Passion Drives Performance

I sometimes ask why traditional large companies have a challenging time attracting and retaining passionate people who believe in their company’s vision. What makes a startup company environment more appealing when it comes to attracting and retaining passionate employees? Is it that entrepreneurial companies have passionate leaders who surround themselves with other similar leaders and are able to communicate their vision clearly to their teams to engage and motivate them?

Recently, I was talking about recruitment strategy with a senior leader at a large international company, and he said that what he looks for in a candidate are leadership traits and values that are aligned with his company’s purpose. He then asked me what I look for in new recruits. I replied that I look for passion, perseverance, the drive to energize the team, belief in a larger cause, and a can-do and roll-up-the-sleeves attitude. We both concluded from our conversation that hiring passionate people who are aligned with the purpose of the company can lead to solid performance.

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. — Albert Einstein

In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth discusses the secrets of successful people from all walks of life. She points out how successful people have a ferocious determination and describes how their passion is enduring. People who exhibits the unique combination of passion and perseverance have grit, working on something you care about so much that you are willing to stay loyal to it.

Now, if purpose is the glue that binds passion with performance, how does one define purpose? We already have enough jargons about mission, vision, goals, and values, but where does purpose fit into all this? Do we really need more jargons to confuse the business community?

Passion + Purpose = Performance

Let me try to address these nuances in the simplest possible terms. I came across this simple definition by Brian Sooy in a blog post on his company’s website: Purpose guides you, mission drives you, vision is where you aspire to be, and impact (performance) is what matters. It is the why you do what you do, how you do it, and what you will achieve in the future.

Purpose is the reason you journey. Passion is the fire that lights the way.

In a 1960 speech to Hewlett-Packard (now HP Inc.) employees, David Packard said, “Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”[1]

Which comes first, passion or purpose? They go hand in hand and are two sides of the same coin. Passionate people are driven by a purpose, and they surround themselves with other passionate people to drive results. Some people are lucky to find their passion early in life, some find it later in life through sheer persistence, and for some, it remains elusive for a long time.

 If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.— Bishop T. D. Jakes

In entrepreneurial companies, purpose may not be written on the walls of the building, but the entrepreneur lives and breathes their purpose daily. However, in traditional companies, the purpose may exist but not be widely felt throughout the organization. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of all the senior leaders of the company to keep the team focused on the purpose and recruit and groom future leaders to embrace the purpose.

A few years back, I met the CEO of a large company who was passionate about the organization’s purpose. His passion seemed contagious to anyone who met him. Surprisingly, when I met some of his other team members, I found that they were not as excited as he was when it came to the company purpose. It is important that the purpose be internalized throughout the organization to engage and motivate the broader team.

Senior leaders should invest energy in hiring and grooming other leaders who are aligned with the purpose of the company and, over time, cull people who do not believe in the purpose. This keeps the company vibrant, energetic, and productive. In a pyramid organizational structure, midlevel leaders play an important role in conveying the purpose to fully engage the people at the lower rungs of the organization.

One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.  – E. M. Forster

The next logical question is how to find and recruit passionate leaders who believe in your purpose. Welcome to the world of recruitment. A recent article in The Economist magazine[2] says that the top five recruitment firms pulled $4.8 B in fees in 2018 worldwide advising their clients on hiring top talent.

These top recruitment firms have all the technology, connections, and intellectual resources to bring passionate leaders to their clients. Yet recruitment has proved to be more of an art than a science. No number of psychometric tests or simulations will help detect the correlation between passion and purpose unless one adds a human touch. Interviewing potential leaders with a focus on what drives them to wake up in the morning and go to work, and understanding their personal values, helps you get close to your goal of finding the right leaders.

There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.  – Nelson Mandela

Here are a few things I look for when scouting talent for passion and purpose. Leaders who are passionate are authentic. They think big, they are willing to stand up for a cause, they are confident and persistent, and they exude energy. They have been tested in difficult environments, some of them have failed many times and bounced back, and they are ready to go because they believe in the big picture.

While interviewing, instead of saying, “Tell me about yourself,” say, “Tell me about yourself and about your passion in life and work.” Instead of saying, “Walk me through your resume,” say, “Walk me through your resume and highlight your accomplishments and failures. Tell me what excited you in these jobs (and what didn’t), and finally, what would have kept you in each company or role.” You will learn a lot by asking these probing questions.

Passion and performance don’t come instantaneously. Sometimes people have to grow into them. Sometimes the purpose may be too grandiose for even the most passionate people to grasp. That is when a leader’s personal touch is needed to build confidence in the purpose and align it to the values of other leaders.

Hiring passionate people is only part of the story. Retaining high performers takes significant effort and engagement on the part of a leader to keep the team motivated. Isn’t that what leadership is all about?

The Bottom Line

You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.  — Steve Jobs

[1] Jones, Bruce. 2018. “Mission Versus Purpose: What’s the Difference?” Disney Institute Blog, October 23.

[2] Briefing. 2020. “Take Me to a Leader.” The Economist, February 8.

Leading from the Front

Business leaders have often drawn wisdom from military leaders when it comes to managing their teams. One concept that stands out from military culture is leading from the front. However, this concept can be misunderstood if leaders try to apply it to business environments without fully understanding what it means.

Leading from the front is not about always being in people’s faces, shouting and screaming commands. It’s about setting the pace with a team, earning team members’ respect, and leading by example. The leader makes quick, decisive moves, knowing that the risk of not making decisions is greater than the risk of making them.

Military leaders who lead their troops to victory are on the front lines of battle. They are in the trenches with their troops, and they lead bravely and fearlessly. Similarly, in the business world, good leaders are in front of customers, addressing their challenges; walking the factory floor to gain an understanding of employees’ needs; and rolling up their sleeves to solve real-life business issues with their teams.

