“You’re playing right?” said Miles, the captain of the Columbia Business School rugby team.
“Huh? Na man, I’m just here to watch. Geno invited me,” I responded.
“Well, mate,” he said in his British accent, “We need you, we’re short men. Have you played before?”
“Nope. I’ve literally never even seen a game. I’m just here to watch. I would be of no use to you.”
“We need you. We’re short men.”
After a long pause, “Ok. What do I need to know? Do you have extra gear? I’m gonna need some Gatorade. I think I’m still drunk from last night.”
“I’ll find you gear. Grab Gatorade across the street. Geno will explain the rest in the cab.”
“We need you,” is a powerful phrase. It awakened something in me. It feels good to be needed. It feels even better to say “yes” to meet that need.
You are needed. Your people are suffering. Your planet is burning. Your democracy is crumbling. You are needed to march into the unknown future with your skills, networks and capital in your right hand and deepest heartbreak in your left. You are being asked to say “yes” to bringing forth all you have within you to co-create the future and lead.
In that cab ride from Harlem to the pitch on Roosevelt Island, Geno explained the game as best he could. Unfortunately, I was hungover, out of shape, and started cramping up during warm ups. However, by the time the opening whistle blew, a switch turned on. I crashed the first ruck, popped up, crashed the next one, and so on. In those first 10 minutes, I was in about every play, in a flow state, where my sense of self and identity fell away and there was only the game. It brought me back to playing schoolyard tackle football. Just the endless joy of play. Bodies crashing, full exertion - pure and simple fun.
I caught the bug, and the rest, as they say, is history. I joined the team, earned a starting position, took a leadership role, and fell in love with the sport and the culture. I loved my teammates, the practices, the matches, the road trips, tournaments, the drinking songs, wild nights, fights and arrests. I loved the sense of unity, of coming together with teammates from all corners, from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe, around our shared purpose - victory and a good time. This made the intense training and the injuries of the sport feel important, sacred even. There is a special joy sharing a bottle of Jim Beam in an E.R. after a hard match. Or when I'd pull my stitches, it was usually came with some fond memory of the match or my mates.
In my second year of business school, my friend, Gaby, and I started and coached the women’s rugby club to share our love of the sport and culture with all our classmates. It won’t surprise you to hear that most of my best friends from grad school, including the best man at my wedding, were rugby teammates.
Like rugby, there are elements and best practices for culture change, two of which we explored in depth the last chapter. And like any adventure, there is emergence, dynamism, joy and deep fulfillment that you don’t get to experience unless you say "yes" to the mystery and put one foot in front of the other.
When I said “yes” and got in that cab, the die was cast, even though I had only a rough outline of what I was saying yes to. I learned the elements of the sport of course, but the series of events, the joy, the creativity, the connections, the sense of belonging and mattering and the ways I was able to lead, contribute and be contributed to after saying "yes", no one could have predicted.
As such, if you expect that activating a purposeful organization is going to follow some checkbox pathway to a hockey stick chart, you’re in for a rude awakening. Our cosmos is dynamic, relational, omni-centric, emergent and co-creative. Eagle leadership is anything but - it’s linear in its thinking, contractual in practice and exploitative in impact. Bison leadership is responsive; it meets the dynamism, interconnection and emergence as it is and with common cause and agility.
Moreover, every organization in every industry and size/maturity is different, so there is no one-size fits all approaches to culture. Like everything else that matters in your life - marriage, family, faith -, saying "yes" to this adventure means paying attention to what is needed now and responding with both care and courage. When you say "yes", the future you step into will demand much more of you than you are currently capable of fulfilling, and it will be far more rewarding than your current self is capable of envisioning.
The reason for this is that by definition, a purpose-driven organization is unknowable until the purpose of each person in your organization comes alive and arises newly, moment by moment. This is a profound shift from from the eagle's top-down expertise and knowledge to the bison's bottom-up purpose and agility. As Carlos Rey PhD, Jon San Cristobal Velasco PhD and Juan Almandoz PhD assert in Purpose-driven Organizations (2019),
“...the fulfillment of personal purpose within the organizational purpose is the essence of truly purpose-driven organization… Strategy is based no longer on accurate predictions of the future, but on developing dynamic skills and capabilities that allow individuals and organizations to adapt rapidly. In this changing and uncertain world, employees no longer find solace in top-down definitions of organizational purpose… The new logic of purpose requires people to lead the evolutionary process of their own purpose at work.”
