“A Leader of a 21st century organization is, in part, a cheerleader-in-chief.” This statement by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, caught my attention as I began reading his new book The Open Organization. Jim spent most of his career in fairly traditional business cultures before joining Red Hat, the largest open source software company in the world, in 2007. In The Open Organization, Jim describes the unique culture he found at Red Hat, and how that resulted in him leading the organization in a much different way.
Whitehurst’s “cheerleader-in-chief” statement shows up early in the book in a chapter titled “Igniting Passion.” In this chapter, Whitehurst argues that “people are most fulfilled and happiest when their work is aligned with their own internal passions.” Well, that may be true, but how in the world can leaders create this alignment and activate their people’s passion? Sounds like a daunting task. The key, according to Whitehurst, is having a clearly stated “purpose” for the organization that engages people and sparks their passion. A purpose that people can relate to, that they can “own.” A purpose beyond simply making money. Having a purpose that really sparks people’s passion, according to Whitehurst, is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Things really start happening! People stop checking their emotions at the door and instead bring them to their everyday tasks. And generally people end up working harder and better results follow.
This is particularly true with the Millennial generation. While everyone can be inspired by a thoughtful, well-developed purpose, Millennials in particular want to connect to something more meaningful than simply completing a task and collecting a paycheck. They want to connect to a purpose that has meaning and significance beyond money.
At Baillie Lumber, we developed a purpose statement over 20 years ago. It’s simple: “To Help Others Succeed.” Although we (I!) don’t talk about it nearly enough, and it would be an overstatement to suggest that it drives and motivates our people every moment of every day, I believe that our purpose has created significant traction for our people in helping them step out of the day to day fray and realize they are involved in something bigger. Clearly we want to help our customers and suppliers succeed. And clearly we want to make more money to make the company stronger for all of its stakeholders. Everyone knows that. But it goes beyond that.
Let me give one example. I’ve watched with deep satisfaction as our people at Baillie have applied our purpose to their co-workers. Multiple times in the last year, when one of our team members (or one of their family) has experienced a significant financial, health, or other need, their co-workers have banded together to provide help for the person in need in very significant, life changing ways. Usually this involves a financial component, but it often goes beyond that. It’s gratifying to me when a customer or supplier lets me know that we’ve helped them succeed in some way. But truly, this example of our people putting our purpose into practice, embodying our purpose, and helping each other succeed, is the example of living out our purpose of which I am most proud.
We’re far from perfect at Baillie, and we have a long way to go in making our purpose real and relevant to all of our stakeholders. But we’re on the journey, trying to do better each day. If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to identify a purpose that resonates with and inspires the people in your organization. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.