We are in the midst of the Digital Age and we are learning that the experiences of organizations and people will be more challenging, more tumultuous and more ever-changing than desired. Technology now permeates every aspect of our professional and personal lives. We continue to learn about the causes and complexities of consuming vast quantities of information, staying focused, scaling up and moving at necessary speed to be successful or in extreme cases, survive. However, we are also seeing early signs of a compelling future of positive possibilities.
At Microsoft, we have come to believe that purpose is the deeply held belief of why our organization exists. Purpose provides a north star that instills confidence and engagement amongst us. We encourage employees to define and live their own purpose, explore Microsoft’s purpose, and identify convergence and alignment opportunities to increase engagement and their and the company’s impact. This approach has proven valuable as we navigate the complexities of the Digital Age where collaboration tools, social media, increased connectedness and faster speed of communications allows for higher levels of scrutiny of the decisions, actions and positions of organizations.
Purpose in a digital organization provides clarity that instills confidence and engagement. An authentic purpose inspires a collective “we” mindset within employees and organizations. Purpose can empower employees to make decisions and act in alignment with the organization. When given a clear purpose that resonates and is easily recalled, employees feel a strong sense of contribution to something worthwhile, and in doing so are more likely to respect and trust leaders and the organization. That said, statements of purpose must be backed with clear definition, impactful action and modeling from leadership to each member of the organization.
To that end, applying a well-defined and authentic organizational purpose allows employees to see opportunities to bring their own passions, strengths and values to life in the workplace. For us, this alignment has created great impact in employee recruitment, engagement and retention. Purpose provides a strong anchor—a way to create focus and resilience while navigating these challenging and promising times.
This article outlines our journey to create an organizational foundation that emphasizes purpose and culture as Microsoft’s key pillars.
What Is the Purpose of Purpose?
In 2014, Microsoft’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to name Satya Nadella as CEO, only the third CEO in the company’s 40-year history. Nadella knew that in addition to the urgent need for our technology and business strategy to evolve, even more pressing was the need to evolve our culture and redefine our purpose. He also knew creating the case for change was one of the most important actions he needed to take in his first months as CEO. Nadella put it this way in the days leading up to his first shareholder meeting as CEO, “We needed to find out who we were, why we were this way and to consider what the world would look like without us in it. In short, we needed to rediscover our soul.” This set off discussions, research and actions to define what we would come to call our Mission to Culture story.
Shortly after the shareholder meeting, a new Microsoft mission—only the second in our 40 years—was shared: “Empower everyone and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” The new mission has proven to be powerful, enduring and critical in guiding the company. Our mission is our organizational purpose. It answers why we exist and provides the clarity and connectedness employees seek.
However, there are two sides to this relationship. It is imperative that along with the organizational purpose employees develop and live a personal purpose—one’s own sense of passion and beliefs. This combination allows employees to identify and live their own purpose, delve into ours and identify opportunities for convergence and impact. We believe this binding act enables people to find meaning in the work they do.
To reinforce this, in 2018, Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s Chief Human Resources Officer, developed the 5Ps of employee fulfillment—a theory of human resources management inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see Figure 1). The theory maps the pursuit of employee fulfillment as a pyramid, with more basic needs such as pay and perks at the bottom and self-actualization—the desire to fulfill one’s self through work—at the top. The pyramid is designed to address the spectrum between the basic needs of an organization’s employees and higher self-actualization needs around the people you work with, the pride you have in your work and organization, and the sense of purpose you achieve.
David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, shared his perspectives with us recently as we were discussing the purpose of purpose.
Importance of Purpose Goes Beyond Microsoft
Through industry research we know that purpose is important, and that the growing employee expectation is that their organization has a clearly defined purpose. This is no small challenge for organizations that have historically focused mainly on design, production, delivery and profit, with less focus on how the work makes a difference.
In a recent McKinsey survey of U.S. workers, 82 percent of more than 1,000 respondents affirmed the importance of corporate purpose, but only 42 percent reported that their organization’s stated purpose had much effect (see Figure 2).2
The 2018 Global Talent Trends study by Mercer identified “working with a purpose” as one of the main trends shaping the workforce.3 The report says “employees crave meaningful work: 75 percent of thriving employees—those who are fulfilled personally and professionally—say that they work for a company with a strong sense of purpose (almost double those who don’t feel like they are thriving).” And a third survey in 2016 found that 88 percent of millennials believe employers should play a vital role in addressing issues such income, inequality, hunger and the environment.
A healthy dose of skepticism is useful when considering organizational purpose. In her recently released book Uncharted, Margaret Heffernan comments on the importance of avoiding purpose as another passing trend and differentiating purpose from other corporate statements: