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  • Writer's pictureBar Pereg

The Path to a Purpose-Driven Career

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

By Katherine Collins and Bar Pereg (posted originally on Linkedin)

Purpose is hotter than ever

COVID has laid bare the raw need for essential services in communities that are working to grapple with health and environmental crises. Seeing this crisis has prompted many of us to reflect on the ways we contribute to our communities. This is likely to swell the already considerable pool of people looking to build their careers around social impact. They are not looking for volunteer opportunities or organizations to donate money to, but instead, want to use their time and talent in service of social and environmental goals. They are seeking a purpose-driven career.

We are friends and former classmates who spent the first decade of our careers trying to figure out how to build purpose-driven careers for ourselves. This journey has taken us to jobs in nonprofits, government, the military, and the private sector, as well as a great restaurant in New Zealand. Between the two of us, Antarctica is the only continent we haven’t worked on. We met in business school and found in each other a haven to discuss these shared ambitions. In our years since, we are struck by how often we speak with colleagues and friends about their efforts to build their own careers around social impact — and how little sound advice exists about doing so.

Traditional careers — corporate lawyer, manager at a Fortune 500 company — offer gleaming ladders to climb where you meet considerable compensation and the reassuring sense that your family actually understands what you do all day. If you are seeking to achieve a particular social change with your career — to lead what we’ll call a “purpose-driven career” — you will find there is no clear ladder.

This has been the central challenge as we navigate the early phase of our careers. We are far from “figuring it out,” we are inviting you into our running thread of conversation in plotting a purpose-driven career. Our personal braintrust was born somewhere in western Uganda while we were working on research into agriculture finance. We hope this guide will be helpful as you are thinking through and talking with your friends and mentors about building your own purpose-centered career.

Ditch your romantic notion of what purpose is

Many of us have a singular romantic vision of what it means “to do good.” This is valuable as inspiration but an untrustworthy guide for career decision-making. Bar, for example, used to think she would be a human rights attorney at the Hague. Kate imagined working as a country doctor, inspired by Dr. Quinn Medicine woman, a 1990s TV series that showed a brave 19th-century female doctor performing heroic feats on the prairie. While these are worthy dreams, they turned out to be poorly suited for our skills and personalities. Bar lacks a lawyer’s attention to detail and Kate a doctor’s tolerance for blood.

A purpose-driven career isn’t about the highlight reel of your life, the Dr. Quinn trailer, or the cool LinkedIn title, but instead the Tuesday afternoon where you’re neck-deep in problem-solving. Try hard to abandon the images in that glossy reel and instead consider what you care most about, where your talents lie, and where you want to spend that Tuesday afternoon.

The best and most purposeful roles for you might not even be obvious from a job title. One of our business school classmates achieved a huge feat of social impact. Her job title was simply “manager” at a little-known company. But her day-to-day was transforming the work experience of over 10,000 hourly employees by focusing on how to create good jobs. As you begin this process, think about your image of yourself in your purpose-driven career as the shiny wrapper on the nub of your mission, which you’ll set about identifying next.

Start with a focus on finding your path (and hold off on networking!)

Understanding that there are more options than the shiny roles, what is your unique role to play that matches your talent and time to maximize your impact and enjoyment?

Too many begin a career search by firing off LinkedIn messages and tapping into robust alumni networks. Networking is critical to any job search — but you’re not yet ready for it. Networking is time-intensive, and if done poorly, can be a missed opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship founded on shared interests. It can also serve to confuse you as you try to sort out what you want by hearing about someone else’s shiny path. Too many networking conversations in the social impact space begin with “I’m seeking a career where I can do good” — which is laudable — but very hard for your new contact to help with. Purpose-driven careers require a specificity of purpose you need to find on your own.

Use strategic tools to develop mental clarity

One way to help you develop clarity around what you want to do when you grow up is using the same tools we use to help organizations design their strategies in our work as management consultants. Organizations, just like the humans who make them up, have goals and aspirations they want to achieve and must make choices and action plans in order to achieve them.

Theory of Change

Theory of change is a ‘go-to’ tool for social impact organizations and foundations to plan concrete, measurable results against amorphous problems. It asks “what is your intended impact” or, how will the world be different because this organization or person was in it? Theory of change then helps translate the complexities of social change, achieving your intended impact, into day-to-day activities and measurement plans, while exposing potential roadblocks on the way there.

