Search for your inner purpose

For many, purpose with a small ‘p’ is easier to access, writes Michael Chavez

When a firefighter runs into a burning building to save someone from the smoke, she’s not thinking much about the profit and loss of her local brigade. People who work in frontline services – fire, ambulance, coastguard – do so in large part from a sense of personal purpose. They are there to help people – that’s what drives them. 

What the great business thinker Daniel Pink calls the ‘capital P’ purpose of individuals is largely circumscribed by the organizations in which they work: “I’m a fireman because I want to save lives.” “I work in the charity sector because I want to help the less fortunate.” “I’m a teacher because education improves society.”

Yet the capital P purpose of those working in charitable or public services is more easily accessed than for those who work in private commerce. “We are so seduced by capital P purpose,” Pink told me. “When I talk to groups about ‘lower-case p’ purpose, they heave a sigh of relief because, all of a sudden, it is something they can access. Small p purpose is something simpler. It answers: how am I making a contribution in this role?

“So if I’m in commercial adhesives or chemicals, my individual purpose might be to help my colleagues get a product out the door. I’m going to help make a contribution internally. I might not have fed the hungry – I just helped out a teammate.”

Organizations provide the big picture purpose. But employees need to create a personal purpose that is aligned to the organization yet correlates to their particular context. This point was illustrated vividly by the Great Mind that is the American Express chief human resources officer Kevin Cox. Cox’s capital P purpose is helping people and developing great talent – a noble calling.

But, when I met with him recently, Cox told how he had sketched out his personal ‘small p’ purpose in business on a single side of paper. “It helped me realize how I should use my time and energy to accomplish what I needed to do in this role,” he told me. “It provided clarity about what I needed to call up the courage to dig into issues, even if it was unpleasant.”

Nobody relishes opposing or challenging senior figures in organizations, questioning business strategy or critiquing company structures. Yet for organizations to improve, such challenges are crucial. “There would be times I would take hard stands with my board and senior leaders,” Cox said. “I never did this willy-nilly, but rather because I thought it was hardwired to the purpose, and if I wanted to be true to it, I would need to play through some of this pain.”

Cox’s advice for leaders and executives looking to define their small p purpose is to ask themselves a series of questions.

  • What are your personal aspirations and goals in your current role?
  • What are your passions?
  • What are your unique skills and abilities?
  • What is most important to you?

“At the intersection of these,” says Cox, “is purpose.”

Overarching organizational statements are likely to feel remote, impersonal – even unattainable – to many inside the company. Pink stresses that small p purpose isn’t something we craft or create. It is already inside individuals. It is something to discover – and to excavate. The Great Mind of Kevin Cox has it right. “It is difficult to find a ‘rational purpose’,” he warns. “Purpose should transcend the day-to-day. You can’t be afraid to emote and think about your underlying passions.”

— Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education

— A version of this article originally appeared on