What You Can Learn from Service that Makes You Smile

Our waitress at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich., brings a plate of the restaurant’s fabulous fried chicken. “The pieces looked a little smaller than usual today, so I brought you five instead of four. Hope you don’t mind,” she says with a wink. The simple act fits Zingerman’s mission–the “why” of the company.

“We share the Zingerman’s experience: selling food that makes you happy, giving service that makes you smile, in passionate pursuit of our mission, showing love and care in all our actions, to enrich as many lives as we possibly can.” It’s clear that my waitress is aligned with this statement of purpose. She’s engaged in her job. I’m smiling. Mission accomplished.

Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s, is also happy and smiling. His 1982 hole-in-the-wall deli is now a $50 million enterprise. Nonetheless, he still stops by to refill our water glasses and ask how we’re doing. When asked about Zingerman’s mission, he says that it’s the foundation of the business: “No matter how lost or frustrated we may feel, our mission is always there, much like the North Star, to help guide us.”

Vic Strecher

Today more than ever, change is the only constant for organizations. As Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management states: “Increasing emphasis is placed on the importance of work as a source of fulfillment, meaning and purpose in life today, as individuals spend more time at work and change jobs more often and readily than in the past.” Open-office plans, flex schedules, remote work and unconventional benefits underscore just a few of the tactical approaches organizations have taken to stay up-to-date and improve employee retention and engagement, and organizational performance. But it takes more than tactics. It takes purpose.

In these times of great change, we might benefit from revisiting goals of the ancient Greek philosophers: to find and live in accordance with one’s best self. This bright, shining North Star helps both individuals and organizations navigate through turbulence, reduce conflict and fear, and embrace life’s challenges. And it pays off. Purposeful organizations, as I will explain during my upcoming keynote at this month’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, are more likely to retain their top talent and their customers, and dramatically outperform both the S&P 500 and so-called “good-to-great” companies. So, it should come as no surprise that purpose is getting a lot of attention these days. It’s not a fad any more than Aristotle was a fad. It’s a basic imperative.

Some organizations were founded with a singular purpose that guides their decision-making. Nick Craig, in his book Leading From Purpose: Clarity and the Confidence to Act When It Matters Most, illustrates the journey of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz “… through having purpose, losing it and getting it back.” To Schultz, the romance and theater of coffee was the centralizing force in the creation of Starbucks’ purpose: to inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time. And it certainly worked. Schultz found himself at the helm of a cultural movement, not just a humble coffee shop with a global presence.

But when Schultz stepped aside as CEO to watch his company from the sidelines, the organization grew larger every day (as comics would jest, “They’re now building a Starbucks inside of Starbucks!”), and the company started to become untethered from its original purpose. Not surprisingly, the financial status of Starbucks started to deteriorate simultaneously alongside its drift away from the founding principles and core values that made it so successful. Schultz felt compelled to step in and reassume the role of CEO to realign the company with its North Star. The transition was not easy and there were many difficult decisions along the way, but the company began to thrive again after recommitting to its original founding principles.

In 2005, Steve Jobs stated in his commencement address to Stanford University graduates: “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.” He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year before–he thought at the time he had beat the disease but it ultimately took his life six years later–and he was talking about his own life and the deep transformation sparked by recognizing that we’re here on this planet for just a blink of an eye. He may have also been referring to Apple. Like Starbucks, Apple needed Jobs’ return to reinvigorate the innovative spirit and purpose of the company: “to put a dent in the universe.”

On the other end of the spectrum are organizations that view purpose as just another buzzword in a long list of failed experiments. What these organizations tend to get wrong is that they fail to create an authentic purpose. Think about the times you’ve heard an organizational mission statement that sounded like it was written by a committee. In 2012, Forbes pointed out that Wells Fargo’s mission statement had doubled in size to 37 pages since it was created in 1994. Enough said?

Well, perhaps not enough. You may have heard of Mike Davis, CEO of the now-defunct Tiger Oil Co., who wrote famous memos in the 1970s, such as: “Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don’t want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons of bitches.” At least he’s honest! Far worse are companies (we all know them) whose lofty mission statements are quietly scoffed at by their own workforce. Working in these companies is like spending most of your waking hours in one of Dante’s inner circles of hell. And there are lots of them; it’s no wonder that the majority of employees in the U.S. are not engaged in their work.

Robert Quinn of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and Anjan Thakor of the Olin Business School at Washington University wrote a cover story last summer for the Harvard Business Review titled “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” in which they outlined eight essential steps to embracing purpose. When an organization is working on creating a purpose, it is essential to “… discover it through empathy–by feeling and understanding the deepest common needs of your workforce. That involves asking provocative questions, listening and reflecting.” An organizational purpose that is in alignment with its workforce inspires engagement, resilience, productivity and happiness. A misalignment of purpose produces the opposite.

