What does it mean to have a purposeful career? It’s not living two-sevenths of the week and drudging the rest of it. It’s gaining a clear understanding of the impact one can make and the contribution they bring to the larger whole. But how can we instill this sense of purpose in people? Purposeful leadership plays a crucial role—something that Zach Mercurio has dedicated his career to studying. Zach emphasizes the importance and impact of making people feel valued and matter. Additionally, Zach discusses his book, “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.” Don’t miss out on this enriching conversation covering why mattering is the secret to people making positive contributions throughout their day and so much more!
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Purposeful Leadership: Making People Matter With Zach Mercurio
I’m excited to welcome Zach Mercurio to the show. Zach is an author, researcher, and consultant specializing in purposeful leadership, meaningful work, and positive organizational psychology. He wrote the book, The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose. He works with hundreds of companies, schools, and governments around the world to forge purposeful leaders and cultivate positive cultures that enable more meaning, mattering, motivation and well-being, and performance.
Read to learn more about different ways to initiate and think about personal and organizational purpose. We also learn how a persistent teacher and a cab driver influenced Zach to connect with his authentic purpose and why mattering is essential for all humans. Zach shares some of his research and tips to build these skills and strengths, so you and I can do extraordinary things with other people. Enjoy the show.
Welcome, Zach. I appreciate you joining us on the show. I’m excited to connect with you. I love the fact that you are a researcher, an author, a speaker, and a professor. You are doing so many wonderful things out in the world. I welcome you to the show.
Thanks. I’m excited to be here. I got your book. I’m excited to dig into that. I’m excited to talk.
This is going to be cool. I’d love to frame out how we go about this because there are a few categories I’d love to chat about. One is your book and you have this cool article out about mattering, which I know it’s been some work you have been working on for a few years now. I’d love to talk about that. Also, some personal elements and how they all intertwine and connect with the work you are doing. I read in your book something about authentic purpose and you ran into a cab driver that might have sparked something in you. Could you talk about that to get us going?
As with most people in college, I was educated for success, not fulfillment. I was educated to get a good job with a good starting salary and procure the objective indicators of success in society. I was not educated to understand what my unique functions were, what my strengths were, and what my purpose was.
One of the things in architecture, there’s the saying that form follows function. As I reflect on that cab driver story and how I got to that point, I’m realizing that I was educated the opposite way. Form your life and your career before you understand your function. That tension. The way we develop people and the way I was developed led me to this well-paying advertising job in Washington, DC.
I had no idea why I was there other than it looked good. I was pretty good at it. I was in advertising sales. It was a big agency. What I quickly realized is that when you go into something and you try to form the what of your life without understanding your function, there’s inevitably tension that arises. This is the tension for me. I remember I would walk into the office and people would talk about what they did last weekend or what they are doing the next weekend on Monday.
I remember being astounded that people were living for 2/7 of their lives, the days that began with the letter S. I started obsessing about this. I was like, “How could this be?” I realized I was out with clients and the people in the office and these clients were real human beings trying to start a business that they needed advertising for.
I saw that humanness. I would go to dinner with them, then I’d go back to the sales room and talk about how we can get more money out of them. I saw this massive disconnect from purpose, both within the business but then also for me. I’m going to tell you this, but I think it’s long enough since then, but I would fake being on sales calls. I would go to this park in DC called Gravelly Point State Park and watch the planes coming in and out. There was this moment. I remember that a cab driver pulls up next to me. He gets out and he’s smoking a cigarette.
You don’t make small talk in DC on the weekdays, but he was like, “How are you doing?” I said, “Is it almost the weekend?” It was Tuesday at the time. I fell into the trap. I asked him, “How are you doing?” He threw his cigarette. He put it out and he lit up and he was like, “I’m great.” He started telling me about this couple he picked up and got to talk to. He’s like, “You don’t get it. My job, I’m people’s friends they don’t talk to anymore. I’m their parents they miss. I’m the first experience people have in the US when they fly internationally into Reagan National Airport. I love it.” He smiled big and he got in his cab and he drove away.
I was like, “I want to be a cab driver,” but in my head, I was like, “I don’t want to be a cab driver. I want that perspective.” He focused on his contribution. He didn’t focus on what he was doing and you could see that joy that you talk about. It was from that moment that spurred me into leaving that job, going back and working in education to try to make sure no one ended up like me. Ultimately, working with leaders and researching how we develop a perspective allows us to see our contribution and realize our significance before we think about what we are doing and how we are doing it.
