Building Sustainable Legacies

Leave a comment

Are You Ready for the Surprises?

These days all of us recognize that long-term success is not guaranteed for any organization, even those that appear to be secure now.  Unremitting change can sneak up on companies and entire industries with lightning speed. New competition may catch us off guard. Activist stakeholders may make strong and unexpected demands. Disruptive technologies may threaten our products and services.  If we recognize our vulnerabilities, we can prepare ourselves and our organizations to face the inevitable and frequently uninvited changes that can impact our futures.

In our January Transatlantic Blog, Katrin Muff discussed how she learned to build personal resilience while facing challenging situations. She defined resilience as “the capacity to respond to external pressure by adapting and recovering quickly and hence finding a new equilibrium.” This month I will extend her discussion to organizations and explore two different perspectives on organizational resilience.


The Coping and Adapting Perspective

A common perspective of resilience is that it involves an organization’s ability to absorb shock, cope, adjust, bounce back and resume previous levels of performance in the face of unexpected threats. This definition implies that organizations are reactively resilient when faced with changing conditions. This capacity for adjusting quickly to unforeseen circumstances is positive for any individual or organization. Who wouldn’t want to be able to bounce back in the face of what could be viewed as adversity?

The Transformative Perspective

Another way of framing resilience is to view it as an organization’s ability to proactively seek the opportunities that even unanticipated challenges can offer.  Rather than merely coping, adapting and bouncing back, these organizations allow change to become transformative. They emerge stronger than before while embracing changes that others might view as threatening.[1] This is the kind of resilience that allows organizations to reinvent themselves.


Characteristics of the Transformative Resilient

Organizations that possess transformative resilience have unique characteristics and cultures. Researchers have concluded that they possess a “blend of expertise, opportunism, creativity, and decisiveness despite uncertainty.”[2] In my own research and writing, I refer to these organizations as change adept.

The challenge as I see it is that so few companies possess these cultures and capabilities. Our research consistently shows that change adept organizations are very rare. In our studies of organizational culture, we find that companies do not have strong track records for large-scale change for the most part. Many fully acknowledge that their organizations do not handle uncertainty well. Very few encourage challenges to the status quo and most fail to allow time for reflection and learning. Without these qualities, organizations are likely to be change inept rather than change adept.

As always, a first step in confronting a weakness is to acknowledge it. Therefore, I challenge you to reflect carefully on the culture of your own organization. Ask yourselves whether the collective has the mindset and capabilities to cope and adapt in the face of threats. This is a minimal standard for survival. Next ponder whether your organization has transformational resilience. When you can address change by looking for opportunities to transform rather than threats to overcome, you will be on the right path for long-term success.


[1] Marston, A and s Marston. Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. PublicAffairs (January 9, 2018).

[2] Lengnick-Hall, C.A., Beck,T. and Lengnick-Hall, M. Developing a capacity for organizational resilience through strategic human resource management. Human Resource Management Review, 21 (2011)-255.


Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.



Finding our space in a new place

Building personal resilience – an applied example

CEOs and HR Directors have consistently rated adaptability, authenticity and values as top leadership qualities for people at any level of an organization. These are also key ingredients for resilience. I define resilience as the capacity to respond to external pressure by adapting and recovering quickly and hence finding a new equilibrium.

Typically, we look at resilience in interaction with others in an organizational setting. I discovered last week, that I can apply these three ideas also in a challenging networking environment. As a way to launch our transatlantic blog into a new year, I wanted to dedicate this first blog to how we can build personal resilience while being in new challenging situations. I will demonstrate this with my personal experience and reflection from my first participation at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last week.

Arriving in Davos for the World Economic Forum was hard. Hard for different reasons than I had anticipated – it had been raining and the slush on the street made it a real challenge to make it to the AirB&B my colleague had organized for us. And yet, all this struggle was nothing compared to the difficulty we had securing accommodation for the event! Unimaginable! My colleague Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Business & Economics at the University of Guelph , persisted through all obstacles and miraculously found for our Female Deans Trio a fabulous apartment.

