Hear why Maximilian Strecker, PhD Student at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, founded the Consortium Purpose, a platform offering interdisciplinary dialogues. Consisting of companies, researchers and purpose experts, the consortium faces and explores the increasingly urgent question of meaning in society and at the workplace.
In this conversation, Max shares deep insights into his research circling organizational sense-making, meaning as one of the key business currencies of the future, purpose-oriented leadership, and the return of the human in the corporate world.
Silja: We joined Maximilian Strecker at the Institute for Customer Insight in Switzerland. He’s a researcher and coach for organisational and personal development and founded the Consortium Purpose in 2018. At the time, he’s finishing his dissertation titled The Pursuit of Purpose at the University of St. Gallen — home to one of Europe’s top five business schools, according to The Financial Times. Quoting Max, meaning will be one of the key organisational currencies of the future. So we wanted to know how he defines the big word purpose in a business context.
Maximilian: Basically, the most important point is to look behind the curtain first of all. What is behind the concept of purpose? And from my perspective, it’s about meaning. So how do people find meaning in their lives? Or regarding our work: How do people or employees find meaning in their work? And when we talk about the subject of purpose in organisations, we try to create or design workplaces in which employees or leaders can find their individual purpose. And to experience meaning in their work.
Simon: I think that’s one interesting point because what I got from the consortium is that you’re working with the big firms, right? Corporates, most of the time. Is that correct?
Maximilian: Yeah, it’s true. Big corporations but also smaller corporations, family-owned corporations in Germany. We have a lot of them there. So they are also starting to invest in the topic of purpose and meaningful work.
Simon: Right, because what I was thinking is … as you said purpose is like a very … it’s like an inner experience, right? It’s nothing that you can … it’s not fact-based. It’s not something you can directly measure. Right? And if you’re working with those large companies, do you have an approach of measuring something? Or is it like the opposite: Do you say this is nothing to be measured. So we don’t measure at all? How is that? What’s behind that?
Maximilian: I think in general, it’s important to understand that purpose is always an individual construct. And this is true for large organisations and middle-sized and small organisations. In the end, the purpose is different from individuum to individum. Viktor Frankl, for example, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” said purpose differs from man to man. From day to day. From hour to hour. So purpose and meaning are always different. It is based on personal experiences, interpretations and perspectives. Of course, it’s harder for larger organisations to respect the individual nature of purpose because they have like 15000 people – some have 300000 people worldwide. How should they respect all individual purposes in their organisations? And in this matter, it always comes down to the leaders. Because leaders usually lead five to ten people in their teams and there they can have an impact. There, they can consider the individual purposes of their employees. There it is true, it is possible.
Silja: Okay, so you would say it’s a leadership topic?
Maximilian: Leadership is one measure an organisation can take. I think it’s a very significant measure organisations can take in order to create meaningful work, but it’s only one. So when we look at our model and our research, it’s one out of six levers organisations have. So, of course, leadership is important. Definitely, organisations have to consider their leadership behaviour in the organisation because it defines the culture in the long term. So it has significant influence, but it’s only one lever out of many.
Simon: I think that brings us your dissertation topic, which is titled The Pursuit of Purpose, where you identified those levers. Right? Is that like part of the research to identify those levers? And how to apply this topic in larger organisations as a whole? And could you give us just a little bit insight on … you said leadership is one pillar which is one key lever for that. What are other important levers that you’ve found that have an impact on an organisational purpose?