I love the cab driver story. We all have probably had moments where we have been in a cab and we have openly held a conversation. You are right. There’s some profound dialogue and insights that you hear from folks that you have never met before. I’m curious. Have you ever gone back and have you found him? Have you talked to him about the lightning bolt that struck through you because of that conversation?
No. There’s a lot I wish I had known then. I could probably have crafted a lot of purposes and made a lot of change in that business if I knew what I know now about creating mattering for those around me and developing a purposeful perspective. It wasn’t the business that was the problem. It was the understanding of the impact of the business among the people that were there that was missing. People were so obsessed with results that they forgot about the cause and the impact they were making.People are so obsessed with results that they forgot about the impact they’re making. Click To Tweet
You are right. There are people. You will see them today or tomorrow and I hope you will notice there are people who exude joy in everyday jobs. One of the things that I have learned through studying custodians and janitors and working with frontline workers is that some of the most extraordinary people I meet do ordinary things with an extraordinary perspective.
A lot of our lives are filled with ordinary moments that because we are so caught up in striving to acquire and achieve things we miss out on the extraordinariness of the ordinary. I find that leaders are also able to make the ordinary extraordinary through their perspectives and their approaches to people. One of the ways to do that is to realize your significance, realize the contribution that you make or have the capacity to make in each moment.Leaders are able to make the ordinary extraordinary through their perspectives and their approaches for people. Click To Tweet
It’s those connections along the way that make these huge impacts. I’m sure you have seen with a lot of the research that you do in your work, happiness, those outcomes, or those moments where you get a promotion or you have this new book that is out. For me, writing the book or the love for the book is the journey, the experiences, the stories, or the connections with people, different humans. What do people openly share with you, what do you think about all that?
Most of us live in an if-then argument. If I get to the weekend, then I will be rested. If I publish a book, then I will be successful. If I get to retirement, then I will be good. If I get my kids out the door into college, then I will be successful. The big problem with that is you always get to the then and then what? In psychology, we call this the arrival fallacy. The brain does the same thing whether you achieve an outcome or achieve something or you don’t. It’s always asking what’s next or what’s wrong with you.
The feeling of the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, is the same. It’s why there’s the post-Olympic blues or a diagnosable psychiatric condition where amongst Olympians when they win a gold medal, they fall into a pit of depression because they have identified their worth with what they acquire and achieve. When that’s gone, too is their sense of self, and then what?
It’s easy to talk about this. It’s hard to guard against it because we know 50 years of research and hundreds of years of ancient wisdom have told us that no human being has ever been sustainably fulfilled by an extrinsic reward or an external thing. It can’t happen because of this if-then argument, we live on this rollercoaster of well-being. Up and down. I call it trampoline resilience. You get something in your achievement and then what? You have to bounce up.
It feels like that’s the way we are living these days.
That’s it. We go from one thing to the next and our economy depends on it. Our economy depends on you feeling like you don’t matter quite yet. If you get this thing, then you will be happy. This translates into leadership because we start leading in that way too. If we get some good quarterly earnings reports, then we will make it. If we produce more, then we will be. If we make it through the pandemic, then we will do this.
The problem is that it results in burnout. That results in extracting people’s energy instead of regenerating it. That results in a lot of despair. In my opinion, the way I define joy is its happiness that’s been liberated from circumstance. It’s something that is stable and it’s accessible in any situation, whereas happiness is dependent upon what’s happening to you usually.
I take that a little bit to the point of connecting to what is happening, connecting it to something you would talk about, authentic purpose, and higher meaning, which is a form of joy to me. If we are able to do that, then it isn’t this temporary buzz that we have been taught happiness is. It comes and goes. It’s fleeting. I shouldn’t have it. I have guilt. It’s like we are connected to something bigger than this. This is where I love your book and I will jump to this about The Invisible Leader. Why did you write the book? What’s the need? How does this connect back to the sense of purpose and joy in the workplace? What got you here to write this?
The purpose is our unique contribution. The purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. It asks the question of what use are you to the world? How do your strengths make a unique impact? The reason why it’s such a key ingredient for joy, that stable happiness over time and stable fulfillment is because you may not be able to accomplish something on your to-do list today or you may not meet your goals today, but you will be able to contribute to another human being today. The purpose is a stabilizing force because it’s accessible to everyone every day, no matter where you are.