Purpose Attracts Talent …

One way this dynamic is created is by having an organizational purpose that attracts like-minded employees. In an article titled Finding Success by Putting Company Culture First, Diana Ransom quotes a 10-year Patagonia veteran employee and avid mountain climber: “The time we spend outside the office helps us manage the storytelling process around our products. We’re designing ski and surfing apparel, we need to be traveling and trying things out.” Patagonia’s success is, in part, a function of attracting talent to the brand. If I want to “save our home planet”–Patagonia’s purpose–I’ll be more likely to want to work there. If I want to be a “relentless ally for your financial wellbeing,” I’m going to be attracted to Ally Financial. And if I don’t want to “give service that makes you smile,” I’m not going to be employed very long at Zingerman’s Roadhouse.

… And Talent Needs to be Nurtured, On Purpose

Having a strong purpose and direction is associated with greater resilience to the aftermath of earthquakes and tsunamis, return from war, cancer and loss of a loved one. People with a strong purpose are more likely to live longer, are less likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack or develop Alzheimer’s disease, have higher pain thresholds, and have fewer pro-inflammatory cells and more antibodies expressed by their genes. Side effects of this wonder drug? Strong purpose is associated with higher income and net worth. It’s also associated with better sex. Enough said? We’d all take this purpose pill.

Employees want purpose–often termed “meaningful work”–because they know what’s good for them. A recent study showed that college graduates are willing to accept $20,000 less in salary if they believe the work will be meaningful. The same study found that an employer can increase the perception of meaningful work. And it is a perception, regardless of whether you’re a CEO or a janitor. Remember the early 1960s story of John F. Kennedy asking a custodian at NASA what he did? The custodian responded, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

In recent research using brain imaging, individuals with strong purpose were found to have less activation in a part of the brain associated with inner conflict. This makes sense, since purposeful people are directed, as Aristotle said, by their best self–and when these best selves are connected with the company’s purpose, everyone starts rowing in the same direction.

A company culture that fosters purposeful living will also experience benefits in other unexpected areas, including diversity and inclusion. Founder and CEO Andrea Hoffman of Culture Shift Labs, a leading D&I consultancy, described the role purpose plays in her work in an interview in a recent Forbes post: “If you create a company culture that shows people ‘they are enough,’ everyone wins. If you are regularly programming employee experiences, interactions and exchanges (and rewarding that behavior), that fosters the humanity in all of us. Everyone wins.” Research from Cornell University demonstrated that individuals who were asked to briefly write about their purpose in life became four times more interested in living in an ethnically diverse community and far less likely to feel nervous and afraid in an ethnically diverse environment.

A Shared Purpose

In Deloitte’s 2014 Core Beliefs & Culture Survey, employees who felt that their company had a strong sense of purpose were four times more likely to indicate that their company had strong employee satisfaction. Two-thirds of employees surveyed thought that businesses don’t do enough to create a sense of purpose. So what can you do? Here are three places to start:

Our best selves: One way to prime purposeful thinking is to consider what you’re like at your best. This self-affirmation has been shown to produce greater performance and openness to change. What would happen if an entire organization went through this process? When I ask employees to think about their best selves at work, words like “engaged,” “focused” and “dedicated” pop up in a word cloud. The group affirmation creates emotion and connects individuals.

Volunteerism: A recent study demonstrated that company-facilitated volunteering stimulated a sense of meaning at work. A great example of this is H-E-B, the largest grocery-store chain in Texas. During extreme flooding throughout the state, H-E-B employees provided food and other supplies to individuals in need, and it was among the first stores to reopen its doors. There’s a reason employees consistently rank H-E-B as one of the top companies to work for.

Tell stories: In June, accounting company KPMG offered its 27,000 employees an incentive of two extra paid days off if they sent 10,000 stories about how their work makes a difference before Thanksgiving. The employees blew through the goal by the Fourth of July and, by Thanksgiving, KPMG received 42,000 stories, with titles like “We champion democracy,” “I combat terrorism” and “I help farms grow.” This is yet another form of group affirmation; people want–no, they need–to feel connected in a common purpose.

In his 1897 book Suicide, Emile Durkheim, the French father of modern sociology, writes that, to remedy the then-increasing prevalence of suicide (which, sadly, is again resurging), “a man must feel himself more solidarity with a collective existence which precedes him in time, which survives him and which encompasses him at all points. If this occurs, he will no longer find the only aim of his conduct in himself and, understanding that he is the instrument of a purpose greater than himself, he will see that he is not without significance.” Durkheim even states that the best place for this to occur is in the “occupational group or corporation.” And he was a communist!

Finishing my fabulous fried chicken dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, I happily pay the very non-communistic tab, adding 25 percent for my waitress. I’ve succumb to Zingerman’s mission of “showing love and care in all our actions to enrich as many lives as we possibly can.” Hey, I don’t mind being a sucker if I can be enriched.

This year’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference will be held April 24 through April 26 at ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Vic Strecher
Vic Strecher is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and founder and CEO of Kumanu Inc. Kumanu’s PurposeCloud platform transforms and integrates people and wellbeing strategies to improve lives, strengthen organizations and create greater alignment with purpose. Send questions or comments to hreletters@lrp.com.