Figuring out networking in an event that is strictly structured around privileged access to select events was another eye-opener. The weather challenge which drowned the arrival in unbelievable masses of snow and rain meant that nothing worked as planned. Being simply in the moment and helping fellow attendees out, together finding registration and queuing for badges ended up being the best way to connect. The human element of together making it in a challenging moment created a connection far more important than a typical cocktail party ever would. I may even have attracted a new MBA student to BSL as a result of one such incident.

Nesting in and finding spaces that feel comfortable was a big thing for me too. Given such unfriendly weather conditions outside made it a necessity to find warm and dry spots. Ideally with a seating option and a coffee machine nearby. So finding comfort in the welcoming Female Quotient equity lounge, felt perfect despite my initial resistance to join a “feminine” movement. Admitting that, listening deeper to my intuition and overriding superficial mental judgement, was important. The previous night, I had ignored such intuition and in an attempt to do some networking and meet up with friends, I ended up roaming the Promenade getting wet feet in the slush and maybe a cold along the way – without ever catching up with my friends. I did have the intuition that I should have stayed in the apartment and caught an early night, but failed to listen.

So what am I saying here? I find that when we reach out into the world as change makers, we end up in new, unfamiliar spaces where we need to orient ourselves and find out how we can be effective in such a space. Being effective, I suggest here with my brief insight into my brief #WEF2018 Davos experience, involves these three things:

  • Adaptability: Arriving well and creating a space of comfort either by being with people or having accessories that create comfort (I always bring a candle when I travel)
  • Authenticity: Being in the present moment and embracing the encounter that presents itself wholeheartedly without trying to be elsewhere – trust serendipity!
  • Values: Listen to your intuition and go or stay where you feel well rather than where a program suggests you should or could be. Find your inner rhythm and stick with it as you dance with what is happening around and allow that duality with grace and joy!

And these three insights that I have gained in Davos link nicely back to what CEOs suggest are the backbone of resilience: adaptability, authenticity and values. I hope you find this reflection insightful in your own journey as a change maker both within your organization, and as you shape your own journey across new ground and landscapes!


Business Schools finally involved in the World Economic Forum

A blog by Katrin Muff at Business School Lausanne in collaboration with Julia Christensen Hughes of the College of Business & Economics at the University of Guelph and Mette Morsing of Copenhagen Business School and the Stockholm School of Economics

You may wonder why business schools should be present at a global economic event. Well, some leaders have received their education from business schools and there is great pressure from civil society and business that business schools do a better job in educating the future generation of leaders. Leaders that can deal with the complexity of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (short VUCA) world, that have a solid values-based inner compass, can work effectively both inside and outside of their organizations, fluent in systems thinking and capable of leading multi-stakeholder initiatives that address the complex issues that the world is facing. At Business School Lausanne, we call such people “Responsible leaders for a sustainable and just world”. We are dedicated to developing such leaders across all of our programs, from bachelor to doctoral degrees and substantiate our learning space with world-leading research in the areas of sustainability, responsibility and transformation.

We are not the only ones! Toby Heaps, CEO of Corporate Knights and Jonas Haertle, Head of U.N. PRME jointly invited 40 business school Deans who are championing responsible management education for a better world. So, for the first time at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a comprehensive cohort of Deans from such disrupting schools were present to discuss how to strengthen our initiatives and collaborate with like-minded business leaders. There are 13’000 business schools around the world, and while there are 700 signatories to the PRME principles, it is high time to disrupt the 20th century curriculum built on flawed assumptions about the economy, the purpose of business and the role of a leader. These 40 champions offer inspirational ideas for providing a 21st century education and research focus that provides the foundation to receive a “licence to educate” as expected by society (source

Celebration dinner of the 40 champion business schools appointed by United Nations PRME, in collaboration with Corporate Knights. Lisa Kingo, Head of the UN Global Compact, addressing the champions

I had the privilege to spend time with Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Business And Economics at the University of Guelph in Canada and Mette Morsing who created possibly the largest CSR center in business at Copenhagen Business School and who is now creating a similar new sustainability research center at the Stockholm School of Economics. Being roommates in a rustic (AirBnB) apartment in Klosters has allowed not only great late night and early morning talks around the kitchen table, but also deepened a human connection that results from the bonding experience when three women have to make do with one bathroom and make it out of the door by 6am. My coffee capsules helped a bit, and Julia’s tea bags did magic, as did the wine we shared. The celebration dinner hosted by Corporate Knights and PRME allowed us to deepen connections with fellow Deans who have been partners on our transformative journey such as Philip O’Regan who last year hosted an unforgettable joint PRME and GRLI conference in Ireland. It also allowed us to make new connections with delegates from around the world including Africa, and new faces such as AIM in the Philippines, Berkeley in the USA and Insead in France.

