What Drives You? Bringing Purpose to Work

By Hubert Joly


Purpose Online Article

This is an excerpt of an article published in the March/April 2021 issue of Directorship.

Imagine this scenario: Jordan is a three-year-old whose favorite toy is a Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex) figurine he got for Christmas. The T. rex’s head broke, and Jordan is devastated. He is in tears, and his mom brings him to the local big box store—where, unbeknownst to Jordan, Santa Claus had sourced the original toy. Jordan’s mom explains the situation to two sales associates.

The unengaged sales associates direct Jordan’s mom to the toy shelves and let her find a replacement. At best, Jordan gets a new T. rex out of it, but has to throw his beloved old toy into the trash. The sales associates are relieved to see him leave the store and look forward to the end of their workday.

This is not an imaginary scenario. Jordan and his mom are real people who visited a Best Buy Co. store in Florida in 2019. But the two sales associates did not blankly direct Jordan’s mother to a shelf or just hand over a new boxed toy. Instead, they turned into doctors who immediately took the broken dinosaur in for “surgery” behind the counter, where they discreetly exchanged it for a new one while narrating to Jordan the life-saving procedure that was being performed on his “dino baby.” After a few minutes, they handed over the “cured” dinosaur to a beaming, excited little boy.

What prompted the two Best Buy sales associates to do this? Why and how had the very uneven customer experience that prevailed seven years earlier when I became the CEO of Best Buy changed so dramatically? Had we changed the entire workforce? Recruited new types of people with a customer service gene? Concocted a better system of incentives, perhaps?

No, no, and no. There has been no forced exodus of store associates, and we have not uncovered any miraculous incentive formulas. Natural turnover excepted, these were the same people.

What we did to change the customer shopping experience was unleash the enormous potential that lies dormant when people merely show up for work or actively hate their jobs. What we did was turn a large number of disengaged people into engaged employees, inspired to care for their customers. How? By seeing the company as a human organization made of individuals working together in pursuit of an inspiring goal. By embracing the philosophy that is behind the resurgence of Best Buy: pursue a noble purpose, put people at the center, create an environment in which every employee can blossom, and treat profit as an outcome, not the goal.

This is a philosophy that sees work as an essential element of our humanity, a key to our search for meaning as individuals, and a way to find fulfillment in our lives. For the two Best Buy sales associates in Florida, work was not about collecting a paycheck. It was not about selling a new toy. It was about putting a grin back on a little boy’s face. In this philosophy, meaning and purpose are essential and foundational pillars. It is a philosophy that places genuine, authentic, caring human connections at the heart of business.

What drives you? This question is not often asked in corporate environments. Yet it is essential to ask because it helps us connect with a purpose, which in turn determines how we relate to our work. This is why Best Buy employees are encouraged to reflect on that question. “What drives you?” became a central element of the Best Buy holiday leadership meeting, which gathers some 2,000 managers to kick off the holiday shopping season. I always found the simplicity and humanity of the answers striking. Often, managers talk about friends, family, and colleagues. For a market retail field trainer, the answer is “being able to see the corners of the world with Grandma Shirley, my favorite person on this planet.” For a district manager, it is “helping employees and customers fulfill their hopes and dreams.” For a senior manager of market human resources, “teaching, developing, growing, and inspiring [people] to do more than they ever thought possible.” Encouraging and inspiring everyone at Best Buy to reflect on what drives them may seem a small and woolly step, but it truly has been central to changing how we approach our work.

Read the full article here.

Hubert Joly is former chair and CEO of Best Buy, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and the author of The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism (HBR Press, 2021). He is a member of the boards of Johnson & Johnson and Ralph Lauren Corp., serves on the international advisory board of HEC Paris, and is a trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.