“What really matters to you, and why?” I ask looking straight into the clear grey eyes of John, the 61-year-old CEO of a major finance company. I wonder if he’s ever been asked this before or if he’s ever privately pondered it. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair and looking everywhere but straight back at me, I can tell he’s challenged by the question.
“My wife and kids matter to me. Providing a good life for them matters to me. Making sure they are happy matters to me.” For a full two minutes John talks about how important his family is to him, and how, if they are happy, he is happy too.
“Keep going,” I encourage him. “What else matters to you beyond your family?”
“My work and the people who work for me matter too,” he replies thoughtfully. “Beyond my family and employees, I don’t really have anything else that fires me up,” he says with a deep sigh of resignation.
“Can you share more about that?” I encourage.
John’s bottom lip starts to quiver and his grey eyes become moist. “Lately, my wife keeps asking me what I really love to do, what’s my purpose beyond work and family. I don’t have any answers. Do I need to? Isn’t that enough? My life is crazy busy and even if I did know what else really mattered to me, I wouldn’t have the time for it,” he ends exasperated.
Then just when the conversation gets interesting, a timer goes off and we’re being called to return to the dining table to be seated with 12 of John’s executive team. What follows, is a lively discussion on what really matters to everyone, except for John who is silent.
I never did get to resume that conversation with John the CEO, but I often think about it and imagine how it might have progressed if we’d had more time.
Perhaps like this?
“Is there anything else you feel to share right now,” I ask.
“I’m highly skeptical about this Purpose stuff. I think it’s only for the artists, the musicians, the writers, those born with a creative calling. That’s not me.”
“Is what you have right now in your life truly enough for you?” I dare to ask. John leans back in his chair and closes his eyes, the moistness now actually turning to tears. “No,” he says with absolute certainty. “There’s something missing.”
“Do you want to find what’s missing?” I ask. “Yes, I think so,” he responds.
“Why do you want to find what’s missing?” I keep digging.
“Because I think making other people my Purpose is a flawed concept. My wife has a full life always travelling – and one day she might leave me. My kids are off working and living their lives and they don’t need me. My employees would leave tomorrow if they could find a job that was more meaningful to them. All these people don’t make me their reason for existence, yet I have made them mine.”
“That’s a powerful insight,” I respond. “What do you think it means?”
“I think Purpose has to be found in ‘something’ not ‘someone’,” he reflects back at me. “It’s about doing something that’s meaningful to me that is of consequence to the world beyond myself. It’s about having a cause I believe in that makes me happy and that I can passionately devote myself to. It’s not something I do instead of family and work commitments, but something that’s of equal priority.”
“Do you believe you already have that ‘something’ in you?” I ask. “Probably. There’s many things I absolutely loved when I was younger before I killed them off and became fixated on climbing the corporate ladder instead.”
“So, are you willing to find that thing you most love, dig it up and take action on it?” I ask. “Yes!” he responds for the first time showing a glimpse of hope.
“Will you trust me to help you do that?” I ask.
“When do we get started?” he urges, leaning forward with a huge smile on his face and reaching out to shake my hand as a sign of commitment.
I know that Purpose-driven people are the back-bone of Australia’s most profitable and sustainable companies. My Purpose is to be a ‘Steward of Purpose’ – to help leaders find their Purpose and create innovative ways to bring it to life at work so they can then empower their own people to do the same.
Discover more with The Purpose Project Leadership Program