January 27, 2023

Connecting with purpose in your work as a data leader in business

By Paul Laughlin

Have you ever questioned the purpose of how you spend your working life? Do you struggle to connect your leadership role in business with your personal values?

If so, you are not alone. Many of the leaders I have talked with over the years suffer a similar disconnect. Even if they love the technical aspects & intellectual challenge of their work, it can leave part of them empty. Some feel this is just a price you pay for choosing such a coldly rational line of work.

Nowadays it is fashionable for businesses to connect with a social or environmental purpose. Sometimes this is more than virtue signalling & does connect a business with the positive contribution it makes in the world. However, is it possible for leaders to connect with purpose or meaning in their own work? In the work itself not just the wider purpose of the business.

Recognising the disconnect

I’ve shared previously my review of the powerful book Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Amidst the horror of Auschwitz, he brings to life the power of Logotherapy, being motivated by the meanings one can bring to the world. I will also soon share another book review on the power of seeing business & leadership in business as a spiritual calling or vocation. But first I thought it might be helpful to share my own experience.

Over the 25 years that I worked in corporate life for a major UK bancassurer, despite my career success I often felt a level of discomfort. The experience of needing to put on a costume & play a part when at work. Many leaders in the past have likened the business suit to a suit of armour to don as they anticipate working life as a battleground. My experience was not a toxic one. But in my earlier years it had its fair share of macho culture that rewarded alpha extroverts. At times I could connect the point of my work with a customer need or employee development. But something was missing.

A breakthrough for me came when I attended a leadership development course called Inner Leadership, run by David England & Simon Smith. I still remember that day over 20 years later. Through that course, I was introduced to the power of Psychosynthesis and the reality of my multiple subpersonalities. As I experienced a level of synthesis, through listening to all those parts of myself, a need became apparent. Both my faith and other parts of my personality were being stifled in my current approach to work. It was not enough for those parts of myself to just work in order to provide for my family. I needed to feel more connected with a purpose, a cause, a joy in what I did. Discovering that has been my journey ever since.

Where I found a noble purpose in the work itself

Part of my progress was in my growing awareness of the good that my work was doing. I mean the benefit & even noble purpose of the work itself, not just the company speak for what the organisation delivered. For me, it was much more helpful than adding ethics (like baubles on a Christmas tree) e.g. ESG purposes at a macro level. I was more motivated by a day-to-day person-to-person living of values. A drive to ethical personal behaviour, ethical management of people and ethical use of our capability to influence the senior leadership team. Let me break that down.

Part one for me came down to how I lived my life & turned up at work. I might not buy into the dangerous corporate platitude to “bring your whole self to work” (I’d seen that damage people), but I could be more authentic. I began to notice how I could more live out my faith in the way I spoke & treated others. Of course, I was very imperfect and failed often. But I was motivated by an intention each day to act ethically, treat everyone with kindness, give people time & avoid either elitist thinking or blaming others.

Part two was how I managed my team. I was motivated by a vision of creating a place where those who worked for me could thrive. To get the right mix of challenge to stretch them & at times protecting them from the injustice of some HR processes. Protecting time to listen to them & where I could mentor them to grow their abilities & reputation. It’s difficult not to recall more of the mistakes you regret. But I am also very encouraged over the years by how many who worked for me flourished in their own careers & stayed in touch as they grew their own teams.

A springboard to a more fundamental reassessment

The last part of the purpose that I connected with above was influencing the wider organisation, often via the senior leadership team. There were two parts to this. First the importance to me of statistically robust use of data & ethical data visualization to support accurate communication. Second, using these resources to ‘speak truth to power‘. Not the rushed preachy approach of angry young rebels. But rather a planned building of reputation & trust to influence the top table with truths that required action.

The above ethics helped me preserve my soul in the corporate jungle. But ultimately such motivation only lasted for a period. Through this greater self-awareness, I also felt bubbling up my unfulfilled passions. What if I could express more of my creative side? Would it be more fulfilling to be able to give all my time to mentoring others? How could I channel my inner performer & educator in service of both others and a bigger purpose?

At the right time, those questions prompted me to make the move. I left corporate life and set up my own business. A move I have never regretted. I discovered the joy of being my own boss & expressing those desires through services. I’ve written before about how this can be a natural next step in a data leader’s career. But for me, it has been more than that. It has also been another opportunity to express my values. To experience the morals of cooperation & consideration in the small business community. Select the clients I am comfortable working with. Give my time to helping others learn & grow. This stage of my life feels much closer to doing what I was created to do. I hope you find such a satisfying vocation.

Where do you find meaning in your work?

Hopefully sharing my story above, even if only a summary, was helpful rather than self-indulgent. Have you felt the same itch (disconnection between your values or inner purpose and your employment)? How have you scratched that itch? Do you find more meaning outside of work? Do you strongly align with the purpose and management of your organisation? Have you also found purpose & meaning in the work itself and how you do it?

My aim here is to give voice to the moral urge in leaders and those working in business. What has helped you express your morals, faith or values in a business? Please share your journey with me as we help shine a life on this dimension of data leaders. We are so much more than just rationalists.