client/business owner. I just did a quick count of the text messages we exchanged – 55, plus phone calls and two in-person meetings. For the last meeting, at his request, I spent the morning in two of his team meetings. Over lunch, as I reviewed what I heard and saw that morning, I made a couple of initial observations that I thought were pretty insightful. Apparently he agreed since he stopped me in mid-sentence and used his iPhone to email my recommendations to his staff. This happened twice during our meal.

I prepared a proposal and sent it within a day or two. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good about landing this one. I had already provided a ton of value and completing the items in the proposal would have added additional top line revenue and improved customer retention.

A couple of days later, my proposal was rejected. I’m not sure why, but this one was particularly gut wrenching. I had worked really hard to prove my worth to the organization by providing value from the beginning of the relationship (This was typical of the way I work with a prospective client. I don’t sell. I just start consulting.) But since my initial recommendations were so enthusiastically embraced, I figured this was a done deal. FYI, in the time since this happened, I’ve seen one of my initial recommendations implemented via content in a customer email blast that I’m now subscribed to.

In the midst of all this, I thought about a well-worn quote from the Godfather. As the Corleone family discussed killing the person who attempted to murder their father, son Michael assured the rest of family the motive behind the planned kill was “not personal, but strictly business.” I’m not attempting to draw any equivalency between a rejected business proposal and planning a murder, but hear me out. Even though my rejected proposal was just business, it felt personal. There was an extra sting to this one because of the effort I had poured into it.

In reality, in the daily press of work, it’s business AND it’s personal. When we pour our passion, care and best effort into our work and it’s unappreciated, ignored or rejected, it feels like a punch to the gut. When our best proposal, painting, computer program or chicken parmesan isn’t good enough, it stings. It makes you want to gather up your stuff and go home. But would you want it any other way? I can’t imagine many things more miserable than work without passion. We long to leave a large piece of ourselves in every work product. We couldn’t live with just “mailing it in.” I’ve found the sting to be especially acute for business owners. Since everything about the organization is “them” – the product or service, the marketing, the sales, the delivery – when rejection comes, it feels especially personal.

So how do you navigate through when business feels personal?

I’ve told clients more times than I can count that your worth is NOT what you do at work. That is solid advice. If our worth is tied up in what we do or who we make happy on any given day, life will be a roller coaster – riding high today and in the depths of despair tomorrow. Work is fleeting. Find your worth in something that cannot be taken away. I find mine in my Christian faith. Find yours.

Divorcing our worth from our work is the foundation, but here are three practical things to do when business feels very personal.

  • Remember why you do your work the way you do it – You do it, because that’s the right way. Your training and experience inform the methodology and the result. Your work is your autograph. You’d do it that way again even if there were no audience, because that’s the way it ought to be executed. Take satisfaction in a job well done. If you knew a better way, you would have done it that way. If, by chance, you produced a sub-standard product this time, own it and fix it next time.
  • Commit to deeper learning and improvement – On the heels of doing the job the best you can do it, realize that all of us can improve our craft. We can all learn and grow. Use being rebuffed to motivate you to dig deeper and get smarter.
  • Use the rejection to narrow your focus – Simon Sinek would tell you to find people who share your “why”. Seth Godin would tell you to find your “tribe” – your smallest viable audience. When your work is rejected, understand that it wasn’t for them and use the feedback or in the absence of feedback, use the experience to close the circle a little more and produce work for people who are aligned with your values, share your taste and appreciate your approach to work.

The next time business feels personal – and it surely will – own it. Be glad you have a job you care that deeply about. And instead of buckling under the disappointment, harness it for your benefit.

Can Digging Ditches be as Rewarding as Working for the Peace Corps?

In my work as a business consultant and grad school adjunct professor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve invoked Dan Pink’s three-point outline from his brilliant 2009 book, Drive. Employees want three things in their work life –

  • Autonomy – the ability to control what they do, how they do it, when they do it and who they do it with
  • Mastery – doing work that is not too hard, but not too easy.  Growing their skills with the knowledge that their abilities are not finite, but infinitely improvable. Realizing that mastering a task takes determination, effort and on-going practice. And, knowing that no matter how hard they try, they will never fully master their craft – making it perpetually challenging.
  • Purpose – the ability to attach meaning to their work that supersedes the enrichment of investors or employees. Creating opportunities that allow employees to engage in this meaning on their own terms.


To be honest, I’ve waxed eloquent on autonomy and mastery many times. They seemed so easy to explain and illustrate. But I can’t say the same about purpose. I’ve struggled to help clients and students understand how to create meaning for employees when their work seems to lack it. Let’s face it, some work, taken at face value, has more intrinsic purpose than others – yes, working for the Peace Corps feels more noble than digging ditches.