Mette Morsing, Julia Christensen-Hughes and Katrin Muff

Visiting the Sustainable Impact HUB

Business schools have a long way to go. And so does business! While it may seem contradictory to participate in an event that assembles a global political and economic elite and where social entrepreneurship is possibly seen as a noteworthy phenomena, we realized how important it is for us, leading disruptors in business education, to also have our voices heard if we are to support further disruption in enabling global business to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Our input was appreciated and called for at many sessions, including those that focused on women’s leadership (and yes, there is a case suggesting that women deans can be particularly effective change agents, like women managers!). In business oriented sessions, our input and reflection was also sought and appreciated; it was heartwarming to feel how welcome our presence was. We were also challenged. Business expects significant change in education – we heard calls for breaking down silos, teaching in interdisciplinary non-linear ways, focusing on problem solving and embracing a spirit of experimentation and co-learning with our students. We also heard of how technology, applied well, is democratizing education – providing anywhere anytime access and opportunity to learn.

Participating in a breakfast meeting

Influencing and networking at the WEF in Davos happens everywhere, not just in meetings. This is the Davos magic. I talked to a successful entrepreneur who became interested in doing an MBA at BSL while queueing for my badge. Mette challenged assumptions behind the WEF competitiveness report while sitting next to its author in a shuttle bus. Julia met business leaders with an interest in supporting further curricular innovation in her business school. She also proudly participated in sessions offered by one of her alumni on block chain and crypto currencies. We got first-hand insights into the new IMF report while riding a local train and we thought of an inspiring new initiative around the Golden Rule when having lunch with Kim Polman. Julia also met renowned author of Donut Economics and HD recipient Kate Raworth while riding a late night shuttle. Kate is designing the first entire updated 21st century economics course with BSL to be launched in September 2018. The WEF demands that you are present in every single moment and that you are free to engage in the most diverse kind of conversations you can imagine at any time of the day, from the moment you open your eyes until your head hits the cushion. It is as much exhausting as it is exhilarating and if we leave this event with one shared learning it is this:

We will be back next year and we will be better prepared and better organized. We will work on the ideas that were developed this time around and announce the results next year. We will organize a house where Transformative Deans (or Deans as Agents of Change) can meet and discuss effective ways to transform not only their own schools but the management education landscape. It takes leadership, and this year’s WEF theme seems to suggest that it takes female leadership. Well, that is a currency we have plenty of!

How to inspire scientists on a Monday morning?

The Swiss National Fund (SNF) is a key provider of research funding in Switzerland. The National Research Programme 73 (NRP73) is a CHF 20 mio. research program that supports and encourages applied research across all fields to help achieve a sustainable economy. After a lengthy application and screening process, 25 projects were selected across all major public research institutions in Switzerland. The ambition of the program is that these 25 projects deliver not just independent research outcomes but collaborate among them and also with the stakeholders they seek to influence. That is a high call and one that researchers traditionally find difficult to embrace. It is often hard enough to collaborate within a multi-stakeholder project that there is little room to investigate further opportunities beyond. My job as the opening keynote speaker of the NRP73 kick-off session with about 100 of the scientists present in one room was “to inspire them”.

I chose to address three key questions that would contextualize their projects and to develop key emerging challenges resulting from this investigation. Knowing that there would be an expert in the room with more knowledge than me on pretty much any point I would address, I needed to be careful in framing my assumptions and conclusions. The three questions addressed the role of sustainability research in Switzerland, the ability to ensure relevance, and how to achieve impact through sustainability research. Figure 1 shows an overview of the emerging challenges I have identified.

