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One Year Later Is Purpose Winning?

It was a year ago today that my second book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization published. I have been reflecting on the past year and wondered aloud recently, is purpose winning?

The short answer is sorta. Maybe. Kinda.

The good news is that the word “purpose” no longer feels as awkward as a Grade 8 dance. During the lead-up to the launch of the book I personally felt as though the concept of purpose was sound, yet many others remained in their corner of the gymnasium fearful of taking that first dance purpose step.

Whether through embarrassment, confusion or an acne breakout, people seemed to have cement in their shoes. As the weeks and months progressed after May 10, 2016, however, there was a palpable advancement. Not everyone was doing the moonwalk, but progress was happening. Purpose became an acceptable word.

My discussions with people over the past year always seemed to come back to one thing. How?

There were an endless number of questions that began with how.

  • How can I find purpose in my life?
  • How is it possible to create purpose in my role at work?
  • How does the organization shift from profit-driven to a balance profit and purpose culture?
  • How can I ever learn to break dance?

There was another ‘how’ question that kept popping up as well.

How important is culture to purpose?

That is perhaps my biggest takeaway over the past year. There is an inextricable link between culture and purpose. I found that as the summer turned into fall, and as winter turned into our spring, my keynotes, coaching, workshops and 1-1 discussions began to encompass both culture and purpose. Put differently, I no longer separate purpose from culture. My work–in whatever capacity it takes shape–is a combination of FLAT ARMY (my first book) and THE PURPOSE EFFECT. Whether working with a small or large organization, not-for-profit, public sector or for-profit, culture and purpose are in fact siblings from the same family.

Of course there is a personal element to both culture and purpose. One cannot rely solely on the organization to enact an engaged culture or a purpose-driven ethos. It really does start with you. I see this often in my conversations. Those that take charge of their own purpose are far more engaged at work.

Each day we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are prepared to continually develop what we are about, define who we want to be, and decide how we want to be known after we leave a room. This is the essence of personal purpose, but it can be reflected in the way we are engaged or disengaged in our roles at work, too.

So yes. Culture and purpose are actually fraternal twins. And whether we are engaged in life and in our roles at work has a significant impact on our dance moves. (or if we choose to dance at all)

The Organization

And what about organizations? Are we shifting toward a purpose-driven ethos, one that includes a highly engaged workforce?

I don’t see a rush to the dance floor–even though the base line is catchy, and twerking mercifully seems to be dead–but there are some glimmers of hope.

Dominic Barton, James Manyika and Sarah Keohane Williamson proved one part of THE PURPOSE EFFECT thesis. “Companies that operate with a true long-term mindset have consistently outperformed their industry peers since 2001 across almost every financial measure that matters.” That is, companies focused on the long term in their study ended up averaging revenue growth 47 percent higher and earnings growth 36 percent higher than those focused on short-term gains. This is part of the Good DEEDS model in the book.

On the downside, Gallup’s daily employee engagement tracking in the US sits at 33.5 percent. At the beginning of 2014 it was 32.9 percent. I would not call that progress. More needs to be done to create cultures of collaboration and purpose.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development continues to do amazing work in this space. It launched the Social Capital Protocol, a framework for organizations to measure, understand and value their interactions with society. Fortune Magazine initiated the Change the World list, a group of fifty companies who are building intentional efforts to address social problems (by way of organizational purpose) into the core of their business plans.

Michael Porter of Harvard Business School and Mark Kramer of FSG are the pioneers behind the list, and they write:

“Companies are moving beyond often fuzzy notions like sustainability and corporate citizenship to making meaningful social impact central to how they compete.”

There is some actual movement out there, often demonstrated by a new generation of leaders who understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and purpose. These are the ones not afraid to “bust-a-move” on the dance floor. I identified a few in THE PURPOSE EFFECT, including LSTN, Fairphone and Market Basket. Over the past year I have discovered several more.

Take for example, Katlin Smith, CEO of Simple Mills. Katlin recognized that foosball tables and a misaligned purpose does nothing to grow the business, or help society. Engagement and purpose is much more than perks and a fixation on profit.

Katlin writes:

“It starts with purpose.

At Simple Mills, we are here to positively impact the way food is made, enriching lives and bodies through delicious, convenient foods made from clean, nutritious ingredients. This is the first and most important component of our company and culture. Every piece, every person, must be centered on fueling our mission – from hiring criteria, to the way we source ingredients, to the products we make.

We focus on the right priorities, at the right time, with the right resources.”

Data and research continues (albeit slowly) to be produced supporting the argument of an enhanced purpose and culture. Alyson Daichendt, Managing Director, Human Capital Consulting Practice at Deloitte helped write a report at her firm titled “The Impact Project.” In it she discovered that the most important principle is something referred to as “Think Values and Value.” She says:

“Many of the exceptional brands included in the report have a deeply embedded sense of purpose in their organization, giving their employees a sense of meaning and deeply influencing decision making.”