Maximilian: When we first started researching around the topic of meaningful work, our first studies showed that there are three different dimensions in which people find meaning and purpose at work. There is a personal dimension, a social dimension and a societal dimension. Personal dimension means I find meaning at work when I have a work task that is aligned with my inner personalities, with my strengths, my motivations, my interests, my passions. When there is an alignment, I find a personal purpose at work, right? And the second dimension was the social purpose. That describes people who come to work because of their colleagues. They have the feeling: I’m interested in pursuing this work because of the people. I love this team. I love to work together with my colleagues at work, and that’s why I work. That’s my purpose at work. That’s the social purpose. The third dimension is the societal purpose, and that describes people who find purpose in their work through the impact they create through their work. The impact they have. The impact they can create through their work in that organisation. And this is valid for the impact in the organisation. So, for example, a developer in a large let’s say Auto Mobile manufacturer, right? He has an impact on the production department because they have to produce what he develops, and there is the question: Does he know his impact? Does he know the producer in the production department? Do they have contact? Does he get feedback? But as well also on a larger scale: What is the impact of the organisational wall? What impact do we have on society? And this is a topic right now many people talk about when they talk about purpose. But actually, it’s also only one lever. And then to continue, we have those three dimensions. Then the question in our research, still ongoing until now is: How can organisations now influence those three dimensions? How do they have to create their work environment so that their people can find meaning in those different dimensions? Personal, social and societal.
Simon: So those three dimensions are kind of the roadmap for applying that in the day to day work? Because as you said: It’s an inner experience, it’s individual, it’s even you know it differs from day to day. So if we dig deeper and think about how would a company actually apply that in a day to day work … Do you think this has to be like those three X’s, as I would call it, do they have to be prioritised for every individual person? Or do you have to have a profile for each person? How is that going on?
Maximilian: Definitely. So from my perspective, every leader should have an exact and very very precise purpose profile of his employees or her employees. If leaders don’t have that, how should they lead in a purpose-oriented way? It’s impossible. And as I said before each person has different drivers and different priorities within those three different dimensions. Maybe there is an engineer who says I’m here in order to construct my automobiles right. So I find my full meaning in the interpersonal purpose dimension. If the leader recognises that he has to give exactly those tasks to this engineer in order for him to find meaning at work, right?
Silja: So you would say it’s more about the … or less about the weakness of people at work that the leader should focus on and support?
Maximilian: Definitely, definitely, of course. When we talk about purpose, I think it’s very very important to figure out the personal drivers and motivations, interests and passions. Because there is energy, right? People have energy for that. They like working on their strength, right? And only then, when they find meaning in their work, when they can work on their strength, on their passion, they will be able to be fully committed. And not only compliant in the work.
Silja: So it’s kind of putting the human back into organisations even though we’re in the era of machines and a lot of AI and a lot of data-driven ways of working … Is it about putting back the human into organisations?
Maximilian: Yes, definitely. And this is also a lever which we figured out in our research. The mindset of an organisation. What is their mindset? And I think over the last decades, we developed a very functional-oriented mindset in organisations. A mindset which was focused on resource optimisation and cost reduction but not really focused on purpose maximisation of people. And what we tried to implement in organisations or help organisations to develop is a more individual orientation again.
Simon: We talked a lot about every employee in organisations. And we also talked a little bit about the leadership and their role in implementing or like giving a more purposeful, more meaningful … or designing a more meaningful work environment, right? If you think about the leadership construction of an organisation. And if you think about an initiative to start it off or to continue to implement that. Is this like a traditional kind of top-down approach where you start at the top and, you know, the CEO has to be behind it and back that initiative? And then it drizzles to every department? Or how does it usually work? How does it work in your experience?
Maximilian: Regarding leadership development, right?
Maximilian: I think in today’s organisations it definitely has to start from the top. Because this is the way our, at least the large majority of the organisations we have here in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, they are still very hierarchical, right? And so they are used and conditioned on learning that new developments and new things come from the top. And when there is no commitment from the top, it’s really hard for employees to follow a new initiative authentically. So I think of course leaders at the top have to be role models. They not only have to start such initiatives, but they have to be role models. They have to be authentic role models in living a more purpose-oriented leadership style.
Simon: The topic of purpose, if you compare it from giant corporates to medium-sized businesses to startups, for example. Newly founded businesses like startups and such, I would say at least, don’t have that big of a problem because they are very very close to their founding principles. Or like the initial spark which spiked the company to be founded, right? And the larger an organisation grows, the harder it kind of gets to transport and communicate that to everyone in the organisation. Is that also your experience? Or what can you learn from startups and implement in in bigger organisations? Or does this even have an impact?
