I had a grandfather who owned an Italian bakery.

As a child, I spent a great deal of time, especially in the summer months, running through that bakery. I remember looking up into huge ovens with row upon row of bread baking in the red heat while above me the conveyor system was transporting sliced and packaged bread to be stored on pallets for delivery.  I was too young to appreciate what it takes to create a workplace and build a business. As a child, the best part of being in the bakery was helping myself to donuts.

My grandfather has since passed and his business sold. How I wish I could access the wisdom he gained running his business, for me and for my clients.  I’ve always believed that work was instrumental in our lives because it’s an avenue for how we each use our talents and for how we contribute.

Work is both a means of earning a living and a way through which one shows up in the world.  We spend so much of our time each day in work. What if it doesn’t hold meaning? What if one is stuck and frustrated? Sometimes, is a job just a job? The conclusion I’ve come to after many years of my own work experiences, along with the window I’ve had as an HR professional, is that all work has the potential to hold purpose. Whether that potential for purpose is realized depends on the individual or the organization one works for.

Why should an organization care about purpose? Simply stated, connecting teams to a purpose larger than themselves is a key factor in driving motivation. This idea is explored by Daniel Pink in Drive, The Surprising truth about what motivates us where he asserts that one’s intrinsic motivation is driven by 3 factors – autonomy, mastery and purpose. Speaking of purpose, he states, “The most deeply motivated people – not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied – hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.”  If any organization is to foster a sense of purpose among their teams, a clear articulation of the organization’s purpose will lead the way. This requires thoughtful reflection on the part of leaders, building practices that communicate and reinforce purpose and enabling managers to help individuals tie their work to the larger mandate of the organization.

I remember a conversation with an employee of a client who worked in a warehouse shipping parts. He saw his job as more than picking, sorting and packing. He explained that their parts were needed for trucks and buses and if he didn’t get the parts out on time, their customers would have a harder time getting people to work. To his and his employer’s credit, he was able to see how his work was in service of another. This was a wonderful example of how someone could connect his work to something bigger than himself and find purpose in his day-to-day tasks.

When I think of my grandfather and his years of building his bakery, I see that his work provided employment that supported many families, many of whom were immigrants. His bakery was known in the community and a popular spot for Italian baked goods. I wonder what he made of his purpose and whether it helped him to get up and go every day at 4am. Did he see his purpose as putting food on the table of families in the community where we lived? Did he see it as a way of sharing Italian culture? Perhaps it was to take care of his immediate and extended family? Maybe it was all of that.

In The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith, describes research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School of Business that shows those who consistently describe their jobs as meaningful see their jobs as a way to help others. This finding isn’t specific to a service sector. In fact, the research indicates that people in any sector can find purpose in their work when a service mindset prevails.  The author sums it up nicely by saying, “Not all of us will find our calling. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose…..when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant. Each of us has a circle of people – in our families, in our communities and at work – whose lives we can improve. That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.”

I am inspired by that perspective and I know it to be true. You see, I had a grandfather who owned an Italian bakery…


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1 Comment

  1. Sherry Barna says:

    Your newsletter always causes me to pause and think about engaging the workforce for better results. I always knew and appreciated your capacity for thoughtful and meaningful reflection. This article, and the ties to your family, shows that we don’t have to look far for pertinent examples of what happens when you find value in your work.

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