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Why the War for Talent Will Be Won by Purpose

One of the biggest challenges for most leaders is how to recruit and retain top talent for their workforce, and the global pandemic has only added new wrinkles and more angst.

For the last few decades, for instance, it’s been difficult to find and keep employees who have the right skills for jobs when the jobs and the necessary skills regularly change. Now we also have the trend of key employees leaving their organizations due to a variety of factors associated with the pandemic – even though most workers say they trust their leaders more now than they did before COVID-19.

Charles Phillips, the former CEO of Infor and a board member for several organizations, recently pointed out in an interview with an editor for Fortune that we have “61% percent workforce participation,” which is the lowest it’s been in the past 25 years. Then he suggested an alarming reason for this trend.

“A lot of people just don’t see the value or the purpose of working,” he said, “or they don’t think they’re making enough money to make it worth it… And so if you want talent to be available, you’re going to have to treat people differently.”

So how do we treat people differently if the workforce has essentially become rudderless when it comes to finding value and purpose in work? I’m not sure I know the answer. But I do know that we all need to see the value and purpose in our work. This raises a somewhat philosophical question, but it’s one we all must answer. What’s the point of this struggle? Or, as King Solomon put it, “What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun?” If we can’t find purpose in our work, it is, indeed, meaningless.

Purpose is an intensely personal issue that everyone ultimately must settle for themselves. I can’t decide your purpose, nor can you tell me why I should value my work. But as leaders, we can settle this question for ourselves, and we can help others along their path to self-discovery. So whether you are working through the question yourself or helping others within your workforce, here are some thoughts to consider: 

Tap into what matters most to you.

I’m not talking about change-the-world issues, although those might be relevant. I’m talking about your intrinsic motivations – the things that make you feel good about yourself as a person. For instance, if you love coming up with processes for solving problems or managing systems, then connect that to your work. Or maybe your greatest joy comes from helping other people succeed. Connect that to your work. Or perhaps you are all about getting the job done. Connect that drive for accomplishment to your work.

This applies regardless of your job. One accountant might be all about creating systems, while another might be motivated by how accounting makes people’s lives better, and another might be motivated by the satisfaction of solving a financial issue the helps the company win more business. Same job. Different motivations.

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Focus on growth and excellence.

Gary Norcross, the chairman and CEO of Fidelity Information Systems (FIS), a Fortune 500 financial services company, often tells college students and young professionals that “You really can’t make a bad decision early in your career, as long as you’re growing and getting new experiences.”

Norcross graduated with a business degree and initially intended to return to help run his family farm. Instead, he took a job as a computer programmer – even though he had no experience as a programmer – and then he kept saying yes to new opportunities in different parts of the company, all of which prepared him for roles as an executive that he never intentionally pursued. Instead of chasing titles, he chased experiences.

When you are committed to personal excellence, those experiences produce personal growth. Reginald Miller, a vice president and global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for McDonald’s, points out that this is the key to find joy and purpose in a job that’s not a perfect fit, even as you might look toward moving to some other role.

“What you want to do is leave a legacy of being great in that role or at that company and leave sustainable processes in place in the role,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant, working in HR, working in marketing, working at supply chain or operations. You want to leave your mark in the role even if the company or role isn’t necessarily right for you.”

Look beyond yourself.

Our intrinsic motives, our personal growth and our commitment to excellence all form important components of our purpose for work. But I believe we never fully understand our purpose and enjoy our work until we see it as something of value that goes beyond ourselves.

Through our work, we have opportunities to make the world around us better. That can be through the products and services we’re involved with making or selling, but it also can be through our daily interactions with others. Leadership is about having a positive influence on other people. We can do that in any role and in any job. For me, purpose ultimately is found in faithfully serving God. Your faith might not play the same role, but I’m confident of this – if your purpose for work centers on you, then you might as well be chasing the wind.

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