As you are transformed by your purpose, your people are also transformed and turning on. You’re flipping switches in unique human hearts. You’re weaving the social fabric of your company. You are activating oblique and emergent logic, whereby the organization’s purpose and individuals’ purposes interact and innovate to meet and co-create the future. As the founder of Bimbo Bakeries aptly observed, “...the company has a soul made up of the souls of each of its workers.” You are unique as is everyone else who will discover and activate their purpose in your organization. Once activated, they will bring their fullness to work, their emotions, creativity, ethics, pain, dreams and wounds, and in so doing, they will change you, your organization and your future.
Your people will be empowered to voice their dissenting opinions, wild ideas and speak truth to power, so you are in effect licensing your employees to cause “good trouble” as John Lewis might say. This means on occasion, you will be called on your shit. Because they will be empowered by having activated their purpose and values in their small, diverse groups, and because you’ve shown them your vulnerability and heartbreak, and are inviting them to bring it, they will.
They will reveal weaknesses in your strategy, ethics and leadership. Because they are turned on, they will be able to tell when you are not being authentic. You won’t be able to fake it anymore. You’re saying "yes" to authenticity and courage, to becoming fully alive, on purpose, warts and all. You're saying "yes" to the emergent possibilities of human creativity, and the burning away of everything in your life and organization that is unaligned with your purpose, our bison nature and the emerging realities of the market.
You’re going to make mistakes and maybe even cause or reveal a scandal. You’ll learn from them, clean them up and try it again with new knowledge. As beautiful as our Constitution is, it was not complete when it was written. It needed amendments. Plenty of them. So will you. You will never be done with activating the purpose of your people and organization. When you die or retire, there will be a long list of things that you wish you got to do. It’s important to accept the the implicit incompleteness of the journey, so that you can just be here right now and create the conditions for everyone to play the game.
However, you will be fed by the progress along the way, the thrill of the game, the big wins and small. When roles fill quickly from employee referrals, and people turn down bigger compensation packages to join your organization, your spine will tingle, you’ll grin and give thanks. When journalists start asking you about how you did it, you’ll giggle and say, “Me? Yah, right... Us and some luck.”
So what is your next step? Although this book is not a how-to manual, it's still important to have a rough outline of the important elements of the new reality we're in, so we can take good guesses about what to do, how to do it and when. Your actual plan of action will depend on your unique organization and those you call in to help guide the process. Let's explore a handful of key elements to consider, as you dream your purposeful organization into the present.
#1 Purpose to the People
Purpose is a human right. It is the key to a life of fulfillment, vitality, connection, innovation and prosperity. Everyone has a right to discover and activate it. It’s the foundation of authentic individual and organizational transformation, and you now have the power to enable it at scale. It’s important to begin this with your executive leadership team (ELT) and front-line managers. Then everyone else. Then weave purpose and values reflection into onboarding and every DEI, L&D, wellness and culture initiative.
But what if someone’s purpose cannot be fulfilled in any way at your company? This does happen. In my experience, it occurs about 5% of the time, however the net effect of activating purpose is an average increase in tenure of 7.4 months (BetterUp, 2019). Some folks will turn on and then won’t see any opportunity to fulfill their purpose in their current company / role. So, you are going to lose a few good people, but these good people will have you to thank for their lives and fulfilled purpose at their new job and company.
#2 Golden Gate Bridge
As we've explored, people learn best together in small, diverse, peer learning groups, over time and in the flow of work. And they also need “big tent” events to invite them on the journey, to celebrate their achievements and to establish a collective sense that something new just happened among all of us. Picture the Golden Gate Bridge with it’s two tall towers that support the whole bridge. Think of the bridge as a chronological line from shore to shore, with the pre-program and group matching surveys before the first tower. The first tower is a "big tent" event to introduce the program objectives, guides / facilitators, logistics, meet their small groups and get their questions answered.
