Dan Pontefract on “The Purpose Effect”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

PontefractDan Pontefract is Chief Envisioner at TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company, where he heads the Transformation Office, a future-of-work consulting group that helps organizations enhance their corporate cultures and collaboration practices. Previously as Head of Learning & Collaboration at TELUS, Dan introduced a new leadership framework–called the TELUS Leadership Philosophy–that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90%.

He is the author of recently published The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization as well as Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at multiple TED events and also writes for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Dan and his wife, Denise, have three young children (aka goats) and live in Victoria, Canada. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write The Purpose Effect?

Pontefract: It was one of those “a ha” moments in fact. Right after Flat Army published, Denise and I and the three goats (our kids) went on a family holiday to Gig Harbor, near Seattle. Our middle child, Cole, and I were in a canoe paddling some rather violent winds. He was 8-years-old, and during a rather turbulent five-minute period when we were going absolutely nowhere, he yelled to me, “Dad, what’s the purpose of paddling, we’re not going anywhere!” At that moment, I had the epiphany about people, their lives and work—not going anywhere—due to a lack of purpose.

If Flat Army was about culture (and it is) I quickly made the connection that a suitable follow-up book ought to explore this notion of purpose, both in life and at work.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Pontefract: For two years I toiled away, hammering the keys, plucking the 400 pound feather each day, exploring the concept of purpose. For those two years, I focused my thinking on the organization. I wrote a 92,000 word book that was rather dark, even angry. Based on research and interviews throughout those two years, I thought I had solved the riddle of purpose. But there was a problem. It was the wrong answer. It was the wrong book. Before going to print, I asked Roger Martin—former Dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto—to read the book. The feedback was sobering.

In the end, I scrapped the original manuscript, and started over. Through Roger’s assistance, and additional research and interviews, I discovered the missing parts. I also changed the tone of the book from dark and stormy to light and helpful. It is now a 70,000 word book with a narrative that assists rather than screams foul of soulless organizations and leaders. It’s a guide—a pathway—to purpose, whether you’re an individual employee, a leader or in charge of the organization itself.

Morris: You include a statement, “Faber est suae quisque fortunae,” by Sallust in his “Speech to Caesar on the State.” It means “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.” Is that – or should it be — each person’s primary purpose in life? Please explain.

Pontefract: Of course. The chauvinistic and at times misogynist culture of the Greeks and Romans is nothing to admire. However, there were profound thinkers and philosophers during their respective times. For me, man = our humanity, whether you are man, woman or otherwise.

Morris: You observe: “First, you want to take aim at redefining the true purpose of an organization, redefining the meaning of work. The organization must be reset, and through the Good DEEDS model, you will learn how to make this happen. Second, you want to help develop sustainable and flourishing roles for those you are leading in the organization that employs you by redefining the definition of working. To accomplish this feat, The Purpose Path is a model that outlines the differences between a job, career, and purpose mindset.”

Here’s my question: Is this a special project that should be assigned to a “Sprint” team such as those on which Google depends so heavily for breakthrough thinking and high-impact results? Please explain.

Pontefract: When Paul Polman joined Unilever in early January, 2009, he arrived because of two reasons. First, the Unilever board of directors sought a change in company direction. Second, Paul accepted the role so long as he could change the purpose of Unilever, while ultimately growing the business, too.

The Polman and Unilever story is interesting. First, the board wanted to change. They saw an alarming trend within the business, and went out to find an individual who was equally prepared to change the way in which the organization was operating. Second, after arriving, Polman set about a master plan of purpose and organizational culture change. He left no stone unturned.

Polman recognized that both the purpose of Unilever had to change—to serve all stakeholders versus shareholders only—and he recognized the internal engagement of Unilever employees had to be dramatically improved. Engagement now sits near 90 percent, their Sustainable Living Plan is delivering incredible results in the communities Unilever serves, and shareholders have been provided just, fair and higher returns since 2009.

The bottom line? I do not believe purpose (or culture) change is a Sprint activity. It is a slow, methodical and intensely difficult change to instill, one that requires at a minimum the most senior leaders of the organization in lockstep with such a change. Purpose and culture change is very difficult to implement bottoms-up.

Morris: What most significantly differentiates the Good DEEDs model from all others?

