Dan Pontefract on “The Purpose Effect”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

PontefractDan Pontefract is Chief Envisioner at TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company, where he heads the Transformation Office, a future-of-work consulting group that helps organizations enhance their corporate cultures and collaboration practices. Previously as Head of Learning & Collaboration at TELUS, Dan introduced a new leadership framework–called the TELUS Leadership Philosophy–that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90%.

He is the author of recently published The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization as well as Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at multiple TED events and also writes for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Dan and his wife, Denise, have three young children (aka goats) and live in Victoria, Canada. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my interview of Dan.

* * *

Morris: When and why did you decide to write The Purpose Effect?

Pontefract: It was one of those “a ha” moments in fact. Right after Flat Army published, Denise and I and the three goats (our kids) went on a family holiday to Gig Harbor, near Seattle. Our middle child, Cole, and I were in a canoe paddling some rather violent winds. He was 8-years-old, and during a rather turbulent five-minute period when we were going absolutely nowhere, he yelled to me, “Dad, what’s the purpose of paddling, we’re not going anywhere!” At that moment, I had the epiphany about people, their lives and work—not going anywhere—due to a lack of purpose.

If Flat Army was about culture (and it is) I quickly made the connection that a suitable follow-up book ought to explore this notion of purpose, both in life and at work.

 Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Pontefract: For two years I toiled away, hammering the keys, plucking the 400 pound feather each day, exploring the concept of purpose. For those two years, I focused my thinking on the organization. I wrote a 92,000 word book that was rather dark, even angry. Based on research and interviews throughout those two years, I thought I had solved the riddle of purpose. But there was a problem. It was the wrong answer. It was the wrong book. Before going to print, I asked Roger Martin—former Dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto—to read the book. The feedback was sobering.

In the end, I scrapped the original manuscript, and started over. Through Roger’s assistance, and additional research and interviews, I discovered the missing parts. I also changed the tone of the book from dark and stormy to light and helpful. It is now a 70,000 word book with a narrative that assists rather than screams foul of soulless organizations and leaders. It’s a guide—a pathway—to purpose, whether you’re an individual employee, a leader or in charge of the organization itself.

Morris: You include a statement, “Faber est suae quisque fortunae,” by Sallust in his “Speech to Caesar on the State.” It means “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.” Is that – or should it be — each person’s primary purpose in life? Please explain.

Pontefract: Of course. The chauvinistic and at times misogynist culture of the Greeks and Romans is nothing to admire. However, there were profound thinkers and philosophers during their respective times. For me, man = our humanity, whether you are man, woman or otherwise.

Morris: You observe: “First, you want to take aim at redefining the true purpose of an organization, redefining the meaning of work. The organization must be reset, and through the Good DEEDS model, you will learn how to make this happen. Second, you want to help develop sustainable and flourishing roles for those you are leading in the organization that employs you by redefining the definition of working. To accomplish this feat, The Purpose Path is a model that outlines the differences between a job, career, and purpose mindset.”

Here’s my question: Is this a special project that should be assigned to a “Sprint” team such as those on which Google depends so heavily for breakthrough thinking and high-impact results? Please explain.

Pontefract: When Paul Polman joined Unilever in early January, 2009, he arrived because of two reasons. First, the Unilever board of directors sought a change in company direction. Second, Paul accepted the role so long as he could change the purpose of Unilever, while ultimately growing the business, too.

The Polman and Unilever story is interesting. First, the board wanted to change. They saw an alarming trend within the enterprise, and went out to find an individual who was equally prepared to change the way in which the organization was operating. Second, after arriving, Polman set to formulate a master plan of purpose and organizational culture change. He left no stone unturned.

Polman recognized that both the purpose of Unilever had to change—to serve all stakeholders versus shareholders only—and he also recognized the internal engagement of Unilever employees had to be dramatically improved. Engagement now sits near 90 percent, their Sustainable Living Plan is delivering incredible results in the communities Unilever serves, and shareholders have been provided just, fair and higher returns since 2009.

The bottom line? I do not believe purpose (or culture) change is a Sprint activity. It is a slow, methodical, and intensely difficult change to instill, one that requires at a minimum the most senior leaders of the organization in lockstep with such a change. Purpose and culture change is very difficult to implement bottoms-up.

Morris: What most significantly differentiates the Good DEEDs model from all others?

Pontefract: That it is more than CSR. The Good DEEDS is an accountability platform. It ensures an organization serves all stakeholders (customers, employees, society, community and shareholders/profit seekers) as it operates the business. Far too many corporate scorecards do not take into consideration all stakeholders. And CSR documents only focus on the societal and/or community impacts. The Good DEEDS model ensures that financial, social, satisfaction and engagement items are considered in lockstep with one another.

Morris: Whole Foods and The Container Store are two of several companies that seem committed to what John Mackey has characterized as “conscious capitalism”: for profit business initiatives “galvanized by higher purposes that serve and align the interests of all major stakeholders; businesses with conscious leaders who exist in service to the company’s purpose, the people it touches, and the planet,” companies that conduct business “with resilient, caring cultures that make working there a source of great joy and fulfillment.”

What are your own thoughts about conscious capitalism?

Pontefract: Purpose ought to impact or affect every part of a firm’s decision-making criteria. Conscious Capitalism is a decision making model that ensures the right questions are being debated (and debunked) before making a decision. I’m with Mackey 100 percent

Morris: In his classic work Denial of Death, Ernest Becker acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is another death that can – and must – be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. Presumably you agree.

A friend of mine recently wrote, “If I’m disappointing no one, I’m disappointing everyone.” That friend was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It’s tragic, but while going out he’s doing what he has always known, singing his guts out on stage to thousands of people. He doesn’t care about the critics. He doesn’t care about the naysayers. He is intentional. He intends to disappoint, because if he’s doesn’t, he’s no one. And he does not want to be a no one. I have learned a lot from this friend over the years. I’ll see him again one day, perhaps in a heavenly agora where we can wax lyrical about each other’s past (passed?) intentions.

Morris: Years ago after delivering a lecture on transcendentalism in Concord (MA), Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed to answering a few questions. An old grizzled farmer stood up, hat in hand. Emerson nodded toward him. “Mr. Emerson, how do you transcend an empty stomach?” What do you make of that situation?

Pontefract: As Emerson once said outside of this particular situation, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

* * *

Here is a link to all of Part 2.

Please click here to check out Part 1.

Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Purpose Effect TED Talk link

The Purpose Effect website link

Please click here to check out my review of The Purpose Effect.

And here to check out my review of Flat Army

Link to Michael Bungay Stanier’s interview of Dan

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