Think of the 5 small group sessions being stretched between the two towers. The second tower/ big event is to recap the program, celebrate the wins, distribute certificates, and enroll folks in their next learning journey. The post-program survey is then distributed after the second tower / big event.
#3 Inclusive culture = digitally native culture
Most organizations are in metropolitan areas where housing is frequently expensive, making convening in the office a physical barrier between the wealthy (and largely white), who can afford to live closer to the office and the poor (and largely BIPOC) who cannot and must either work remotely or commute a great distance, which negatively impacts their social and emotional health and family life, and reinforces existing inequities.
In an ideal world, there would be abundant affordable housing within biking distance and folks could convene safely and easily. Until that is the case, to develop culture inclusively, your approach to culture must be digitally native, such that wherever folks are, they can participate and contribute on a level playing field, e.g., a Zoom room, vs. a live training on-site. This also breaks down silos between functions and teams spread across multiple locations.
#4 Company as community and mission
A job is no longer a contract to perform a faceless task at a soulless company. Rather it is both a mission and a contract. It is about activating one’s personal purpose and values and joining a community in service of a greater mission AND a contract for a healthy salary and benefits that improves the financial, physical, emotional, and social health of all parties. However, a community cannot form without a mission - the company’s promise to deliver its desired impact, live its values and be guided by its origin story - so these need to be developed, embodied, and communicated. Only then can a community be considered to be properly consecrated.
It is also important to renew the mission periodically. Use each all-hands / gathering as an opportunity to renew the mission. For example, exalt the impact of the company’s work on customers and society, highlighting the commitment, community and contribution that made it possible. Distribute the facilitation of these events among diverse people at all levels, so folks feel they are all continually co-creating the mission.
Instead of announcing promotions via email, induct the person via a public ceremony, by exalting how they exhibit the company’s values and their own purpose and passions. Invite others to share how this person has impacted them personally or made a difference for customers or the community. To engender a sense of collaboration and shared success in this new role, have them vulnerably share their purpose, areas for growth and the help they will need to be successful.
Occasionally, you'll find yourself in the proverbial ER with your mates and a bottle of Beam, e.g., a business downturn, loss of key talent, scandal or some external political, economic and/or environmental malady beyond your control. Use this as an opportunity to renew and be guided by the mission and values. Turn to them and ask for guidance on how to shepherd the company/community. For example, instead of announcing layoffs, sending the message that certain people are expendable, communicate that we're all going to make it through this and the company is temporarily cutting all salaries by 90% over the living wage, e.g., $70k/yr in 2021.
#5 Purposeful Leadership + Management
In this sense, everyone in leadership is now also steward of the company's mission and values, whose job responsibilities include contextualizing work in terms of the company’s mission, values and origin story, attending to the purpose and career development of everyone on their team and empowering authentic connection among them.
This means we model our own purpose and find our unique expression of the company’s values. This means contextualizing priorities, initiatives and individual contributions in terms of the mission and the impact on customers and society. This means we activate everyone's purpose at work, and co-create a purpose-led professional development plan with each team member. It means holding folks accountable to their purpose and career path. It means we tell stories and encourage others to tell stories about our challenges and successes. It means exalting the accomplishments of teams, and on occasion, nurturing good-natured competition between teams, in service of the shared mission.
This means we take on the role of hosting, where we ensure everyone gets what they need to flourish. We attend to the betweenness of things, nurturing connections between people, developing relationships between in-groups and out-groups, and empowering and sponsoring diverse candidates. This is the work that creates wide bridges throughout the company, dissolving bottlenecks, building trust, improving information transfer, breaking down silos, and empowering innovation.
This also means new administration. Do not pile the culture priority onto someone who has an existing role and responsibilities. Hire at least 1 new person whose only goal is to support culture, ensuring that all culture change work is substantial and sustained, led by members that represent at least 7% of the employees (McKinsey, 2021) and impacting at minimum 25% of each business unit and/or function (Centola, 2020), and developed over the course of many years. It means tying roughly half of the ELT’s performance and compensation goals to the health of the community, e.g., engagement, fulfillment, intention to leave, social and emotional health, and DEI hiring and promotion goals.