Pontefract: That it is more than CSR. The Good DEEDS is an accountability platform. It ensures an organization serves all stakeholders (customers, employees, society, community and shareholders/profit seekers) as it operates the business. Far too many corporate scorecards do not take into consideration all stakeholders. And CSR documents only focus on the societal and/or community impacts. The Good DEEDS model ensures that financial, social, satisfaction and engagement items are considered in lockstep with one another.

Morris: Whole Foods and The Container Store are two of several companies that seem committed to what John Mackey has characterized as “conscious capitalism”: for profit business initiatives “galvanized by higher purposes that serve and align the interests of all major stakeholders; businesses with conscious leaders who exist in service to the company’s purpose, the people it touches, and the planet,” companies that conduct business “with resilient, caring cultures that make working there a source of great joy and fulfillment.”

What are your own thoughts about conscious capitalism?

Pontefract: Purpose ought to impact or affect every part of a firm’s decision-making criteria. Conscious Capitalism is a decision making model that ensures the right questions are being debated (and debunked) before making a decision. I’m with Mackey 100 percent

Morris: In his classic work Denial of Death, Ernest Becker acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is another death that can – and must – be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. Presumably you agree.

A friend of mine recently wrote, “If I’m disappointing no one, I’m disappointing everyone.” That friend was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It’s tragic, but he’s going out doing what he has always known, singing his guts out on stage to thousands of people. He doesn’t care about the critics. He doesn’t care about the naysayers. He is intentional. He intends to disappoint, because if he’s not, he’s no one. And he does not want to be a no one. I have learned a lot from this friend over the years. I’ll see him again one day, perhaps in a heavenly agora where we can wax lyrical about each other’s past (passed?) intentions.

Morris: Years ago after delivering a lecture on transcendentalism in Concord (MA), Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed to answering a few questions. An old grizzled farmer stood up, hat in hand. Emerson nodded toward him. “Mr. Emerson, how do you transcend an empty stomach?” What do you make of that situation?

Pontefract: As Emerson once said outside of this particular situation, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Morris: Some of the most evil people throughout history were purpose-driven. Adolph Hitler, for example. In your opinion, by which criteria should a purpose worthy of respect and admiration be determined?

Pontefract: Let us not confuse the word purpose with profligate myopia. Evil may be a purpose for some, but it is not acting with purpose.

Morris: These are among the several dozen passages – in Chapters One-Six — of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point [end italics] or [begin italics] key take-away [end italics] in each of these.

First, The Opportunity for Purpose, and, What Exactly Is The Purpose Effect? (Pages 4-8)

The concept of purpose should not be considered an isolated event. It is continuous, bridged by one’s life, their role at work, and the organization in which they work. Leaders and employees must be conscious of this point. There is no escaping the relationship between the three points.

Morris: Personal Purpose (20)

Personal Purpose is a perpetual cycle of self-discovery. If we stop developing, if we refuse to continue defining ourselves, if we ‘decide’ to check out at work or in our lives, there is no chance for personal purpose to materialize. We must constantly be dissatisfied with personal status quo. Therefore, those that continuously develop their skills, likes and dislike, define who they want to be today and tomorrow, and define how they are going to show up each and every will be well versed towards the path of personal purpose.

Morris: Organizational Purpose (21-22)

Pontefract: Organizational Purpose ought to be a leader’s quest to provide service and benefit to all stakeholders, not simply shareholders, profit seekers or power mongers. If the organization enacts “Good DEEDS” (delight your customers, engage your team members, ethical within society, deliver fair practices and serve all stakeholders) it will be on a path toward organizational purpose.

Morris: FLAT ARMY meets The Purpose Effect (22-23)

To achieve a truly engaged organization, one full of employees who are fulfilled and aim to go above the call of duty in life and in their roles, leaders need to understand this simple equation: open culture + the sweet spot of purpose = engaged employees and flourishing society.

Morris: A Culture of Purpose (27-28)

Pontefract: There is a definitive relationship between culture and purpose – and this leads to improved organizational results. There is proof in that pudding!

Morris: Persistent Purpose (46-47)

Pontefract: Personally speaking, I continue to be hyper sensitive to losing my own sense of personal purpose. I am constantly questioning three questions: what, who and how? I will never enter into a situation where I fall into a job mindset, performing transactional duties solely in return for a paycheck. I will always ensure the ‘sweet spot’ of my life and my work are synchronized.