Figure 1: Overview of the emerging challenges resulting from the 3 questions

In the context of the Gapframe (see Figure 2), I suggested that each project team assesses their project with regards to the issue it addresses. Some concern issues where Switzerland is particularly strong internationally and where solutions can be pioneered as a result of new insights. Other issues are of key priority for Switzerland itself and solutions will need to be innovated to ensure local relevance. Further issues may be of critical relevance globally and Swiss solutions can be scaled and shared as best practices.

Figure 2: Overview of the emerging challenges resulting from the 3 questions

To provoke thinking, I suggested there was a perception gap between how practice looks at “applied research” and how science looks at it (see Figure 3). This generated more nodding than I had dared to hope for. I even got a positive reaction to my suggestion to consider taking an action research stance, whereby the researcher assumes a subjective partner rather than an objective observer perspective. Very promising indeed!

Figure 3: The perception gap between science and practice in refereeing to “applied research”

When looking at these challenges, I remembered the insight of Insight of Andrew Hoffman in his book “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate”: more knowledge doesn’t change minds. So how do we maximize the value of all the knowledge that will be generated by these 25 projects? My recommendation was framed as an attempt to answer the three questions and I highlighted that the secret lies in the research process. I summarized the elements of a success research process in 7 points:


A purpose focus entails verifying again & again: does this project truly serving society, and if so how? A dynamic process needs to integrate new developments and may embrace an action research stance. Being inclusive means involving those stakeholders that are intended recipients the project seeks to influence. A co-creative research projects includes being truly “applied” from a user-perspective rather than a research perspective and includes integrating feedback. Being impact oriented is about ensure that the project is truly influencing those who matter when it matters. Ensuring ongoing dissemination means that external communications starts from the very beginning of the project, not only once first results are in. Finally, achieving an adaptive output includes negotiating and agreeing on value of improving output along the way according to changing context.

In conclusion, I suggested that it is of prime importance to review and adapt both the research process and outcome in an adaptive and dynamic way throughout the project lifetime.



Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs

Corporate Culture in 2017

As I write this blog, year 2017 is winding down. Throughout the year my blogging partner, Katrin Muff, and I have commented frequently on corporate culture. The media seems to share our interest in this subject. Indeed, references to corporate culture have shown up on the front pages of many reputable newspapers and magazines this past year. I did a cursory web search to gather up a few of these stories.

I don’t claim to have done a scientific study of how often and in what context the media mentioned corporate culture.  Nevertheless, many articles popped up when I entered the search term “corporate culture 2017”. Most pertained to companies’ significant problems attributed to toxic corporate cultures. Of course, the media often showcases the bad news stories. Still, the volume of content was significant enough to warrant my attention.

The Wells Fargo Bank fraud hit the headlines at the end of 2016 and kicked off 2017 with bad news for the company. Several newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that Wells Fargo employees had opened millions of phony accounts without their clients’ consent. The articles attributed the malfeasance to a company culture where pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals undermined corporate ethics.

Likewise ride-sharing company Uber made the news repeatedly throughout the year. Referring to the egregious sexist culture, the Washington Post had this to say:

“Corporate culture has long been the sort of squishy management consultant term that’s hard to define, even harder to change, and the recipient of lots of lip service yet little action by chief executives. But however amorphous the phrase may be, its importance was stamped into stark relief this week after a former female Uber engineer made allegations about its sexist, chaotic and aggressive culture.” [1]

United Airlines landed in hot water in April of 2017 when a passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane. The articles attributed the incident to a culture where behavior is scripted and employees have little if any latitude to make decisions.[2]

The last few months of the year brought countless stories of cultures where women were treated as prey. For example, in November of 2017, Fox News set up a Workplace Culture Panel following reports of widespread sexual harassment throughout the company.[3]  And as recently as December, the New York Times published an article on sexual harassment at two Ford Motor plants in Chicago. The headline read as follows: “How Tough is it to Change a Culture of Harassment?  Ask the Women of Ford.” [4]

While I could devote the entire blog to recounting similar stories, I believe that the examples I have offered are sufficient to make the point. Culture counts. No matter how amorphous the concept may seem, those of us who lead companies ignore our organizations’ cultures at our own risk. Consider the degree to which toxic cultures impacted companies and the people in them in 2017. Let us each resolve to assess and address our own organizational cultures in 2018.