It means administering the table stakes - CSR reports, transparent compensation and promotion policies, paying living wages (>4x rent/mortgage, <30 minute commute), empowering flex schedules, mental health services, 3+ months of required parental leave for all parents, and designing collaboration-rich spaces and experiences for folks to enjoy spontaneous connection.
Once the table stakes are in place, the organization can be considered reasonably aligned. Of course the process of developing people and culture is never done, however, at some point, it is incumbent for organizations to address the broader culture, environment and society by leveraging its brand and buying power to shift the nation towards reckoning, repair, reconciliation, redemption and renewal. This can take the form of regularly and wisely speaking out on matters of public concern, such as reparations for the descendants of the formerly enslaved, criminal justice reform, repatriation of federal lands back to the First Nation's people, regenerative state and federal climate policy, renewable energy, affordable housing, universal healthcare, sustainable transit infrastructure (bike lanes, mass transit, etc.) and ensure the UN'S 30 Universal Human Rights (UN, 2021) are guaranteed.
#6 Triage from the Heart
In every culture there are acute issues, such as missed DEI targets, low retention, pay inequity, low engagement, political polarization, parents not returning from parental leave, AND systemic / cultural issues, such as systemic racism, sexism, workism, hyperindividualism, homophobia, erosion of trust, lack of transparency, and poorly developed power skills, e.g., critical thinking, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, purposeful leadership, etc.
Systemic issues cause acute issues. And sometimes they collide and overlap in a perfect storm resulting in collective trauma and/or scandal.
Collective trauma is the emotional, psychological and cultural response to the immediate loss of something we hold sacred, e.g., 9/11, George Floyd’s murder, the January 6th Insurrection, a disgruntled employee shoots up the office. Scandal is when acute and/or systemic issues are revealed publicly, such as a sexual harassment suit, corruption, BIPOC employees file a discrimination suit, customers are harmed and file suit, etc.
Each of these needs to be addressed uniquely and simultaneously, versus sequentially.
So where do you begin? Which of these elements is most important for you right now? That depends on your size, industry, maturity, etc., but frankly these matter far less than the approach you take to begin the conversation. If you aren’t in the middle of a scandal, and are intent on becoming a purpose-driven organization, I invite you to be transparent and humble in your approach, trusting that the hearts, minds and souls of your people will rise to meet each challenge ahead. Your approach could follow this progression of stages:
Stage #1: Humbly make the invitation
Tell people your vision for becoming a new kind of company, one driven by an inspiring purpose, where our social, economic and environmental impact is quantifiable, where power and wealth are more equitably distributed, where culture is deliberately crafted, where work is fun, where each of us fulfills our potential, where learning is social and ongoing, AND that you have no idea what this looks like.
But it begins with each of us coming to work with our individual purpose and values, sharing our wild ideas and dissenting opinions. It begins with activating our purposes together, building deeper relationships and then collectively asking who we are for the world. It’s going to be a long journey with no known destination, and we’re going to need all your wild ideas and dissenting opinions. It will be messy and we’ll make mistakes and may even reveal a scandal or two, but we’ll learn from them, do it better tomorrow and celebrate the transformation. If you’re in for the adventure, join us. We’re going to begin a process as a whole company to activate our individual purposes and bring them to work.
If this doesn’t sound fun, we will be sad to lose you, but we’ll help you find your next job.
Stage #2: Administer
Then hire your culture lead and activate purpose in small, diverse groups, beginning with the ELT, then the front-line managers, then everyone else. Next weave purpose and values activation into existing onboarding, leadership development, DEI, wellness and culture programs. Equip them with the power and resources to deliver the table stakes.
Stage #3: Co-create and Consecrate the Organization’s Mission + Values
After the ELT has developed a connection to their individual purpose and values, hire a facilitator to convene the ELT to either refresh the company’s mission, values and origin story or generate a “shitty first draft”.
