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.

The DNA of a Growth Leader; Do you have it

When I was a young engineer developing global power projects, I went to see the VP of Global Sales. Right behind his desk was a big plaque that said, “Without sales this place comes to a grinding halt.” To this day, I remember the saying and the importance of growth for companies, individuals, and society in general.

That brings me to a question: who drives growth in your organization? You may have heard the saying “Growth is everybody’s business,” but few individuals within an organization are held accountable for growth. What traits should these people have? Is growth a function of innovation or is it also a result of the intangible skills of those leaders who can create opportunities in every aspect of the business cycle?

When General Electric (GE) was firing on all cylinders, the company had a set of five core values for growth leadership: (1) focusing outward, (2) showing expertise, (3) practicing inclusiveness, (4) thinking clearly, and (5) taking risk. Leaders were measured on these values, and there were hard metrics tied to them. When I was a GE employee, I particularly believed in focusing outward and thinking clearly, two foundational elements of growth leadership.

I sometimes ask why some companies or some individuals within companies are much more adept at looking for growth than others. How much of this growth is related to the personal traits of the leaders and how much is related to innovation, where the product or service sells itself because of its competitive advantages. I believe leaders at all levels within an organization can make a big difference in growing their business, irrespective of the market conditions.

During my career as a Mergers & Acquisition (M&A) professional working for industrial companies, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with entrepreneurs all over the world. I was able to experience firsthand their growth leadership traits and their passion for building something new from nothing. These entrepreneurs built successful companies with formidable products and services, competing against large companies and against all odds in the marketplace. Ironically, it was my job to persuade them to divest their business and then articulate how my company could do a better job of growing their business after the acquisition.

To expand on the GE framework and from my personal experiences, here are the three traits I believe are most important for growth leaders:

Passion and Persistence

You can’t teach passion or force people to be persistent all the time, but passion drives performance. That being said, people generally are passionate about something in life, and as leaders, it is our responsibility to align their values and passion with those of our enterprise to achieve the best results.

It all comes down to picking the right leader for the job during the recruitment process and rewarding the right actions and behavior within the company. Passion can’t be hidden, and passionate people are self-motivated and driven to achieve success in life. During the interview process, specifically the behavioral interview process, look for energy and passion in an individual. Passionate people proactively seek environments where their ideas and energy can be put to use, and creating that environment within your company becomes very important.

When I was recruiting for a business development role for a large business in the Middle East, I interviewed a candidate who came from a war-torn country. During the interview, he passionately discussed how he had worked for two years to sell mechanical products for a prestigious project in Dubai. Against all odds, he had escaped from the war-torn country, gotten his education, and succeeded in his career. After getting the job, he used the same passion to drive significant growth initiatives within our company, and later he went on to take a global role with another large industrial company. As I would say quite often, growth leaders have fire in their belly.

Externally Focused and Customer Driven

External focus does not mean traveling all the time, but it does mean thoughtfully and purposefully engaging external stakeholders of the business. Although your customers are one of the main stakeholders, don’t forget to connect with your supply chain, sales channels, and industry influencers, all of whom can give you valuable insights to grow the business. From my experience, I found out that growth leaders spend more than a third of their time engaging external stakeholders, and they go where the action is.

How often do you pause in your operations meeting and ask what your customers need? Growth leaders fight for their customers and drive the internal machine to deliver value to them. In the early part of this year, I invited half a dozen customers to our internal town hall meeting so that they could meet our team and observe our customer-driven culture. After the meeting, our customers said they appreciated being part of the team and gave us valuable feedback on product positioning and building service capabilities.

Here is a question to consider: When was the last time you hosted a growth day where you invited your customers to help you think creatively about growing your business? Growth leaders are not shy about partnering and engaging with customers, which will only help increase the level of trust in the relationship.

Entrepreneurial and Visionary

More than 50 percent of start-up businesses fail in the first year, but the ones that succeed are based on a solid vision of the founder. Growth leaders dream big, and they rally their teams behind a simple vision with a simple story. Leaders with entrepreneurial spirit are relentless in their efforts to take a vision and convert it into a profitable growth engine. It is not easy to be entrepreneurial in a large firm where there are multiple priorities and stakeholders. But growth leaders don’t easily take no for an answer. They are persistent in their efforts to align the multiple stakeholders to deliver substantial value for the enterprise.

Build a culture where ideas are passionately discussed and debated, and take calculated risks on promising ideas. There is always a place for good ideas in this world, and if you don’t embrace them, somebody else will.

Growth leaders come from all races, colors, nationalities, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. Growth leaders can be extroverts or introverts. They can be quirky, and they may even carry pocket protectors. But they all share some common genes that hinge on passion, persistence, outward thinking, and being visionary. Whether your business is a product company or a software company, you need a good mix of growth leaders on your team. A good growth leader is also a good operational leader and they deliver on what they promise. If your company is hungry for growth, design your recruitment process to bring the right DNA into your talent mix and then build a culture that nurtures entrepreneurial spirit.

Hire for passion and persistence, train for knowledge and leadership, and retain for growth and value creation.

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.