One of the reasons why I wrote the book is I kept seeing people, whether it’s students, employees, or leaders living in that if-then argument. Live as if they are an organism designed to acquire and achieve, but we are not. Every organism that ceases to contribute to its ecosystem dies. Contribution is our purpose. We are built to contribute. If you think about when we are at our best as humans, we are at our best when we are needed.
When it comes to a crisis, when we become a caretaker for someone who’s sick, when we become a parent, or when we become a friend, we are at our best. We are optimized as organisms. When we are needed. We are built for a purpose, that contribution. I wrote the book to help people understand how to uncover purpose wherever they are and then how to build communities, classrooms, and organizations where the common purpose, or the common reason for being, is the ultimate driver of attitudes and behaviors, not any one person.
That’s why it’s called The Invisible Leader. Mary Parker Follett, a management scholar in the 1920s, said, “Leaders and followers are both following the invisible leader, the common purpose.” The purpose is that invisible leader in our lives that constantly pulls us forward. Whereas results push us for the short-term purpose, our contribution is always accessible. It pulls us for the long term.
I love the pulls analogy. I think you have talked in the book about how motivation pushes us, yet the purpose pulls us. I love the fact that it’s called The Invisible Leader because it is present wherever we are. We should look into what is our purpose and how does that connect to something bigger? As you talk about common purpose, are you referring to connecting the dots with individuals, teams, organizations, or communities? How would you define that?
Individual purpose, our authentic purpose is where our unique strengths make a unique impact on the world around us. Our common purpose is, why are we doing this together? How do our unique strengths and resources together make an impact on something bigger? I liken it to this. Your purpose is, why me? The organization’s purpose or community’s purpose is why this. The common purpose is why us together? When you can connect your impact, where your strengths make an impact to wherever you are, you could add so that at the end of whatever your purpose is and connect it to a bigger purpose. That’s where you start seeing the feeling of common purpose.
It’s synergistic. For me, I didn’t recognize my authentic purpose. I love how you referenced that. It lights people up because I believe there’s a light inside of all of us. This authentic purpose that you mentioned in your book is truly something that sparks us to connect to something powerful. I didn’t think about that before, but that’s how you are connecting the dots for me when you think about a common purpose.
I’m bringing something where I want to bring out not only the best in myself and people around me. I want to spark the light that’s inside you and everybody around me. If there’s some greater meaning where we could put people on an equal playing field and give great opportunities and possibilities in doing that together, that’s the spark where we could truly be that you are talking about.
For everybody reading right now, your purpose isn’t out there waiting to be found. It’s right where you are waiting to be acknowledged. The purpose is the intersection of where our unique gifts make a unique impact. You have gifts, you have strengths, and you make an impact now. You have purpose by default. It’s already there. The key is being able to see it.
That’s why I also advocate for people who are new to this work or thinking about purpose. I advocate more to work on being purposeful rather than finding your purpose. You can have a purpose statement and not be purposeful. If your purpose is your contribution as it’s stated, then being purposeful is contribution-centered thinking, being, and doing.
I think that we first have to learn how to see the world, the day, our work, and our organizations from the lens of, “How is what I’m going to do today going to impact other people versus what do I have to do today?” It’s that switch. Once you start seeing how you contribute, you can start understanding what your unique strengths are. You can see the evidence of your impact on the environment around you and then you can craft your purpose over time.
People see the word purpose and they get a little anxious. There’s a thing called purpose anxiety. It’s anxious to be like, “What’s your reason for existence?” To allay that anxiety, I usually tell people, “Start focusing on like, ‘In the next meeting you have, how can you use your unique strengths to make a unique difference in the people’s lives?’” That’s where purpose starts.
How would you suggest folks take that and capture what they are getting back from that? It’s a two-way street. I feel like if we are connecting out and supporting others, giving back, and not that we should expect anything. We should notice, feel, and inquire about what’s going on around us. What’s your take on that? How would you suggest folks connect it to this to understand what they want to repeat? You talk about building our strengths and then building on that success.
It’s such a good point because our strengths are useless until they are used and we use them with other people. That’s why when people do a StrengthsFinder and then they don’t use their strengths to contribute, you might as well not do the StrengthsFinder, and we don’t develop something we don’t use. Think about using your strengths as practice.
If you want to get deep into this, pull out a notebook, open up notes on your phone, or whatever it is. For the next seven days, just try it. Write down what you loved to do that day and don’t judge yourself. If you love going for a run, write it down. Write down what you felt like you were good at that day and then write down how you contributed to other people positively that day.
Write down three things for each of those. At the end of 7 days, you are going to have 21 separate lists of strengths, talents, and impact. What you will see as go through, you will start seeing some commonalities. Bring those together and you will see themes and you will be able to say to yourself, “I love doing this. I’m pretty good at this. I keep making this impact. I make people laugh a lot and lighten people’s lives. I’m good at breaking things into systems.” I encourage you to do that. Try that for seven days and you will be able to start seeing that intersection and then you will start thinking about it regularly and become a habit.
It needs to be purposeful. Being present and taking notice to even write down these components. I love those simple exercises. We are so busy or we are stuck. You said something about it’s good for the economy. I still want to know a little bit more about that. At the same time, you have a quote in the book that says, “Awakening and delivering purpose will be the vital leadership skill of the coming decades.” Tell me more about that too.
It’s going to be difficult to expect anybody to care about anything until they feel cared for. It’s hard for anything to matter to someone who doesn’t believe that they matter. If we don’t instill that sense of significance, that connection between people’s unique gifts to a unique impact, then we are going to see what we are seeing now, which is employee engagement flat-lining.
I don’t even know why Gallup does the surveys anymore. I can tell you the results. It’s going to going to be 13% of the world is engaged in their work. It’s been like that since they did the first one, despite the TED Talks and self-help books. If I were to put a graph up and show you the number of self-help books published and depression rates, you would see them go like this together over the past several years.
Why is that? It’s because our fulfillment doesn’t come from helping ourselves. Our fulfillment comes from helping others from purpose. You look at Maslow. Everybody uses Maslow and they tell me, “People need food and security to get to self-actualization.” It’s not true. Yes, you need food and security at the baseline, but the path upward to self-actualization, look at those two levels above food and security. Love and belonging, where do we get that from? Other people.
Esteem building, confidence in our worth, and evidence of our worth, where do we get that from? Other people. There’s no self-actualization. We actualize one another. The path to self-actualization up Maslow’s pyramid is through each other. The purpose is the energizing force that focuses our energy outward toward others. What’s great is we get better and actualize as a result. What you are seeing in 30% of people feel invisible at work, not even seen, research is indicating that upwards of 65% of people don’t feel meaningfully recognized in their work.There is no self-actualization. We actualize one another. Click To Tweet
We know a new study found that for 75% of people, their manager or leader had more of an impact on their mental health than their doctor or therapist. If we don’t fill this mattering deficit by making sure people can see their purpose and significance, then we will be left with this collective meaning deficit. What’s tragic is that feelings of invisibility, feelings of uselessness, and worthlessness almost always result in acts of desperation or acts of withdrawal.
Quiet quitting, for example, is one symptom of an anti-mattering epidemic. High turnover is one symptom of an anti-mattering epidemic. The fact that there are 500,000 people in the workforce that want to work but are discerning where to work and won’t take the open jobs is an epidemic of anti-mattering. People will always choose their dignity over their job, so here we are.People will always choose their dignity over their job. Click To Tweet
I could see the connection back to the economy. People not working, not buying, and not helping each other out. People isolating and not thriving.
If people aren’t getting their significance in their workplaces where they spend a third of their lives or their communities, they are going to look for a smaller group of people that give them significance, also known as echo chambers and division. A lot of our division right now as an economy and society is the result of people competing with each other for the significance they don’t get in their communities, workplaces, and families anymore. They are trying to find small and isolated microclimates where they can feel significant and it’s isolating us.
Maybe we could rely on ChatGPT or other technologies to fill the void. That’s scary when you think about it.
Very scary to think about it because we develop a sense that we matter, which is important to discovering purpose. If we don’t believe that we are worthy of contributing, it’s very hard to find our contribution or our purpose. The problem is that AI, for example, cannot replicate the interpersonal experience of mattering to another person.If we don't believe that we're worthy of contributing, it's very hard to find our purpose. Click To Tweet
There’s a loss of connectivity, relevance, and understanding.
It’s not possible to feel like you matter to an algorithm.
That’s scary because we rely on it so much. We are sitting on a screen right now, a lot of folks when they are done with a call, hit the end and go to the next meeting. There’s no interaction. I love your article How to Create Mattering at Work. It talks about right in the beginning how the US Surgeon General named mattering at work a top priority for improving mental health. Everything you were saying.