Maximilian: I think generalisation is very difficult between startups and large corporations. I believe they have different challenges. Also, when it comes to purpose. For the employees, maybe you’re right that in a startup, they are closer to the owner or the founder. So maybe they can identify more with the founding principles or the impact the organisation wants to have. But at the same time as a startup grows, it gets harder and harder for them to have this sense of directness. Many startups are changing course, right? They are changing their business model. They’re changing the product. They are changing employees. From my perspective and my experience, I see employees get sometimes lost. And when you are lost, you lose the sense of significance in your work, which gives you less meaning at work. So they have different challenges. Maybe in a large organisation which is there for 100 years, they know exactly what they do. Okay, right now many organisations also have to change and transform, and that’s a whole new challenge there. Then the directness gets lost a little bit, but they have … how should I say like a more stable core business. And this is also a key part for meaning, right?
Simon: Right. You said, especially in the automotive industry, there are big changes right now. What I was asking myself is: Why is this topic of purpose so hyped or important right now? Because you would think this is nothing new, right? It is something very human and is around forever. So why is it such an important topic right now? Why is it so hot right now?
Maximilian: That’s a good question. I can only give my thoughts on the topic. I don’t know if there is a real truth, but I see different developments and different trends in society right now and over the last couple of years. So, first of all, I think one trend is that organisations in the last decades were very much focused on optimisation of cost reductions and profit maximisation. And I think over those years, like piece by piece they lost the individual. And right now we are very much focused on numbers, on KPI’s, on reaching our goals, on maximising our profits. So it’s not really about purpose anymore at the workplace. I think more and more people have lost meaning … because you can lose meaning at work. You can find it again, right? But you can also lose it. So I think a lot of people lost meaning over the last years and decades in organisations. And second of all, I think that society is ripe for purpose right now. At least in our hemisphere. In Germany or western culture, we are so safe in our work that we can look for purpose and meaning at work. It’s not about our basic human needs anymore. Everybody has enough, or most people at least in our hemisphere have enough to eat and enough to drink every day. So they can think about more at work, about topics like self-actualisation and transcendence. Because this is obviously a problem in countries which are not so wealthy as the countries we are around. They have to think about the basic human needs, and of course, then the priority is to fulfil those basic human needs before they think about other topics. But a big BUT here: The topic of purpose and fulfilment of meaning is an intrinsic human desire. So every human strives for meaning, strives for purpose — no matter which culture or environment. Also, if I have to suffer. This is especially important when you read the book of Viktor Frankl again: Man’s Search for Meaning. He tells us that people can only endure suffering if they find meaning in it. So it’s always about meaning. It’s a basic intrinsic need.
Silja: We’re talking about purpose in the Western culture and business context. Is there a way to make this a global movement — as well in developing countries? So they don’t have to make the mistakes that we made and implement purpose or meaning at work directly?
Maximilian: Of course, I mean we also have to integrate it into our educational system, I would say. Much more than it is done today. I think even when you go to preschool here or high school, it should be a topic there to find out your meaning. Or at least to educate children in thinking more about their strengths and their personalities and not only about contents. Because in Germany and Switzerland, from my experience, it’s a lot about content and grades and having good transcripts at the end of the year. But it’s not so much or too less from my perspective about personality. And yeah, in those countries: Hard to say. Every company has to earn money. We cannot forget that, right? So profit and purpose should always be linked together. We cannot say that a company should only do purpose now and only look at the purposes of the employees. They also have a responsibility to earn money — at least a for-profit organisation. They have to earn money. So they should develop a business model, a work environment in which they can make money and increase or offer purpose and meaning for employees. That should be the goal, I think.
