A company with a well-defined purpose and passionate employees who share it can unleash a megawatt boost of employee enthusiasm that can only be born when purpose and passion align. Unfortunately, this is a resource that most companies are not tapping into nearly enough. And, as we'll see in the coming pages, it's a widely available asset that requires nothing more from the organization than an outlet for its expression.
Karen Bankston, Ph.D., is the senior vice-president and head of the Drake Center, a specialized long-term acute care hospital that is located on the same site with a skilled nursing facility and an assisted living center on a 42-acre campus in Cincinnati, Ohio. Drake is part of Health Alliance, the largest health care system in the area, which owns seven hospitals and has 15,000 employees. Dr. Bankston is among a growing number of talented individuals who have struggled with finding a role in their organizations in which their purpose and passions could flourish.
Having begun her career as a nurse with a hospital in Youngstown, Ohio, Karen spent her early years working as a healer. She enjoyed interacting with patients at the front line of health-care delivery and worked well with other members of the medical staff. Because of her talent for managing people and projects, Karen matured into a capable administrator and later achieved the coveted role of vice president, working for Health Alliance. Along with each change in position came more recognition and more responsibility, as well as the financial independence that the additional compensation resulting fromadvancement provided for Karen and her family.
But after spending a number of years at this level, Karen became increasingly aware that her accomplishments had come at a price. Working in administration had, over time, disconnected her from what mattered to her most. "I began to realize," she said, "that I had lost touch with what attracted me to medicine in the first place. My purpose, I've discovered, is really about connecting people who need healing to the resources that can make healing happen. And I know that because I'm passionate about it. The role that I was playing in the organization pulled me further and further from my purpose."
At this phase of her career, Karen found herself spending more time managing politics than she wanted to and less time building relationships that impacted patient care. While politics are on the daily menu in the diet of most executives, Karen had gotten her fill of witnessing important decisions being made based on political favoritism. Those decisions, Karen believed, ultimately impacted the quality of patient care that was so central to her purpose. Coupled with this, she felt that management espoused values of integrity, honesty, and respect for everyone, yet they failed to walk the talk themselves. The organization was in turmoil, experiencing great change and facing huge financial challenges, but the team rowing the raft through the white waters of the river wasn't behaving in concert with values that put patients and employees first.
After a period of intense introspection, during which time Karen focused on the toll that her work was taking on her life, she realized that the job was no longer for her. In addition to dealing with the chasm that existed between her current work role and what she felt was important to accomplish, Karen was also trying to manage fallout caused by a boss whose abusive behavior was fracturing the organization. She found herself saddled with healing the organization and helping others to stay afloat emotionally, while at the same time trying to counsel her boss about his behavior. And the more difficult things became financially for the hospital, the more his bad behavior escalated.
The environment had finally become too toxic, and Karen had reached her breaking point. Despite years of hard work delivering results for Health Alliance, she arrived at a pivotal moment in her career when she thought, "I have to get out of here!" Reflecting on it later, Karen realized, "I was getting physically sick, and I began to understand that what was making me sick was my job. The environment in the organization was not allowing me to do what I believed I was there to do. I was running two-thirds of the hospital, and I had gotten big awards for my accomplishments, but I was miserable."
Against the wishes of the head of Health Alliance and numerous colleagues, Karen decided to resign. But so determined was the organization to keep her that it offered her a retention bonus, which Karen promptly refused. Unwilling to take no for an answer, the head of the organization upped the ante financially. However, it didn't have quite the anticipated effect on her decision that senior management intended. Upon receiving the offer, Karen retorted, "It's clear that you don't know me."
The story might have ended here for many other individuals whom we've encountered at just such a career crossroad. Many of the talented leaders we've spoken with point to their role at work as being core to their sense of fulfillment. Living a life of quiet desperation in the wrong job or the wrong organization is not an option that many of them chose. Yes, these are capable people with mortgages to pay and families to feed, like so many of us, but some made courageous decisions to pursue a career that allowed them to express their purpose and passions. Were they frightened? You bet. Were they sure of where to go? Not always. But they inherently knew that staying where they were would not lead to doing work that meant as much to them as it may have meant to the organization. They wanted a life that matters.
Fortunately for Karen, four months after her departure the company asked her to become the chief operating officer (COO) of University Hospital, working for someone that she knew had similar values to her own. The problem boss would no longer be part of her work life, and she thought there was a chance that things had changed. She was happy—for a while.
After a time, the familiar old pattern reemerged, and Karen found herself being promoted to yet another corporate job that once again moved her away from the people who touched the patients. She was dealing with external affairs for the organization; it was a role that despite its importance was less directly connected to patient care. Once again, the organization was in danger of losing her—this time for good. Karen had begun to look for another job outside of the area, and she became a front runner for a job in California.
At about the same time, the Health Alliance organization identified a turnaround project that was perfect for Karen, and it offered her the position that she now holds. Here she has found "the freedom and resources to make the connections that help others heal." In her new job, Karen is able to directly interact with team members who serve patients—from the individuals involved in maintaining a clean facility, to the staff that provides security, to the doctors and nurses who care for the patients. She looks for frequent opportunities to connect with her team, and she enjoys walking the halls of the hospital just to chat with patients and staff and keep her fingers on the pulse of the organization. Karen is where she wants to be—at the front line of patient care, making sure that the hospital delivers the highest-quality service by designing a culture in which everyone's passions can be leveraged.
When we last spoke with Karen, the job was going well and she was exuding the kind of excitement that comes from knowing that you're in exactly the right role and making a positive difference. She has managed to make what was once a financially struggling business into a thriving entity that is running in the black. But along the way, Karen has learned some important lessons about herself as a leader and about her role in life and work. "So much about leadership is about the people," she shared. "Those of us in executive-level jobs can make decisions based only on the information that is filtered to us. The real work is done by those touching the patients—giving the medications, mopping the floors, or making the meals. Otherwise, the hospital is only bricks and mortar. In this new leadership position, I am allowed to be my 'whole me.' I am once again in touch with my purpose and living it every day. If any future role I am asked to play here isn't about that, well,…I'm simply not interested."
Karen's story is all too familiar. Many large organizations undertake the process of defining a corporate mission that serves as the underpinning for their vision of the future. Enormous amounts of time and energy are devoted to developing a few important sentences that can be put to paper, with the intent to create a philosophical framework that catalyzes the organization into action. The mission can be considered the raison d'Ãªtre for the company—that is, the reason for being that is intended to engage employees and propel the business forward.
Yet many of these same organizations forfeit the benefits they might otherwise gain from their employees because they fail to connect with the important purpose and passions of those employees.
In this exercise of mission crafting, what large organizations all too often overlook is the direct connection between mission and purpose. We could almost do away with the term "mission statement" and replace it with "purpose statement" for a far more accurate description of what this document is meant to evoke. At its best, a purpose statement engages the hearts and minds of employees and customers alike, pointing the way toward common goals they can collectively embrace.
At its worst, the statement becomes a dusty document on the shelves of managers throughout the company—unused, irrelevant, and forgotten. Or worse yet, it becomes the rallying point for employee cynicism when the company fails to live up to the noble ideas the document contains.