How do we create mattering at work? How do we help leaders? I do talk to leaders quite often and people are struggling. Leaders themselves are struggling. How can they create mattering at work when they are not even sure they matter? They are not even sure what to contribute to themselves. This is an epidemic. I’m curious about where you want to start. There are so many questions I have here.
When I wrote the book on purpose during the pandemic, I had this realization that I can’t ethically tell somebody to discover their purpose if they don’t believe that they are worthy of contributing. I started thinking, “I can’t tell someone to use their strengths if they don’t believe they have strengths.” I started thinking, “I can’t tell someone to share their voice if they don’t believe their voice is important.” I started thinking, “What comes first?” What comes first literally when we are born? The first thing that we do as human beings is there’s an instinct. We tilt our heads upward. We look for someone to value us.
It’s an instinct. The survival instinct to matter to another human being. Fulfilling that is the only reason why people are alive reading this blog right now is that we have procured mattering. I started reading more about that instinct and it never goes away. It evolves into adulthood, into the yearning to matter to other people, to feel cared for by other people. I started looking at the data of people feeling invisible, people feeling insignificant, turnover, and people leaving organizations because of disrespectful cultures. As McKinsey states, uncaring leaders’ indirect quotes.
I realized there is something that we have been missing. We have been missing the prerequisite for everything we say we want in organizations. That is the experience of mattering, which is the belief that we are a significant part of the world around us that comes from feeling valued and knowing how we add value. As you said, how do we do this? There’s no one reading this blog that’s like, “I’d rather not do that.”
No one is reading this blog and being like, “I’d rather not create significance for people.” The problem is, when it comes to leadership especially, is that for so long we have relied on intuition or for people to be a good person. Almost always, when I say, “How were you developed as a leader?” People are like, “I can’t remember.” Yet, leaders are responsible for where millions of people spend over a third of their waking lives.
We would never trust our pilot’s intuition to get us from one place to the next. They have a checklist, training, and certification. What’s happened is the common sense of being a good human has not scaled to common practice. You can be someone that tells someone that they matter all the time, but if you don’t have the interpersonal skillset to show them how they matter, it’s not going to make a difference. There are three major skillsets that I advocate for. It’s making sure people feel noticed, so noticing people, affirming people, and then showing people how they are needed. The result of that is that people see the evidence of their significance so that they can uncover their purpose and contribute.
I love the order of that as well. How would you define mattering? I think about words like belonging and you mentioned self-esteem. How do they compare or contrast as well?
Mattering is the belief that we are a significant part of the world around us. That comes from I know that I’m valued, I feel valued, and I know how to add value to the people that I interact with on a daily basis and the people around me. It’s different from belonging because belonging is you feel like you are included and welcomed into a group. You feel like it’s normal for you to be in that group.
For example, I could feel like in my marriage that I belong in my marriage, but I could not feel like I matter to my partner. I could belong in a classroom because I have the credentials to be there. I have been welcomed in, but I do not feel like I matter to the people that are in that classroom. Mattering is the interpersonal skillset of making sure that the people around us feel noticed, affirmed, and needed.
Feeling a sense of belonging, if you are in that environment, makes it easier to feel like you matter. Feeling like you matter probably makes it easier to experience a sense of belonging, but they are different. It’s the missing link in DEI belonging initiatives. It’s great to theoretically talk about inclusion, but inclusion is an act.
The skillset is to create mattering for every person you interact with and to know how to do that. It’s not self-esteem, either. Self-esteem is confidence in your worth. Mattering is one input to self-esteem. Self-esteem is an outcome of mattering. For example, we gain confidence in our worth when we see evidence of our worth around us. Mattering is not the same as self-esteem. It’s the standalone fundamental psychological concept that is almost entirely dependent on how we treat one another.
There are a lot of gems in that one. The self-esteem too. I feel like when you get to the point where you feel that you can contribute. You feel like people want to hear what you have to say. You are able to build on your strengths or share your strengths in a particular request or work. Having that level of self-esteem allows me to carry that torch forward with other people. It almost connects that. Would you agree with that or do you see that in a different way?
The research backs that up. There’s a concept called social self-esteem. Social self-esteem is the confidence you have in developing relationships with one another. It’s important. Research finds that when we feel like we matter, we have higher social self-esteem, which allows us to create better relationships. It would be like if I invited you to a networking event and I put it on your calendar and I told you to show up, and you didn’t know anybody. Think about the quality of the relationships you developed in the first ten minutes.