Simon: Yes. I think that’s pretty interesting if you think about … you talked about developing countries, and we talked about organisations. And you see that this topic kind of blurs out into real life, right? If you talk about education, if we talk about … you know it’s not a straight business topic in that sense, right? It’s very blurry boundaries, I would say. But we also talked about alignment and strategic alignment in that sense. If we kind of jump back to businesses and organisations and think about strategy because I saw that illustration on the website where this Purpose-Pacman eats the strategy. And we all know that Peter Drucker quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Is purpose the new culture? Or how should that illustration be interpreted?
Maximilian: Culture also influences the experience of purpose for every individual. Because culture is what we experience at work every day in an organisation. This affects me and my quest for meaning at work. So that’s that connection. But coming back to that picture. From our perspective, if you don’t succeed as an organisation to fulfil the purpose of your employees and to offer meaning for your whole staff: You can have the best strategies in the world, but you will never be successful. Because if you don’t have purpose and meaning at work, the most you can get out of the people is a compliant behaviour. And then you may be successful for one or two years, but you will not be able to adapt.
Simon: And there are a lot of numbers as well around comparing purpose-driven companies and traditional companies which try to make it transparent that they can have a competitive advantage. If you are working with a company: Would you say that this is like a selling point? Is that something that you say hey your organisation will be more profitable in the end or your employees will be more engaged at work and be therefore more productive? Do you even have to sell it or is this more the other way round? They try to implement it and don’t know how, so they need someone actually to help them out in that sense.
Maximilian: Looking at those statistics that purpose-driven companies might be more successful in financial terms. I also read those statistics, and I’m very cautious when I look at those numbers. First of all, you have to look at the measures. What does it mean if a company is purpose-driven or not? I don’t know if there is an end state which defines that this company’s purpose-driven and this company is not purpose-driven. So this is already very blurry, I would say. And second of all, I would recommend people to look more to themselves and the people around them. What happens if they find meaning or a meaningful task? Let it be in private life, in sports. When we play football, for example, together with all our colleagues here on the team, I see that everyone is smiling. Everyone is engaged. Everyone is running like hell, right? And this is fun for them. So there is a certain alignment thereof personal strengths and interests with the actual task. So they find meaning in the task, and we get a lot of engagement out of it. And I think the same holds for organisations when they succeed in aligning tasks with personalities, personal strengths, interests and passions. So that people find meaning in their work. They get a lot of engagement out of it. And of course, engagement is a good predictor for success in the long run. But of course, as we all know, financial numbers and financial success depends on many variables. You can never plan success, but you can plan performance.
Silja: I think once established, we talked about it. It’s a journey — the purpose journey, and it’s not a destination. But are we talking one, five, ten years to sort of download a certain mindset to implement this behaviour as well in companies?
Maximilian: From my perspective, it’s a never-ending story. So it’s a development where you never reach the goal. But I would recommend organisations and people to be on the way. Always be on the way. There are certain measurements which you can implement from this second to the other second. For example, when it comes to a personal attitude. You can change your attitude from now to the future in one second, in a heartbeat. And if you change your attitude the way you look at things, maybe you find meaning in something where you didn’t consider it as meaningful at all before. So when it comes to personal attitude, you can change it immediately. Of course, when we talk about structures, for example. Are organisational structures in the organisation hierarchical? So do they have a steep hierarchy? Do they have a flat hierarchy? What is the mindset in the organisation? Do they appreciate the individual purpose, or do they only appreciate status and power in the organisation? Of course, those things they need time in order to be developed. But yeah the answer is: it’s never over.
Silja: And would you say that companies can only invite and inspire employees and the whole value chain (from partners, suppliers, customers and consumers) to find their own purpose in order to get to a better performance at your company?
Maximilian: Yes, because as I said before, meaning is an individual construct. So you can never force someone to find meaning in a certain topic. You can only make offers, give guidance and support, inspire people and give impulses. Offer them a workplace and a work environment where they find meaning at work. That’s why this is the key question we pursue: How do we create meaningful workplaces in which people find their purpose at work?