As I often say in my keynotes, employees need to feel valued, they need to create value, and they need to believe their efforts are valuable through a values-based organizational culture and purpose.

I love Alyson’s line, particularly how she ends it. It speaks to the relationship between purpose and culture, but it also touches on something I have also realized. Purpose and an engaged culture are important factors, but they are often aided by a better way of thinking and decision making.

Not surprisingly, my next book, titled OPEN to THINK, will publish on April 10, 2018 and it is devoted to something I call Open Thinking. The concept centers around three types of thinking: Creative, Critical and Completion. When we recognize that Open Thinking can assist purpose and culture, well, that’s a dance party that I want to be invited to.

While THE PURPOSE EFFECT is only a year old, I hope it has the “book legs” to make an impact for the next decade. Purpose isn’t winning, but there is hope. If there is anything that I have learned, the dance floor needs more willing dancers.

Are you a dancer?

PS. If you have read the book or have a story to share, please feel free to write your thoughts or comments below.


Fifteen Years After My MBA

Fifteen years ago in 2002 I graduated with my MBA from Royal Roads University.

The university recently caught up with me to conduct an interview. It gave me the chance to reflect and think about how the MBA has shaped my professional life.

MBA experience shapes alumnus’ teaching on leadership

Alumnus Dan Pontefract first decided the dominant form of leadership had to change when he was cut from a provincial soccer team at age 16.

“Three men went to the front of the stage, called out the names of the 16 boys that made the team and left the other ten in the audience weeping, and basically said, ‘Better luck next time,’” Pontefract says. “And I said to myself then and there I’ll never treat anyone that way.”

That early experience of the potentially damaging effects of certain leadership styles eventually compelled Pontefract to explore how people lead and learn to be leaders in business and life.

A Master of Business Administration (2002) alumnus originally from Stony Creek, Ontario, Pontefract is chief envisioner for TELUS, where his Transformation Office helps organizations and leaders to improve employee engagement, leadership development and organizational culture.  He has published two books on leadership and purpose, with his third, Open to Think: A Strategy for Better Thinking, to be released in 2018.

“I am trying to help both employees and leaders shine a light…that management, leadership culture, purpose—it can all be done in a different way,” he says.

In 2000, Pontefract was working for the B.C. Institute of Technology and decided to improve his education in order to be a better academic. Royal Roads’ MBA was exactly what he needed, he says, despite the youth of the university and the program.

“I wanted something that was practical and real and didn’t feel as if it was just coming out of a book,” Pontefract says. “So I looked into faculty. I looked into the way programs were set up. I looked into the fact that I somewhat obviously wanted to continue to work.

“And as I started whittling down my parameters, I kept coming back to RRU, even though, in fairness, it was fledgling (at the time.)”

Pontefract says his experience at Royal Roads, from the way the MBA was delivered in a blended learning format, to its focus on collaboration, was essential both for how he views leadership and how he teaches others to be engaged, collaborative leaders.

“I was so enamoured and enthralled with the program’s structure that effectively I stole it and used it as the basis for the TELUS MBA we started a couple of years ago,” he says with a laugh. The TELUS program teaches MBA-level skills to employees in a blended learning model with six residences. Employees work in pods and teams, similar to the cohort model at Royal Roads.

“I remember RRU really unleashing the behaviour of collaboration,” Pontefract says. “As you progress in your studies, you recognize that the sum is greater than its individual parts. So these teams you were concentrated with really disentangled the notion that you had to do everything on your own in life.”

Those lessons influenced Pontefract’s first book, Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization.

“The connected part is not technology. It’s actually behaviour. It’s that notion of being collaborative and connecting with people to create results,” he says.

Pontefract stresses the top behavior for leaders is openness with their teams.

“I define openness as the act of engaging others to influence and execute a coordinated and harmonious conclusion,” he says.

“Employees aren’t looking for heaps of money. They just want to feel valued. So how you create value is you’re inclusive. You’re coordinating with them, you’re collaborating with them. That’s open.”

Pontefract’s vision for business transformation goes beyond more harmonious, engaged work teams. He says business done with openness and purpose has greater social value than making profit; it can improve the lives of its employees and the community.

“Profit is important but not the sole reason a company is in business in the first place,” he says. “The business of business is to improve society. And if one improves society the organization will be returned a healthy profit.”

~ Interview conducted by Cindy MacDougall and first appeared on the RRU website.

Why I Removed A Recent Post

On March 9, 2017, I wrote and published a post that outlined various missteps, difficulties and issues that had recently taken over a particular American company.

After seven days, I had a change of heart.

I removed the column from the three sites in which it was cross-posted to.

Some of you have asked “why?”