Let’s say I had the organizer of the networking event call you and tell you how other people with your strengths and abilities have fit in and how excited they are to see you. If I said, “I’m going to meet you at this table right near the entrance and introduce you to three people,” how much more confidence would you have because you feel like you matter going in?
It’s a big difference.
That’s social self-esteem. That’s one of the key outcomes of feeling like you matter.
As you talk about belonging related to inclusion, I couldn’t agree with you more about inclusion as an act. It’s about bringing people in. It’s about getting perspective and, truthfully, that’s where we get innovation. We find discoveries. When we look at differences and we welcome differences. Welcoming each other for our uniqueness because a lot of the struggle for trying to be like somebody else or we were told to be like somebody else.
Somebody like me in my career, I had to have all the answers or I couldn’t welcome other perspectives. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my early days until I had my awakening. It’s so important that we think through inclusion as an act like you said. I might have asked you this in the past too about belonging. I know a lot of folks talk about belonging at the end of the cycle like, “You need diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.” I feel like belonging needs to be in the beginning like you said welcoming. What’s your take on that?
I think mattering needs to be at the beginning. Why would belonging to a group matter to me if I don’t feel like I matter? Why would diversity matter to me if I don’t feel like I matter? It’s hard because we want all these things. It’s like when you tell someone to take a project and run with it, but they don’t believe they are capable of doing the project. Mattering has to come first and then you can say, “How do we cultivate a place where everybody feels welcome and they feel like they matter here? Everyone feels like they belong and they feel like they matter.”
That is the statement. That’s the question. How do we make sure everybody feels like they matter and that they belong here? Mattering is ongoing. I like what you said is invite people in. There’s a great point because one of the components of mattering, which is affirming people is showing people how their unique gifts, perspectives, and identities make a unique impact or imprint. That’s a skillset as well. To be able to call people in intentionally is a skillset.
Usually, leaders say to me, “I ask for people’s ideas and they don’t give them to me. They are quiet.” I said, “Are you saying, ‘Your perspective on this is valuable because of this. We need that or else this project is not going to be as good as it can be. Will you give me feedback?’” You better bet that small change is going to invite that person in and you will see commitment. When people feel irreplaceable, they act irreplaceable. When people feel replaceable, they will act replaceable. They will withdraw.When people feel irreplaceable, they act irreplaceable. Click To Tweet
I love how you asked that. I felt like you cared about what I had to say in return because if you are just saying it to say the words, people could read that sentence. They are like, “This isn’t safe. You just want me to validate what you already said.” What’s your take on that?
You have to do all of this authentically. Let’s go back to the beginning of the conversation. That’s why coming into this with a purposeful perspective and mindset is important. If someone comes in to do some work with me on skills to create mattering and they still live in this acquire and achieve at all cost mindset, they are going to use mattering as manipulation for their gain. “Let me show Darrin how he’s needed so he can’t go anywhere else and keeps producing and working harder for me.” That’s not what I’m talking about.
Every positive psychological phenomenon has been used negatively by human beings. This is not manipulation. When you adopt a purposeful perspective, you start being authentic, doing it in your way, and using your strengths to bring these things to life. After this show, if you want to do some of this, you have to stop and think, “Why am I doing it?” If you are doing it to get more out of people, that’s probably not going to end well. People will see through that.
If you are doing it because people are worthy, ends in themselves and when you dignify people and create well-being for people, all the things you want to happen, happen like performance and engagement. All of those things are lagging into indicators of how human beings feel. They are byproducts. I think you will have a lot of success and you will feel it more authentically.
I can promise you that is true just from my own experiences. Stepping in differently, being vulnerable with good intentions, and not sharing everything. The areas where we are trying to get better and show people that we do care. The fact that we are willing to share some things that maybe we are uncomfortable with to show that we don’t have the answers or to show that we are trying to expand.
If you look at my logo for the show, it’s this one-eyed smile. Part of the significance of that is that smile is us reaching out to the world. It’s extending ourselves out, inviting people in, and expanding our thinking from our myopic view to welcoming the world in a differently connecting to this higher cause and purpose. It’s very similar to what we are talking about because then it will light us up. I love the connections in your work. When I was reading through your book and your article, I was smiling the whole time. I’m like, “It’s spot on. I love it.” It lights us up. It allows us to seek joy as we are helping out other people.
