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.