The right way to build a sense of purpose

Written by
Jon Kauffman

Purpose, Inc., episode 1.19: Brandon Peele of ion Learning

Key takeaway: “Anything strategic, or cultural-oriented, or people-oriented, we want to do in a slow cooker. That means making improvements every month toward trueing up the organization to its purpose.”

The more people in the corporate world talk up their sense of purpose, the more they threaten to water down the word, Brandon Peele told host Michael Young in this episode of “Purpose, Inc.” “People are talking about beer and soap and pop music using that that sacred word, purpose, that is the way to engage a deep longing in people’s lives to matter and to have meaning.”

Peele is the vice president of people science at ion Learning, which provides tools and technology for social learning within an organization. A big part of that work is discovering and instilling a sense of purpose. “At ion, we hold (purpose) as a transcendent identity that is beyond your personality, beyond your organization,” he said. “It’s something that you can try to express through vision, purpose, and values but it really is almost has like an ineffable quality.”

No one knows how to measure an ineffable quality, Peele said, but we can measure the effects of having a sense of purpose: “If (workers) are connected to something bigger than their own selfish desires, they’re 175% more productive, and they’re willing to forgo 23% of their lifetime earnings if they can be a part of something that matters to them.” Other benefits: reductions in staff turnover, reductions in sick days, increased commitment to work, and dedication to creative problem-solving.

The right way to build purpose

At ion Learning, Brandon said, they have found that the right way to build purpose is incrementally, working both from the C-suite down and from the frontline staff up. A few of the steps:

Start with the executive team. When senior executive teams call in purpose coaches or consultants to guide them to do what Brandon called “deep purpose work” within their team, they reveal a future vision for what the organization can be—and cultivate a personal connection to it.

Activate the purposeful leadership of all the team members. ion recommends starting with frontline managers, whom Brandon called “the cultural stewards.”

Shift from a manager-staff relationship to a coach-player one. “Everyone has to learn how to be different at work,” Brandon said. “It’s not that metrics no longer matter, but now we are cultivating intimacy with each other on a team-by-team basis. We’re leading differently. We’re creating many more one-on-ones.”

‘This can’t be microwaved’

“This can’t be microwaved,” Brandon has said. “It has to be slow-cooked.”

“You can have an off-site, you can have a half-day training, you can buy a copy of a purposeful book for the entire company. All that’s great, but, unfortunately, the research on culture change and on pivoting all points to a sustained approach,” he continued. Too often, efforts fail because they focus just on leaders, or show a shallow sense of purpose.

So what has worked for ion? Bite-sized learning and discussion over time. “You pair some transformative content around purpose, around inclusion, and around emotional intelligence—whatever the larger culture goal is—and you move people through a journey together in small groups of three or four,” Brandon said. “There’s something uncommon that happens at that group size. That’s where you get a diversity of perspectives around a particular issue without sacrificing trust and intimacy.”

“Everybody can get there, and we actually never get there,” he concluded.

Listen to the full conversation with Brandon Peele:

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