Take the first step by looking at your current culture. Ask yourselves questions such as the following:

  • What is the purpose of our company and what do we stand for?
  • How do our corporate values influence our decisions and behaviors?
  • What are the stories that we tell each other about our organization?
  • Who are our admired heroes?
  • Who makes the rules for the organization?
  • What do we reward and what do we punish?
  • How often do we have conversations that consider diverse opinions?
  • To what degree do we value the contributions of everyone in the company?
  • What do we do to show respect for all?
  • How do we ensure that everyone’s focus is on serving our customers?

In addition to answering these questions ourselves, we should pose them to others. In my 30+ years of consulting, I have found that leaders are predictably astonished by how employees’ perceptions of the organization diverge from their own. While some are tempted to explain away the differences, the best leaders value the input. They dig deeper to understand and address the discrepancies.

Leaders create the conditions within which a culture emerges. However, they may not fully understand the possible consequences of the systems that they put in place. Likewise, they may be shielded from what occurs within the organization day to day. Asking the right questions and listening openly to the answers can provide them with the needed data for making appropriate changes to improve the organizational culture.

As I anticipate 2018, I wonder what catastrophes might be prevented in the new year if leaders of every company committed to taking  a close look at their own organizational cultures. Chances are most would find a mix of strengths to reinforce and weaknesses to address. And in some cases, they may find signs of the toxicity that, if not eradicated, could create serious consequences for their people and their companies. Let us all resolve to become proactive this new year in stamping out the unhealthy parts of our cultures while fortifying the strengths.







Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

How CEOs can inspire personal change

Imagine you had 30 minutes with 4 renowned CEOs in front of several hundred business practitioners and you wanted to use the time to create change in the audience. What would you do? I recently had the opportunity and here is what happened!

At the Swiss Green Economy Symposium, the largest event among sustainability enthusiasts in the German speaking part of Switzerland, I could facilitate a CEO panel. I had about six months to prepare which was necessary given the busy agenda of the CEOs. I contacted more than a dozen to have a confirmed gender balanced panel of 4 CEOs. One of the female CEOs had confirmed early and said she would participate with one condition: that there would be at least as many women on the panel as men. What a great condition! Imagine how things would shift if all women (and men) would demand this!

I wanted to create a panel that would serve as a trigger for change in the audience rather than a the usual story-telling inspiration sharing success stories of their organizations. Would I be able to convince the CEOs to give up the opportunity to position their company in front of an attractive audience in service of creating a space where change could happen in the audience? Yes, imagine that. CEOs were open to that idea, once I shared my idea with them and had talked them through the concept. Wonderful!

Figure 1: The Circle Model connecting the inner world of personal development with the outer world of organizational development as a transformative journey towards a world worth living in (Katrin Muff, 2016)

We split the 30 minutes in three parts. After a short introduction where I framed the conversation with a simple concept (see figure 1), we started the first part. Each CEO shared a personal story illustrating the question: “which challenges have influenced them personally and how have these shaped the way you are leading your organization?” As the audience collectively leaned forward, topics such as gender stereotypes, work-place injustice, product waste and power abuse were discussed with courage and vulnerability. I invited the packed auditorium to take moment and to individually reflect on what has shaped them most in your past and how this influences their priorities at work. Both in terms of what they currently do and what they wish you were doing. People came to me afterwards and said they have never experienced a room so quiet and so focused. The magic was starting.

In a second round, we had selected only two of the four CEOs share examples of what issues were challenging their organization in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and what long-term business opportunities were emerging concerning the Sustainable Development Goals? To grant time to the audience, the generosity of the other CEOs to stand back was really touching. We were one and we had one common objective! I invited the audience to turn to their neighbor and to discuss what options their saw to implement change for their organizations to embed the SDGs into their strategy. On a background slide, I shared a support website for those needing help. The room exploded. Everybody talked and shared and exchanged. We sat in our chairs with our jaws wide open. What an energy in the room. And how were we going to get them back to listening to us? When the time was up, the CEOs and I spontaneously stood up together and loudly applauded the audience. They look up and stared at us in surprise. They stopped talking and we could continue.