When things go wrong as a result of decisions, leaders take full responsibility, but when they win the war, they give full credit to their troops.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership. —Nelson Mandela

As much as we try to make a hero of one person in the business world, typically a team of people slogs day and night to make things happen.

A famous quote from General George S. Patton comes to mind: “An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is a bunch of bullshit.”

Leaders leading from the front have earned the admiration and loyalty of their troops. Leading from the front means setting the example and, instead of telling the team to do things, doing things with them.

What you do has far greater impact than what you say. —Stephen Covey

To lead from the front, you have to be a follower first. Wisdom, knowledge, and the right to lead do not come because one attended a top-rated school. Great leaders have been in the trenches before, slogged through life’s challenges, failed many times, and followed other great leaders. Only then do they earn the stripes to lead.

Before you start to lead from the front, you have to lead from the side or from behind. You must have the humility to learn, contribute, and then earn the respect of your team.

Leaders who lead from the front are visionaries. They have an uncanny ability to think broadly and deeply about topics ranging from business to the potential effect of their actions on their team, community, and customers.

These leaders have mental maps to project how things may unfold based on the team’s actions. Further, they can communicate with simple bite-size messages to inspire, engage, and energize their teams.

Vision is the main tool leaders use to lead from the front. Effective leaders don’t push or pressure their followers. They don’t boss them around or manipulate them. They are out front showing the way. The vision allows leaders to inspire, attract, align, and energize their followers—to empower them by encouraging them to become part of a common enterprise dedicated to achieving the vision.

—Burt Nanus

In addition to being visionary, leading from the front requires leaders to be approachable, nonjudgmental, and humble. By nature, leaders are ambitious, assertive, adamant, and sometimes aggressive. These traits, although helpful at different stages of leadership, need to be moderated to connect with the team. As the leader, you need to feel the pulse of the organization, but you can do that only if you are in the trenches with your team members.

A word of caution: Leading from the front requires the traits listed above, but you run the risk of getting too far ahead of your team if you don’t keep it close to its mission. Communication is important, and communicating simple, consistent messages helps keep the troops together.

I am fortunate to have reported to good leaders and some not-so-good leaders, all of whom helped me sharpen my leadership skills. Frankly, I have learned more from the not-so-good leaders, because those lessons get imprinted much more deeply on your brain.

One has to be lucky in life to find good leaders and mentors to follow, because they not only inspire you to achieve your full potential but make a big difference in your personal and professional life.

The Bottom Line

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. — General Douglas MacArthur

You Can Be a cEo

Many corporations around the world typically have one CEO—a chief executive officer. From being strategically minded to exhibiting tremendous energy, these leaders have worked their way up the steep organization ladder by displaying exceptional leadership traits. But what if I could tell you how to be another kind of exemplary cEo—a chief energy officer? Being a chief energy officer does have its benefits, and who knows: it could lead to a chief executive officer position when you exhibit characteristics and traits that are important in any organization. I have personally seen leaders who exhibited cEo qualities later becoming CEOs.

When I first got a break in my career to manage a complex operation acquired from an entrepreneur in the Middle East, I was fortunate to be mentored by the owner who sold the company to us. His first piece of advice to me was not to spend too much time in the office, but to be out with the customers and on the factory floor. He advised me to avoid writing emails and preparing presentations during office hours. More importantly, he encouraged me to engage our employees at all levels. I have compiled below a set of best practices from my experience on how to be a chief energy officer in a company or community.

  1. Tie the company’s values to employee engagement programs

How many times have you seen well-written company values posted on the company website, in the annual report, or in the foyers of the company lobby? Very few companies tie their values to programs that have a meaningful effect on their customers, employees, community, and shareholders. Leaders who figure out the right formula with the right programs and engage the employees and other stakeholders start to build positive momentum and energy within the company. Xylem, a leader in the water industry, has a corporate social responsibility program called Watermark where they build drinking-water towers in remote areas of developing countries by involving employees, customers, and the local community. This has an incredibly powerful effect on all the stakeholders. Other large companies engage in similar activities, from engaging with Habitat for Humanity to cleaning up inner-city schools. You can take the lead, participate, collaborate, and become a cEo.

  1. Empower employees to deliver results by focusing on their natural skills

Humans are bestowed with qualities and skills that are unique to each person. Identifying those unique skills and combining them with business goals will allow you to not only motivate and energize your teammates, but deliver spectacular results with natural energy. In my previous job, our administrative assistant exhibited skills in public speaking, customer care, and employee wellness. While she kept her administrative-assistant job and did it very well, we encouraged her to take a larger role in employee engagement programs. She set up a Toastmasters Club within the company that drew more than twenty participants, and two of our employees became accomplished Toastmaster leaders. She helped organize a Safety Marathon to bring awareness of employee safety in the workplace to the community. With continued support from others and me she went on to take a much bigger role in the company and finally ended up being the human resources leader for the organization. As a cEo, I suggest you look for your teammates’ natural skills and encourage them to harness that energy while continuing to perform in their current position.

  1. Be active and go see your employees in their natural habitat

If you want to become a cEo, be externally focused and spend more time outside your office. Meet and engage your employees in their offices and locations. Positive energy has a snowball effect that gathers momentum along the way to create value within your team and the enterprise. A cEo does not spend long hours in the office writing emails and preparing presentations; they engage with their teammates energetically during office hours while allowing them to focus on achieving personal and company goals.

You see, anybody can be a cEo, and with hard work and a bit of luck, you might end up becoming a CEO. You can’t fake personal energy . . . Be authentic and you will have a following.