Simon: Digging a little bit deeper here. Because for me it’s hard to imagine what kind of initiatives you can take on inspiring people. Can you make an example of that? From your experience, what does an initiative like this look like?
Maximilian: So, as I said before, there are many levers organisations can take. So we can talk about the nature of the organisation, for example, How is the organisation perceived by society, internally by the employees but also from society? This, of course, has an influence again on each individual in the organisation. Then we can talk about the nature of work and workgroups. How is work in the organisation created? Do they work a lot in teams or is this single-oriented work? Or for example, what are the organisational practices? What kind of goals do we have in the organisation? What is the nature of goals? Do we have independent goals so that every department has silo goals? Or do we have interdependent goals? Common goals which all employees and all departments work together on like common goals, right? It is a whole other story when it comes to meaning and purpose at work. Or another lever is leadership. We talked about personality before, the attitude as we said before and also the interpersonal relationships. So this is what the quality of the interpersonal relationships in an organisation. This, of course, has a lot to do with the culture but as well with (what we call) social identification. So in what manner or into what extent do the people identify themselves with the organisation? Is there an identification? Is there a positive or rather negative identification?
Simon: And do you also plan those initiatives in detail with the organisations? Do they get the knowledge from you? You train the mindset, and they have to put it to work on their own? What is your role in that sense?
Maximilian: So what we offer is a framework. We call the framework the purpose canvas, which consists of those six general levers, I talked about before. And then the creation of each lever is individual from organisation to organisation. Every organisation and this takes a lot of time because this is a complex topic has to figure out which lever …First of all, what is the status quo in each lever? How is our organisation created? And where are we right now in our pursuit of purpose? Therefore we give guidance, for example through measurements. We do measurements with organisations. Measurements should only be an estimation because purpose, as we’ve said before, is a soft topic, an individual topic. So it’s hard to put numbers next to it. But we develop a measurement to have an estimation for the status quo of their pursuit of purpose. And based on that and a lot of personal meetings and talks, we try to figure out which levers are most impactful in the pursuit of purpose. And then, of course, we design those levels for those organisations, and then we support them and guide them through that journey of implementing it.
Simon: So could you say that you’re kind of the kickstarter for such initiatives? Or … because as you said, it’s a never-ending journey and an ongoing process. So is your role more like you push the wagon, and then they have to keep it rolling themselves?
Maximilian: I would say more … when I think of our role as an image, it would be that of an expedition guide. So we try to offer guidance. Guidance in a more meaningful future for this organisation, but we don’t try to push. I think pushing is not the right idea or concept behind a concept of purpose. But we want to create a pull effect. So we want to inspire people of a more meaningful future so that they get energised and passionate about the topic of meaning and purpose. In the end, the goal is that they, from their innerselves, try to develop a more meaningful workplace.
Simon: How do you see the interlink between purpose-driven and purposeful organisations and the kind of halo effect on their customers? Is this sequential, or how would you see that?
Maximilian: I think the same holds true for the external world. What we figured out for the organisation internally because, in the end, it’s about fulfilling purposes. In our work, it’s very much about fulfilling purposes or enabling purposes for employees internally in the organisation. But I think a successful organisation is succeeding in enabling purpose for their customers as well. And this is done by not only products and services, but I think most through experiences.
Simon: And if you could wish for something which you can change overnight and implement in the companies you work with. What would it be? What would hope for in the next years to come?
Maximilian: That every leader in our organisations worldwide would have the own internal experience how it feels to have meaning at work.
Simon: Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to know more, head over to www.theidealists.co! As always there is one more thing we ask our guests and that is: Who should we talk to next?
Maximilian: I would be very interested in what politicians say about that topic. So I would recommend asking a politician.
“If you don’t have purpose and meaning at work, the most you can get out of the people is a compliant behaviour.”
— Maximilian Strecker [00:20:49]
Mihela Hladin Wolfe
City of Helsinki
Mariah Mansvelt Beck
B Lab Europe
Christian Paul Kägi