Enter the excellent book, Competing Against Luck, by Clayton Christensen. When it comes to attaching purpose to work, it was like someone flipped on the light in a dark room. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic of the book, Jobs Theory, here’s the super abridged version – people hire a person, company or thing to accomplish a “job to be done” – it’s the theoretical framework behind Theodore Levitt’s wonderful quote, “people do not want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.” Christensen and his co-authors dig deep into the topic and illustrate it with wonderful real-life examples, but for my purposes here, let me pick out a few gems.

When people have a “job to be done”, it’s generated by circumstances that make their current condition untenable. Some of the circumstances are mildly annoying – “I’m thirsty”, but others demand a solution right now – “I’ve been in an accident, my car is undriveable and I can’t get to work, home or anywhere else”. Hence a job to be done. The job represents progress the potential customer wants to make. The progress might be simple – moving from being thirsty to being hydrated, but many times in the progress is complex – get my wrecked car to the body shop, get all the insurance companies on the same page and get the claim paid, get my car fixed right the first time, in the immediate future get me where in need to go, in the long term get me a rental car to drive and finally don’t cancel my car insurance because of this one accident or raise my premiums through the roof. The person, product or company that delivers on the job to be done in the most complete and frictionless way creates a high-value solution for the customer and creates a probability that they will be hired for that job over and over again.

Towards the end of the book, Christensen explains the amazing transformation that occurs when companies organize, not around products or functions, but around jobs to be done. As I read that, it dawned on me – what could bring more purpose to work than one human being giving their best effort and creativity to do a job that has meaning to another human being. At this point, we can stop asking people to find meaning in accounting, information technology or supply chain management. They don’t even have to find meaning in toasters, hotel stays or a new social network. As we organize our enterprises around jobs to be done, we are connecting the passions and skills of our employees to the heartfelt needs of a customer that has a very-important-to-them job to be done.


I first wrote about Drive six years ago. To read that post, click here.

First Break All the Rules and Drive

It’s not good advice for safe motoring, but it is the name of two exceptional books about workplace performance.  The books were written 10 years apart, but as I recently read both of them, almost back-to-back, I was struck by the complimentary messages.

First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman was the end result of a Gallup study that gathered information from 80,000 managers.  Their quest was to find out what made a great manager.  The book has insight after insight, but the key finding is that great managers create an environment where employees answer these twelve questions in the affirmative (it sounds too simple, but you really need to read the book to appreciate the simplicity) –

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?


Drive by Dan Pink explores motivation in the workplace.  Pink summarizes his book in 100 words, “When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does.  Our current business operating system – which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators – doesn’t work and often does harm.  We need an upgrade.  And science shows the way.  This new approach has three essential elements: (1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives;  (2) Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”  Pink fleshes out these three elements – Autonomy accords people control over 1) what they do, 2) when they do it, 3) who they do it with and 4) how they do it.  Mastery challenges people with work that is not too hard and not too easy.  It also abides by these three rules – 1) abilities are not finite, but infinitely improvable, 2) mastering a task takes determination, effort,  and on-going practice and 3) no matter how hard you try, you will never fully master your craft.  Purpose manifests itself in the organization by 1) using profit to fund purpose, 2) identifying objectives that supersede just the enrichment of investors or employees and 3) creating opportunities that allow employees to engage in these objectives on their own terms.

As I contrasted the approaches of the two books, I weighed the external focus of Buckingham and Coffman (good managers create an environment that breeds fulfillment and performance) and the internal focus of Pink (external motivation is ineffective in today’s creative work environment and must be replaced by tapping into the intrinsic motivation of each employee).  I believe these authors have identified two sides of the same coin – good managers tap into the internal motivation that each of us possesses.

Notice how 8 of the 12 First, Break All the Rules questions fit nicely under the internal motivations in Drive –


  1. At work, do my opinions seem to count? (what I do, how I do it, when I do it)
  2. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? (who I do it with)
  3. Do I have a best friend at work? (who I do it with)


  1. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? (not too hard, not too easy)
  2. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? (abilities are not finite, but infinitely improvable)
  3. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress? (no matter how hard you try, you’ll never fully master your craft)
  4. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow? (mastery takes determination, effort and on-going practice)


  1. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important? (profit is used to fund purpose, engaging in the purpose on my own terms)

As I see it, 4 questions don’t fit neatly into the 3 internal motivations, but instead give context to these drives in the organization.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  4. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

I find it interesting that 2 of the 4 outlier questions deal with being valued and validated (Qs 4 and 5).  Each of us, whether we labor in the spotlight or in the shadows, wants to know we’re doing work that’s important and appreciated.  It’s certainly not as meaningful as being plugged in to our internal motivations, but contributes to a healthy view of work life.

The remaining two questions deal with expectations and equipping.  People, for the most part, want to do a good job and feel pride in their work, but they must know exactly what “doing a good job” looks like.  Finally, employees must be equipped with the talents and resources they need to do what is expected.  Owners, managers and supervisors shouldn’t expect a house when they’ve not provided building materials.

This is my shot at connecting the dots.  I’d love to get your take on the connections between these two excellent books.