Why do you do what you do?

You could have been a doctor or a lawyer or a TikTok influencer. Instead, you became an L&D professional. Why? We’ll come back to this question.

I recently enjoyed episode 7.6 of the Learning is the New Working Podcast. Host Chris Pirie (Learning Future Group) and guest hosts Dani Johnson and Stacia Garr (RedThread Research) explored the relationship between learning and purpose with Clint Kofford (Johnson & Johnson). It got me thinking about why I do what I do.

I became an L&D pro for a particular reason. It’s actually the same reason I became editor of my high school newspaper. It’s the same reason I became a movie theater manager. Today, it’s the reason I work with Axonify and LearnGeek: To help people do and be their best.

It may sound like a catchphrase, but my purpose means a lot to me. It’s a personal statement about my cares, beliefs, and motivations. It drives me to show up for work every day. It guides my decision making. But my purpose is just that: MY purpose. Deep down, you and I probably have different purposes, even though we work in the same profession. Plus, our purpose can flex and evolve over time as life happens and circumstances change.

Purpose at work

Purpose has always been part of my professional development. The more my jobs have aligned with my purpose, the more committed I’ve been to the work and learning how to do it better. In fact, all of my best career decisions have been guided by purpose.

For example, I joined the Walt Disney World Resort in 2004 as a part-time cast member. Transporting guests to the Forest Moon of Endor at Star Tours began as something fun to do on the weekends. However, within two months I recognized a strong connection between my purpose and that of the company. I felt more fulfilled during my 6-hour frontline shifts at Disney than in my 50+ hours per week at my full-time management job. I knew I could provide a lot more value to cast members, guests, and the company if I had more opportunity to realize my purpose. So, I prioritized learning and rapidly developed my skills in order to transition into a full-time leadership role.

Purpose would then become a critical part of my L&D work at Disney. While I was able to help cast members do and be their best as a manager, this was the first time I could really focus on bringing my purpose to life in my work. The job immediately challenged me to develop new skills so I could design and deliver training that fit our unique workplace. I was responsible for building customer service training for the entire resort. My audience included every role and line of business—from retail executives and attraction hosts to resort housekeepers and security guards. They all did very different jobs for very different reasons. I quickly realized that if I wanted to inspire a diverse group of people to learn and improve their performance, I had to connect my message with their purpose.

The purpose gap

The employees you support may all work for the same company. They may do similar jobs. They may have the organization’s mission statement memorized. Nevertheless, employees do what they do for personal, unique, and often untold reasons. However, if you want people to consistently engage, learn, and perform, you must align your learning solutions with their purpose. But how can you possibly do this when designing programs for 100 or 100,000 people?

Unfortunately, many teams don’t recognize the importance of purpose or try to establish a connection between individual purpose and learning. Instead, they ground their message on the more obvious stuff with which people are generally familiar, such as company values, operational goals, and customer feedback. Honestly, do the people you support care about these things as much as your stakeholders think they should?

Perhaps. You might be part of a truly mission-driven organization that helps employees align their work with their individual purposes. You may have awesome managers who prioritize getting to know their teams and are therefore able to help make these connections. Or, if an employee’s purpose is to make enough money to support their family, operational goals and related financial benefits may prove highly motivating. I firmly believe every employee wants to do a good job. This is hampered by the considerable gap that often exists between learning objectives and employee purpose. As a result, people have a hard time seeing how learning solutions relate to them.

Aligning learning with purpose

You’ll probably never know the individual purpose of every employee you support. You probably won’t have the time and resources to build solutions that perfectly align with each person’s purpose. However, L&D can still help employees develop in ways that align with their purpose.

? Focus on personal motivations. Avoid impersonal statements of purpose, such as “by doing this, you will help the company reduce risk.” Instead, focus on helping employees recognize how training will help them do their jobs better with statements like “this will help you stay safe …”

? Be honest and transparent with your objectives. If the training was commissioned because stakeholders want employees to sell more widgets, tell employees the objective of the training is to help them sell more widgets. Keep your message simple and practical. Avoid extra complexity and corporate jargon.

? Reflect purpose through storytelling. A great story can help us reflect on our lives and think about the roles we would play in different situations. Leverage purposeful storytelling to help employees connect to your message in personal ways.

? Prioritize skill mobility. The workplace is always changing. Individual purpose can evolve. While an employee may feel a strong connection between their purpose and role today, this is likely to change over time. By providing ongoing skill development opportunities, you can enable employees to increase their mobility and seek out new opportunities that better align with their renewed purpose.

? Leverage peer advocates. Executives champions are important. Stakeholder buy in is crucial. But who really understands the everyday realities of your audience? Your audience. Leverage peer advocates to help employees connect to your message in more practical, real-world ways.

? Help managers engage with purpose. Managers work alongside your audience every day. They have the opportunity to get to know each employee as a person. Provide managers with training and support so they can rightly prioritize conversations that help connect work and learning with individual purpose.

? Follow-up on impact. Have your learning solutions helped employees connect to and realize their purpose? The only way you’ll find out is by engaging your audience in ongoing conversation about the personal value of workplace learning.

Purpose may sound like a fluffy idea better suited for a self-help book than a serious workplace. Some stakeholders may think purpose can be dictated because a person holds a particular role. Many people may not take time to reflect on the connection between work and purpose. Nevertheless, purpose plays a constant role in our professional lives. It influences what we prioritize, how we spend our time and what we value most.

Purpose led me to Disney. Years later, it helped me move on and expand my perspective. Today, it motivates me to champion frontline training and support.

So … why do you do what you do?

Be safe. Be well. Be kind to the frontline.

PS - Check out The Purpose Effect by Dan Pontefract if you’d like to explore this topic further.