In the last round, all CEOs shared which issue concerned them most in our society and where they saw opportunities to connect these to future business activities? Their stories addressed the top burning societal issues of Switzerland as addressed by the Gapframe: CO2 overuse, equal opportunity, sustainable consumption, social integration and clean energy. I invited the audience to take a moment and choose one action that they could implement in the next 3 days to close the gap of where we are today vs. where they thought we should be in an area important for them. I offered an online tool to share these actions, if anybody felt like it.

I wish we had more time at the end, the final reflection was a minute shorter than I had hoped but our 30 minutes were up. Nonetheless, I was happily surprised when I discovered the personal commitments coming in. Figure 2 provides an overview of them grouped into some categories I hope are helpful in reviewing.

Role modelling

  • I commit to dedicate my working time to a project that serves 100% to make our living more sustainable
  • Lead a topic coming out of SGES 2017
  • I will define my personal SDG‘s to be achieved by the end of 2018
  • Break the barriers, create sense of urgency and implement the much needed change
  • Prepare presentation about the legal implications of a meat tax as a ghg heavy good

Encouraging others for action

  • Communicate knowledge to peers
  • As corny as it may sound: foremost change minds
  • I commit to also encourage others to live more sustainably
  • Talk with my Patents about their travelling
  • Poll others on these questions
  • Roll out the sdgxchange in a world wide level
  • Make my sons understand that they also have a big responsibility for Equal Opportunity and that they must contribute to achieving it

Community building

  • Organize a non-hierarchical roundtable for a common sustainable mindset within my organization and outside
  • Partner to strengthen the capability to act
  • Launch SDSN Switzerland on 2 Nov, the network that mobilizes the Swiss research & innovation community for the SDGs
  • Keep engaging people for a sustainable future
  • I’ll ask my fellow Entrepreneurs how they care about Sustainability! And I’ll publish it later on!
  • Organize the startups around me in a matrix to share sustainability progress

More time for the soul

  • Slow down. I will lower my expectations towards myself and spend more time speaking with my employees
  • I will observe better!

Aligning corporate sustainability goals with national priority issues

  • Identify lacks in our sustainability goals by comparing them with the topic of
  • Build our new 150kW PV project in Bern – Solarify
  • Verity the strategic goals of my organization against the Agenda2030 for Sustainable Development and adapt if needed
  • I will create a personal project on how we can introduce GTDs with local partners and stakeholders in our projects worldwide
  • Make sure that we also talk about social innovations.
  • Apply the standard for sustainable construction (SNBS) in the area of buildings

Social integration action

  • Partner up to reach higher employee diversity (age, gender, education, etc.)
  • I would like to support employees who lost their jobs with improving their skill-set and find a new opportunity or career path.
  • Transparency and equality

Reducing the CO2 consumption (Switzerland’s no 1 sustainability issue)

  • Only travel by train to destinations in Europe (always!)
  • Rain or shine, I’ll bike to work.
  • I commit to eating only very little meat and buy organic food, to fly as little as possible and compensate my flights
  • Compensate my flight
  • No more elevator – taking the steps, staying fit and saving energy
  • Exchange my diesel into an electric car
  • Conscious Consuming
  • Cook local
  • Eating less meat
  • Renovate our old Windows in order to create more insolation
  • Commit to an organic “vegetable-abo” in order to support sustainable and local agriculture.
  • Before I buy something, to ask: what is the harm when I buy this?

Figure 2: List of shared personal commitments as a result of a 30 minute transformative CEO panel

I don’t think I have ever spent so much time preparing for a 30 minute intervention. I think I spent 30 hours, or 60 times the intervention time, in preparation. I needed not only prepare the CEOs, I also needed to get the organizer onboard. Among the CEOs, we had spent two months carefully scripting each statement of each person so that we could create an overall story that would hopefully allow a change in the audience. This resulted in a 3500 word document that everybody had approved, outlining minute by minute who would say what. If you attempt something similar, ensure you have plenty of lead-time available! It is worth it though!