I will reiterate what I discussed with my three goats at the Sunday night dinner table.

I made a mistake.

But… “there is tuition value in mistakes.”

I started out the conversation on Sunday night retelling the story of my second book, The Purpose Effect, to the goats. The book almost never was. Actually, it almost was a much bigger mistake than the post I recently took down.

In its first iteration—days before it was about to go to the printers—The Purpose Effect was titled something entirely different. The tone was very dark and brooding. It was as though I had written an angry book, lashing out at all that was wrong in the world of purpose, people, organizations and the like.

I received some insightful feedback (and coaching) from a very wise man who recommended I push out the publish date by a year in order to clean up the manuscript. It led me to rethink the entire premise of the book, as well as my writing style. It led to (I believe) a much more hopeful, positive and useful book.

It is fair to say I learned far more about myself and my writing tendencies through that experience than ever before.

I am very proud of The Purpose Effect and its end result. It may not have won a book award, but the streams of people reaching out and thanking me for writing it is truly humbling. I hope other readers have found it—and continue to find it—useful.

The post that I recently “unpublished” felt a bit like that first version of The Purpose Effect. It was dark and brooding, and did not serve a true purpose. It attacked a company, its leader and several other individuals. In summary, it was not the type of writing that I want to be known for.

And so, as I discussed this with the three young kids on Sunday night over a delightful smoked sablefish, I share those same sentiments here in this space.

What I could have done is provided helpful recommendations and ideas on how to improve various facets of the company’s culture, leadership practices and organizational purpose instead of attacking it. After all, that is what I have been doing for the better part of my career. Instead of descending into an offensive assault, I simply could have helped.

And that is where I erred.

I may still write a more helpful post in the future that aims to assist the company, but for now, it’s simply another example of “mea culpa” in my personal journey of life.

If you were personally or professionally impacted, I am sorry, too.



Book Review: The Neo-Generalist

I’ve had several roles in multiple organizations over my career. All of them have been rewarding. When I look back I can distinguish one particular fork in the road of my livelihood. The moment I left the public education sector for the corporate world was the time at which I was introduced to the term HR Generalist.

Being in education, there was no such thing as an HR Generalist. I had never heard of the job title before. It not only sounded foreign, it made me laugh.

“What did an HR Generalist do?” I mused to myself. It sounded so goofy to me I thought the role was about having a very low-level of knowledge of Human Resources to translate to people like me. Maybe it was supposed to be like an interpreter. Given the company assigned me one that first week of employment in my new corporate world gig, I needed to figure out relatively quickly what it was she was actually going to help me with.

That “she” was named Diane. And she was fantastic.

As it turns out, an HR Generalist is a bit like what authors Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin expertly surface in their new book The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go Is Who You Are. They write that a neo-generalist “dislikes labels and categorization precisely because it has the effect of fragmenting and polarizing, creating artificial boundaries and divisions.” My new colleague, Diane, was not a specific HR payroll person, or a learning professional, or a recruitment agent, or a labor analyst, or an organizational design consultant. Diane was all of that. She could deftly move around the continuum of human resources, “in and out of different specialisms and responsibilities, working with an array of groups and communities,” as Mikkelsen and Martin depict.

Diane was indeed someone with that raw and uncanny ability to go wide and narrow. She was both deep and shallow in her knowledge of human resources. She was working in a state of perpetual beta.

The crux of The Neo-Generalist is that each of us possesses the potential to both specialize and generalize . Diane was a perfect example. She generalized the principles and policies of HR in order to specialize for me and the other executives she worked with. Neo-generalists bring their background, unique and oftentimes gifted knowledge as well as diversity of thought to their places of work.

“While the specialist aspires to membership of the guild, populated by experts in their field, and the generalist heads for the salon, which is polymathic in both membership and outlook, the neo-generalist is drawn to a café culture in the hope of combining the best of both worlds.”

As I read the book, I caught myself not only thinking about Diane, I began to think about my own situation. Maybe I’m a neo-generalist?

The author’s simple yet succinct observation is based on a wide range of interviews with athletes, scientists, professionals, artists, film makers and writers. Littered with historical references and pop culture reflections, I could not help thinking about my career and tendencies while reading.

As I approach problems at work or in life—as I tackle projects or ideate on new concepts—I realized I am tapping into a diverse background of personal and professional experiences, ultimately surfacing an answer, a thought, or a possibility by virtue of looking at things specifically and generally. I am like the capital letter T. Along the top of the T is my breadth and along the stem of the T is my depth. As necessary, I shift along the top of the stem to accommodate a given situation.

The authors describe it differently, and perhaps more astutely, by virtue of what they describe as “The Infinite Loop” found below.