I want to be clear also that this is not like, “Why aren’t you doing this, reader,” or, “What’s wrong with people?” I have a lot of empathy because I was in it myself. I have to work. I teach what I need to hear most. It’s very easy for me to get lost in the acquiring and achieving mindset because it’s all around us. It takes work. I have a lot of empathy. If you are a leader and your worth has been determined by a quarterly earnings report for several years, if I was in your position, I would probably think that this was fluffy and touchy-feely and I don’t have time for this.
I would and I studied purpose. What’s cool and hopeful is that when we think to ourselves, “I can learn this. This is something that I can learn. I can learn to do it. It’s not mutually exclusive to any result or anything I’m trying to produce. It helps. They help one another.” That becomes liberating. I also think we have to be kind to ourselves as we are learning to have the courage to adopt this new perspective.
Compassion is pretty important there as we empathize not only with other folks but yet connect to where we are. This does create outcomes beyond what we could ever imagine. I appreciate what you are saying. It does sound touchy-feely, yet there are impacts that could be big for an individual, teams, or organizations. Are there use cases or examples that come to mind with companies you have worked with or maybe you are doing some research on?
There are a lot. If you want to look at a good one, you can read Oscar Munoz’s new book, Turnaround Time. He’s the United Airlines CEO. United Airlines was rated as the worst customer service a few years ago. The bottom of the barrel. Now they are at the top. If you see how they have done it, they have completely refocused on making sure that employees feel valued.
These are things like having predictable shifts. If I’m a gate agent and I don’t know when I’m going to be working, I’m already filled with anxiety. I find out that I’m going to be working and I come to that shift and Darrin comes to me yelling at me because then you need me to change your flight because we got canceled. Am I equipped? Do I feel like I matter enough to care about you and deliver good customer service to you? Probably not. That’s what United realized.
These small things like predictable shifts, making sure people have career development pathways, and making sure that leaders and people feel valued and know how they add value. That is not the leading indicator. All these lagging indicators of expected good customer service will not happen. It’s a remarkable turnaround.
I also have another story about a carwash that I work with here in Colorado. They are a tunnel car washing system. Their purpose is to prepare people for the future and provide for the community. Now they are developing affordable housing for their employees. Anytime they delegate a task to the employees, they connect it to their future development plan.
The general manager of the carwash said to me one day, “I realized that my problem that I’m trying to solve in this world is that nobody wants to work at a carwash.” This is their first job. The only job that people can get. If I’m employing them, I have an ethical obligation to prepare them for the future that they want. By doing so, he said, “The only KPI I can care about is 80% retention for a year so I have the time to prepare them for the future that they want.”
That’s their only KPI. They stripped everything off and now they wash three times the amount of cars in comparison to carwashes in some rural places in Colorado. People from Europe come to study how they are doing things. They are creating a nonprofit called Leadership Worth Following that creates tracks for frontline workers up to leadership positions. They get about 60 applications for every one open carwash attendant position. They don’t advertise pay. They advertise to work for a company that cares.
They are growing from it and they matter. How about that?
You can tell when you go in. You can tell from working with the people there. It’s a different experience than any other carwash you go into. People are smiling, they are happy, and they follow up with you.
How did you get here personally? Were there any moments or challenges? I love the cab story. Is there anything that comes to mind that you are comfortable sharing with us that maybe is sitting with you that you have had to overcome or that you have continued to learn from?
I was the youngest of three brothers and high achieving. One is a successful banker and the other one is a successful veterinarian. I was always trying to measure up as a kid. When you try to be so many other people, you are nobody. If you are trying to be everybody else, you are nobody. I felt that I was always trying to find my way and find my place. I was the third kid. You get good at entertaining yourself and comparing yourself when you are the third kid. I think that I’m like what my five-year-old self needed at that time, which was I needed someone to help me realize my unique significance and how I fit in.
I feel like my childhood, which was great, but also being the third kid, comparing and not being able to find my way, and always being interested in everything. Not being able to find my major in the catalog that fit me. All of that stuff has led me to my purpose now which is to help people and leaders realize their significance. A lot of people, when you look back at your childhood and look at how you developed your mindset. It all goes back to that five-year-old self and those experiences. In psychology, we see that all the time.
I will also say that I had a journalism teacher in high school. My brothers went to college and I didn’t want to go to college because my brothers went to college. I was like, “I’m going to join the Air Force or the Coast Guard.” I was so lost. It was senior year and I had a journalism elective teacher and she kept bringing me brochures of colleges that she thought I’d fit with. It was these journalism and writing programs because she thought I had a gift in writing and I would toss them aside. She kept doing it though.