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs

Why We Work

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel

How much of your life do you spend at work?  For many of us the answer is shocking.  Working adults residing in the United States spend a third of their time at work, according to recent estimates.  Many of us spend more time at work than in any other endeavor including time with our families and friends. I am not going to debate whether this is the right way to live. However, since many of us will work a large proportion of our adult years, we might reflect on what work means to us.  Are we working only for a paycheck or for something more?

Through my own conversations with working people, I have found that most want to work for companies with a distinct purpose and clear values.  Research that I referenced in my August blog, confirmed that all generations, not just millennials, want to find purpose in their work.

Last month Katrin Muff discussed the importance of connecting our values with our life purpose as it relates to the world outside of ourselves.  Certainly, the workplace is part of that outer world. While our jobs may not suffice to define our total life- purpose, our work and/or our profession are part of our identity.  For example, reflect on how you describe yourself to others.  Chances are if you are a working adult, you include a reference to your profession or what you do for a living.

Since we tend to identify with our work, it is not surprising that most of us want it to be meaningful.

Evidence collected over decades shows a relationship between meaningful work, motivation, engagement and a sense of well-being.  While each of us may have our own definitions of what makes a job meaningful, some common factors are:

  • Person-organization fit
  • Positive and reinforcing personal relationships
  • Opportunities to align with or further one’s values
  • Fulfillment of a social or moral purpose, or broader reason for being. [1]

Year after year we hear that a very large percentage of working adults across the world do not love their jobs and are not engaged with their companies or their work. This disengagement from our work often has a negative impact on our health and well-being.

When we view our work as meaningful, we are also more likely to be motivated to do it well.  In 2015, Alison Alexander conducted research as part of her master’s studies at Northwestern University on how organizations are making work meaningful.  She found a direct connection between the presence of meaning in life and making meaning through work.  She also discovered that organizations with a strong purpose, clear values and commitments to social responsibility provide employees with ways to find meaning through their work.  She concluded that when corporations are committed to serving society, employees can “live their values through their work.”

Last month Katrin Muff argued that each of us must know who we truly are if we are to live an authentic life. I agree, and I believe that that this is also the first step in finding meaningful work or conversely, making work meaningful.  We must be keenly aware of our own values and what we perceive to be our purpose in life before we can expect work to be meaningful. Nancy Collamer, a contributing author to Forbes Magazine, suggests asking yourself questions such as “what five words best describe you”, and “what would you do if you couldn’t fail”.  Regardless of your method of reflection, you must know who you are before finding meaning in your work.

For job seekers, Alexander recommends that you “look under the hood” of the companies you are considering. Determine the degree to which their commitment to social responsibility is embedded throughout the company or isolated to a small group of people in a corporate social responsibility function. Reflect on whether the principles that the companies demonstrate through their words and actions are aligned with your values.  Pursue companies that are committed to the greater good of society.  Ideally, they will have embedded this commitment into all aspects of the company, and every employee will understand the role that they play in contributing to the greater good.

Even if you plan to stay in your current job, most likely you can find ways to make the work more meaningful.  For example, you might seek clarity from your manager about the significance and purpose of your work.  Or if your specific job tasks aren’t fulfilling, you might find others in your workplace who share your interests and values. Perhaps a group of like-minded people can design and carry out on your own time, projects that are fulfilling and contribute to the broader society.  If your company has a Corporate Social Responsibility or Sustainability Department, you might contact them to find out how you can get involved, perhaps as a volunteer.  And if all else fails, start looking for a new job with a purpose-driven company aligned with your own values.

I realize that work will not always be meaningful no matter what we do.  However, despite the role that work plays in our lives, very few of us find all our life-meaning from our jobs or our professions.   In fact it is a bad idea to try to put all our eggs in our professional or work basket. No matter how much meaning we derive from work, we should all seek and find meaning in other parts of our lives as well. We can find meaning from family, spirituality, personal growth, education, community.  The list is very long.  I believe that a sense of well-being, if not happiness, comes from our deepest sense of purpose and our constant pursuit of meaning every day throughout our entire existence.

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”  Viktor E. Frankl

[1] Cardador, T.M.& Rupp, D.E. (2011) “Organizational Culture, Multiple Needs, and the Meaningfulness of Work,” The Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, Chapter 10.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.