The stories are rich and diverse. One minute you can be swept away to the Rugby World Cup and another to an anecdote about Picasso. But the real gold is mined from the personal neo-generalist narratives the authors surfaced with people from around the world. One of my favorites (and most enlightening) was with Susy Paisley-Day, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent.  While studying wild bears in concert with her PhD research, Paisley-Day became a detective, using sense-making and pattern recognition as part of her scientific analysis. But, she also blended this with the unknown—the mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity—of being in the wild and figuring out how to track these spectacled bears. It’s this specialization and generalization blend where the magic appears.

“Pattern recognition, therefore, requires a fine balancing act between perception and reality; an awareness that objective can be affected and distorted by the subjective.”

As I look back now at the time I spent with Diane, I know not only what an HR Generalist does, I fully appreciate how important her role was to me and my team’s success. She was not a generalist; she was a neo-generalist—a restless multi-disciplinarian who is forever learning and bringing people together through depth and breadth.

By the end of The Neo-Generalist, I was ready to classify myself as one, too.

On Being Human

“If you want to know what being Canadian is, it’s being part of the human race, allowing yourself to be vulnerable.” ~Gord Downie

Of everything I have learned from Gord over the years, it’s this quote that captures my attention the most. It hits me deep. I interpret it as follows:

When we accept our own impotence we can be that much greater.

When we acquiesce to our own susceptibility we can be that much more giving.

When we assume a position of defencelessness we can be even more helpful.

When we are humble, vulnerable and act with humility, we are a part of the human race.

For what it’s worth, my “money” is on Gord. Let us all be a part of humanity and the human race.

Tic Tac Oh Oh

In the game of Tic-Tac-Toe it has been estimated that if two players with intermediate level experience squared off against one another, the odds of it resulting in a tie (called a Cat’s Game) is 51 percent of the time.

When two experienced players set up shop for a match, the game will result in a tie 86 percent of the time.

And if two Tic-Tac-Toe experts were to get together, a tie would occur 100 percent of the time.

I like to think that each of us is an expert in being human. You, me, your neighbour, citizens alike…we are experts in being humane. I give each of us the benefit of the doubt. I hope you do, too.

We are the experts to uphold our decency, our morality, our values…our humanity.

If we use Tic-Tac-Toe as a metaphor for the current mode of operations in the new Trump administration, it feels as though there is no longer a chance for a tie. Life is no longer a zero sum game. Society has quickly moved to one where the bully has overtaken the board. Trump seems to hold power over our humanity. He is relishing the moment with hidden tones of fascism.

Society’s expert status seems to have eroded. There is no longer a chance for the tie.

We need to fight back. Whatever your nationality and wherever you live, it is time to become an open thinker. The current status quo–of a bully unilaterally in charge of the Tic-Tac-Toe board–must be squashed.

Our humanity depends on it.

It is time we got creative. The bully may be in charge of the board right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think openly and creatively to outwit his rhetoric. It’s time to play off the board. It is time to rally.


I’m in need of being inspired.

If you want to win one of seven free (and signed) copies of my latest book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT, here’s what you have to do:

  • In the comment box below, jot down your “declaration of purpose.”


Here is what I wrote in THE PURPOSE EFFECT about the “declaration of purpose” to help you out:

If team members do not possess an understanding of their personal purpose, the first step is to create a personal purpose statement. But something stronger is required. It should not be a simple statement, rather a declaration. A necessary action, therefore, is to define a personal “declaration of purpose.”

To create a personal declaration of purpose, individuals can utilize the following techniques:

  • Incorporate how you decide to operate your life—how you will show up—each and every day.
  • Be succinct, specific and jargon-free, but ensure the declaration is equally expressive.
  • Make it personal, make it yours, and incorporate strengths, interests and/or core attributes.

Once an individual’s personal purpose has been declared, the next step is to ensure they take ownership of what has been crafted. If the declaration is the commitment to “define” one’s purpose, acting upon it is to “decide” how someone is going to carry out their purpose each and every day. 

When I created my own personal declaration in the late 1990s, I realized it had to be something that defined me, allowed me to continue developing, and forced me to decide how I would behave in any situation. How was I going to show up each and every day? My personal purpose declaration statement has been the following ever since:

We’re not here to see through each other; we’re here to see each other through.

This declaration has guided me through life altering decisions, often acting as my personal compass. Of any action you plan to take to achieve the sweet spot, based on my research, interviews and personal experience, I cannot stress how important the personal declaration purpose statement can be to your long-term prosperity.

I’m looking to be inspired by your own “declaration of purpose.” I have no doubt that others who read your “declaration of purpose” will be inspired as well.

If you don’t have one, here’s a great chance to think about it, write it down, and maybe … just maybe … you’ll win a signed copy of my second book.

At a minimum, you will have created something that should help you for the months to come. (and likely others)

Good luck. Contest closes Sunday, January 29, 2017 at 6:00pm PT

PS. More information about the book is over here. There is a TED Talk, too.