That’s what mattering is. When we notice someone needs you, you think about them when they are not there and you give them an action to show them they are thought about. She was relentless. She gave me a brochure for James Madison University, a university in Virginia and they had a good journalism program. That’s where I ended up going. I was a Journalism and Advertising major, but because I went there, learned how to write, got that advertising job, and met that cab driver, her persistence in showing me that I met her is the only reason why I’m here talking to you right now. I don’t remember her name.
This is what happens. One of the things that I want to leave you with is that there’s a great quote and I can’t remember who said it, but it said, “A river’s source knows nothing of where it goes.” It’s true for all of us. We all have inputs into the system we call life every day. Those outputs are infinite. It sounds cliché but clichés are clichés because they are true. Imagine that impact every day that you are making through your small inputs and you can’t not matter.
Knowing that you can make that impact and let it flow and not look for it in return all the time. Know that you can have that great impact on people’s lives like that teacher and cab drivers had and even you and your brothers to an extent had indirectly.
I would say that purposeful people tend to take responsibility for their inevitable impact because not only can you make an impact, but you are making one. It just depends on whether you take responsibility for it or not.
It seems like you have so much fun at this work and how you are delivering this out in the world. Is there anything that you could share with us that you do for fun on a personal level before we take off?
I have kids and so that’s fun in itself. We have a great time together. We go camping and hiking. We like being outside. That’s a complete joy right now. I also love cycling and being outside. I love doing this. I like being in conversation with people about ideas that matter. That’s fun to me.
I can tell. It’s coming through loud and clear, which is great. I want to say I appreciate all your insights and all the work you are doing. I’m a huge believer and a fan. I look forward to seeing what you have coming up next and learning more about your research and what you put out there on LinkedIn and all your other forums. I want to say thank you. I’m honored to have you on the show and to call you a friend. Thanks again.
Thanks for your work and for creating this platform. It takes a lot of work. You probably don’t know how many people are affected by these conversations, but they are thousands. Thank you.
It’s fun to think about. Take care. Thank you.
You can tell Zach loves this work. We just got started with the conversation. Therefore, I plan to add additional links and ideas to help you on your journey with this work. A few takeaways that I ask you to join me in practicing include the following. First thing, I love Zach’s reference to the if-then yo-yo life we live now, lacking fulfillment and joy as we keep looking for the next best thing down the road rather than connecting with what is right in front of us that matters each day. Take notice of these and keep a list of what lights you up or that you are grateful for.
Zach also has us thinking about learning our purpose by taking intentional steps first to know what purpose means to us so we can define it before acting on it. How about this? Over the next few days, jot down what you are doing that makes you feel good and what you are doing with other people that are creating a positive impact. Zach believes this is where defining our purpose starts. Zach also points out that mattering is with us from birth to feel valued and significant to others. It is essential to believe we matter and help others see they matter too.
Please look at this article of his about creating mattering at work as a starting point to help people contribute and belong in meaningful ways. We can each sync to our authentic purpose. Zach says we light up when we contribute ways to connect to it. I couldn’t agree more because this is the journey we are on together to ignite our happy authentic selves, inviting the world in with differences and uniqueness, enabling us to connect with a common purpose that allows you and others to live your possible.
- Zach Mercurio
- The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose
- How to Create Mattering at Work
- Turnaround Time
About Zach Mercurio
Zach Mercurio, Ph.D. is an author, researcher, speaker, and consultant specializing in purposeful leadership, meaningful work, and positive organizational psychology. He wrote “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose,” praised by Arianna Huffington as “a compelling book filled with powerful stories, cutting-edge research, and practical tools that show us how to lead with purpose.”
Zach works with hundreds of companies, governments, and schools around the world to forge purposeful leaders and cultivate positive cultures that enable more meaning, mattering, motivation, well-being, and performance. Some of his clients and partners include J.P. Morgan Chase, The Government of Canada, Marriott International, American Express Global Business Travel, the Food and Drug Administration, Michelin, the National Park Service, and Hewlett-Packard. He also serves as one of Simon Sinek’s “Optimist Instructors.”
Zach earned his Ph.D. in Organizational Learning, Performance, and Change from Colorado State University where he serves as an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Psychology’s Center for Meaning and Purpose and as an Instructor in the Organizational Learning, Performance, and Change program.
His research on meaningful work has been awarded by The Association for Talent Development, The Academy of Management, and The Academy of Human Resource Development.