Morris: The Continuing Story of Engagement (53-57)

Pontefract: Purpose and culture are a bit like fraternal twins. If the concept of purpose is solid and balanced—if the organization also portrays an open and collaborative culture—stakeholders ought to see improved results. But … as much research indicates, employee engagement remains anemic and organizational practices are as inane as ever.

Morris: Power (71-75)

Pontefract: Power remains an addictive substance in the leadership ranks, one that creates a false sense of entitlement. Power provides a false sense of security—often bullying and rigid thinking—for leaders in situations of influence. It is one of the reasons why purpose is never achieved by employees in their roles at work.

Morris: Performance (75-78)

Name one employee who enjoys the annual performance review process where they are graded, and then pitted against their colleagues on an artificial bell curve of performance, and I’ll eat one of my hats.

Develop Your What, Like Van Gogh (87-91)

Pontefract: When I discovered that Van Gogh (and other painters) were too poor to purchase new canvasses for their paintings, and they ultimately painted something and then painted over it with white paint to create a fresh sheet of canvass, I was flabbergasted. But, it also taught me something. We must continually be developing our skills—our trade or craft—no matter the circumstances. If Van Gogh could paint over brilliance to further his development, shouldn’t we?

Morris: Define Who You Mean (91-94)

Pontefract: If we live our lives—and work in our roles—without knowing who we are, how can we ever know if we have achieved our goal? What is our goal? What is our who? By defining our who—who are we in life, and who might we want to become—it creates a north star of sorts for us to follow. I recommend a one or two-line declaration of purpose statement. Mine is: “We’re not here to see through each other; we’re here to see each other through.”

Morris: Decide How to Be (94-97)

How one acts (and reacts) is how one is perceived. As the great Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Testing Organizational Purpose Through Cars, Pills and Sausages (103-108)

Pontefract: During a devastating fire at one of its production facilities, Johnsonville Sausage made the decision to keep its employees “whole” by paying their salaries for the entire time it took to rebuild the plant. The organization had employees spend 20 hours per week volunteering time in the community and another 20 hours per week learning new skills through professional development courses, etc. Leadership was balancing its purpose with its culture in this case, and the employees were able to recommit to their personal and role-based purpose. The beauty of this example is that it took over six months for the plant to be rebuilt. Imagine that!

Morris: A Deed That Is Good (110-114)

Deed: an action that is performed intentionally or consciously. Why can’t our organizations perform “Good Deeds” more often? The myopic view that profit or power are or can be the reasons an organization exists in the first place is malarkey. An organization should serve all stakeholders, performing good deeds along the way.

(Be) Ethical Within Society (117-120)

Pontefract: For organizations to create a purpose, the scope of ethical interest must widen its swathe. Organizations must aim not only at being good, but doing good. There is more to being ethical than producing an annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) document. The organization must prioritize how it can operate ethically in all of its actions and decisions.

Morris: Deliver Fair Practices (120-127)

Pontefract: The maddening display of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, antiquated procedures, and disengaging personnel practices in the organization must cease. Fairer compensation practices are required. The annual performance development review and stack-ranking must be discontinued. Transparent hiring, promotion and termination practices should become the norm.

Morris: Serve All Stakeholders (123-126)

Pontefract: Organizations should serve stakeholders, not solely shareholders or profit seekers or power mongers or careerists. Stakeholders are made up of: customers, employees, society, environment and those seeking a fair, just return.

For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Pontefract: The Good DEEDS model. A small company is only as good as its customers, employees and contributions to society and the community. If the latter four stakeholders are served, treated fairly, and viewed as key and equal components to a thriving business, a just return shall follow. If the small business (and its owner)

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Pontefract: Do I think “The Purpose Effect” can be (or will) be enacted by a majority of organizations in the next 3-5 years? No, I don’t. The divide between power/profit and the Good DEEDS is too wide. There are far too many leaders selfishly thinking about their own interests, and not that of all stakeholders. Do I think we can eventually arrive at a point when most organizations are enacting the Good DEEDS? Yes … but I believe it will be closer to a decade from now.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Purpose Effect TED Talk link

The Purpose Effect website link

Please click here to check out my review of The Purpose Effect.

And here to check out my review of Flat Army

Link to Michael Bungay Stanier’s interview of Dan

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