Begin the conversation with questions such as:
Then share out the ELT’s aggregated answers to these questions with the whole company and invite feedback. Then review the ELT's answers and employee feedback and formulate a draft of the mission and values that will guide the company over the next 2-3 years, after which it will again be revisited and re-imagined.
Lastly, consecrate the mission and values. This means dedicating the company to the mission and values in feel, form, function and shape. How you consecrate them depends on your answers to these questions:
Stage #4: Empower Teams to Align Key Business Processes with the Mission and Values
Look at each business line and function and ask the leaders of each to come up with a business and culture vision for how they could be re-imagined with the mission and values at hand, as well as keeping in mind market trends. To build community buy-in and shared success, review these business unit and functional visions at an all-hands meeting.
Invite employees to share their dissenting opinions and the synergies they see. Share out the aggregated feedback and empower each business line and functional leader to incorporate the feedback and revise their team vision.
Business unit and functional leaders then develop a 2-3 year plan to implement the revised mission and values, with quarterly updates that measure progress and integrate team and customer feedback and emerging market realities. Align the team’s performance and compensation with the plan, AND ensure that culture development metrics are given equal weight to business strategy. When in doubt, trust people and empower them to take risks. Have faith that people’s purpose and values will rise to meet the challenges and uncertainties.
The Garden of Emergence
However, what you actually do next (vs. the aforementioned progression) depends on your listening, your tending and intuiting. As a leader, it’s helpful to think of yourself as a gardener of a diverse ecology. Leaders are gardeners who tend a space where every person can discover and activate their purpose on the job.
In addition to staking off the perimeter of our garden and watering, we pay attention to how each plant is responding to the other plants and the environment. Do they need more or less sun? More or less water? Are they avoidant of dissimilar plants? Or do they flourish best together like the three sisters (corn, squash and beans)?
Most importantly, as every master gardener knows, you’re not raising plants, so much as you are cultivating soil.
Soil… Soul... Humus… Human… Cultivate... Culture… Habitat… Habits...
You are paying attention to the soulfulness present in professional relationships. Are your people vulnerable? Caring? Innovative? Do they get excited? Are they sharing dissenting opinions? Are they sharing about their families and struggles? Are they growing? What is the feeling, the sentiment, the unseen and unspoken, the betweenness of the life and work of your people? Are they bringing their whole selves to work? Are they enthusiastically contributing to the culture? Do they claim the company’s mission as their own and innovate on its behalf? Is there a palpable sense of aliveness?
Or are they just showing up, playing kiss-ass/CYA until the next opportunity comes along?
For example, if diverse folks aren’t being promoted or people aren’t returning from parental leave, guess what? You could have sexist, racist, ageist, ableist and heteronormative biases poisoning the soil. If you grow healthy soil, and pay attention to the needs of each plant, they will flourish.
Cultivate belonging and purpose. Consecrate the mission and values. Celebrate soul, empathy, creativity, courage and vulnerability. Give each person what they need to thrive.
When you do, you will have created a place where everyone belongs, is cared for, and feels fulfilled. Imagine what kind of partner and parent your people will we be after 8 hours of belonging, creativity and fulfillment. Imagine how they will communicate with their loved ones while preparing for work in the morning. Imagine how they will show up with their extended family and in their community.
Imagine yourself responsible for having begun the process, for listening to your people, activating their purpose and making your organization a place where everyone can flourish and rise to the levels historically only available to workaholic white men. Imagine facing uncomfortable truths about yourself and your leadership. Imagine learning from these truths, growing and transforming into a more full version of yourself, alive and on purpose as a leader.
Imagine a country where this was the new normal, where hundreds of thousands of leaders like you joined together to activate purpose and belonging at scale. Imagine that we're successful and purpose and belonging are now givens.
What’s now possible? How might our culture shift? How might voting patterns change? How might Congress? Healthcare? Education? Transportation? Community development? Civic engagement? Public safety?
Whatever your vision is for this new world, it begins with you and your organization. We cannot wait - people are suffering and dying on our watch. We're not smart enough to figure it all out in advance. We must move. Now.
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