To apply the Theory of change framework, start from the desired impact and work your way back to the activities you need to put in.

Strategic Choice Cascade

The strategic choice cascade is a framework used to develop and articulate an organization’s strategy. It was developed by A.G. Lafley, and Roger L. Martin and discussed at length in the book Play to Win. It can be useful for thinking through career choices. The idea is that in order to “win,” a company (or, in the case of your career planning, Yourself LLC) must make explicit choices about what the organization is — and (sometimes even more importantly), what is it not. These choices can be expressed as a cascade of five interrelated questions. The answers to these questions determine your strategy. The main five questions are similar to the one in the book, we modified some of the questions below — to better fit a career strategy.

The cascade presents the logic sequence of the questions and choices in a downward cascade. While the choices are presented in sequence, it’s important to understand that choices at the bottom refine and reinforce the choices above in an iterative process.

Theory of change allows you to clarify the change you want to see in the world and unpack the complexity around it. This is a static framework that can serve as a reference point along the journey. Then you can complement this and use the strategic cascade to set, evaluate, and refine your choices and tradeoffs that will support this theory of change.

Avoid Analysis Paralysis

As you begin working with these tools to map out your career approaches, make sure to avoid analysis paralysis by focusing on getting a hypothesis down rather than the perfect answer. A good hypothesis is specific and falsifiable. Stating that your goal is to make the world a better place is a noble goal, but a bad hypothesis — you will never know if you are succeeding because it is too general. If your goal is instead to reduce poverty for children under the age of 5 in a specific region over the course of 5 years, you’ll know 5 years from now if you contributed toward this goal through a measurable statistic. A hypothesis can help guide you in identifying learning gaps both for the validity of the hypothesis (what has to be true for this hypothesis to be valid) and for what needs to happen to get there (identify people, learning resources, etc).

Whichever logic tool you choose — remember, the idea is not to get to the “right answer,” or even to answer each question to start,” but instead to kick off a thought thinking process that will provide you with guidance as to what you need to do, who you need to connect with and what do you need to ask them about.

Now begin your search process with clarity on your goals as your guide

Now (and only now) — with this clarity of where you want to play, what you need to learn whom you need to connect with — you are ready for implementation.

Here all the job advice you’re used to getting kicks in — start subscribing to newsletters in your chosen field, reaching out to relevant mentors and friends, and drinking as many (virtual, for now) coffees as you want. Ask specific questions to learn about your chosen field, and let people know what you are looking for and what help you seek.

As you begin networking and job seeking, set yourself up with an actionable plan that has milestones and accountability mechanisms built-in. Remember that a job search can take 6–12 months, and can be discouraging, so your milestones should include a mix of goals smaller than “find an amazing new job that makes the world a better place.” Daily goals such as “research 5 nonprofits” or “reach out to 3 new contacts” can help keep you on track.

Remember your hypothesis and use it to define your scope. If your hypothesis focuses you on nonprofits in global health, keep that tight focus for a pre-defined period of time to manage your time and energy. At the end of that time dedicated to exploring global health, update your hypothesis. Were you right about global health? Is it energizing for you and full of opportunities that match your skills? Or as you hear people talk about their jobs does your brain turn back to your to-do list?

Most important, find a community that supports you in this goal. A peer on the same journey can be a good accountability partner. We use one another in this role, and schedule a weekly call where we discuss our career progress. After 5 years of friendship and many projects together, we are well-equipped to push one another to send that daunting email, ask for a promotion to take on a bigger project, or update our LinkedIn profiles to accurately reflect our work. Find a peer who can help you in that way.

Your community should also include mentors and sponsors who are interested in promoting your career success. When you do, be generous with the way you describe how influential they are for you. Too often we hear friends and colleagues tell us about a meaningful mentor, without ever telling the mentor themselves that they consider that person a mentor who has truly shaped their career.

There is a lot of work for people who want to make the world a better place. This is great news for those of us who want to pursue a purpose-driven career — but it also means that only wanting to “do good” is not enough… and if you are not careful you mind find yourself on a path that “sounded right” or worked well to this other person, but not your path.

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