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Passion - Finding It In Your Life;
Building It In Your Business

by Jackie & Kevin Freiberg

We ask audiences all over the world, “How many of you would like to turn up the volume on passion in your organization?” The response is overwhelming. Every hand in the room goes up. There’s almost a universal sense that, regardless of the personal or professional objective, there is no substitute for passion and enthusiasm. Whether the issue is finding new ways to add value to customers, managing costs out of the business, embracing changes brought on by technology and the Internet, attracting world-class talent, or raising the level of employee satisfaction and retention, passion is one of the great differentiators.

Passion is one of those things that are hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Whether it is the force of a 15-foot wave, the roar of a waterfall, a majestic mountain range, or a giant oak that has weathered the elements and withstood the test of time, it is hard to overlook the passion evident in nature. Any one who has ever watched Tiger Woods play golf, Garth Brooks perform in concert, Picabo Street storm down a mountain, Robin Williams act, Oprah Winfrey conduct an interview or Jimmy Connors compete on the tennis court, has seen the fires of passion burn in an almost uncontrollable way.

We saw passion in the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team and we saw it again in 1999 when the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team captured the hearts of a nation. Read Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Inaugural speech; view the pictures of Mother Teresa coddling a baby with AIDS; or replay your memories of a 28-mile-long symbol of Communist suppression called the Berlin Wall as it disappeared into a sea of humanity. In each case, you will be moved by the passion that enabled ordinary people to stand up against extraordinary odds.

What is Passion? Passion is a force—sometimes an uncontrollable force—that infuses life with meaning, joy, and even outrage. In any event, passion fosters commitment and determination. Passion is an urge or desire that consistently calls us to action, often radical action. Passion can be used or misused. When guided by the wrong motives, passion can be very dangerous. When guided by the desire to help people lead bigger, richer, fuller lives, passion has the potential to help create a better world. Passion is the fire that burns within. It often starts as a spark or a flame and eventually turns into a blazing fire that stirs the soul. Passion is that incredibly compelling emotion that enables us to go places others are afraid to go, to try things others are afraid to do and to be the kind of people others are afraid to be! Passion creates the energy and drive required to do what others think is impossible.

Made in the Image of a Passionate God
We were made in the image of a passionate God who honors us with His extravagant love and takes great joy and satisfaction in watching us use our gifts and talents for worthy purposes. We were made in the image of a passionate God who is outraged by the oppression and dehumanization of the people He loves. If the God of the universe is absolutely passionate about His creation and we’re made in His image, then passion is a part of our very nature. The potential to become a passionate people has been built into us from the very beginning. It is inherent in who we are and how we’re made.

If you doubt this, study the attitudes and behaviors of little children. Next time you’re with children, watch closely, and you’ll see that these little people are passionate. They’re easily excited and they have relatively few fears about expressing their enthusiasm. They are turned-on by an innate curiosity that stimulates learning. And, when they learn, they can hardly contain themselves long enough to tell you about their new discoveries. Children are also not afraid to express their outrage. Whether it’s a friend who is not sharing, an empty stomach, or the realization that bedtime is near, we see with laser clarity their passion and conviction as they communicate their discontent.

As an adult, to work in an organization that does not cultivate your passion is to work in an environment that does not recognize who you are and how you are made. It’s as unnatural as taking a highly trained Thoroughbred that was made to run and putting it in a stable of trail horses. You kill the spirit of the horse! In organizations, what has happened to those people who demonstrate no passion and have no sense of aliveness? How do we cultivate or rekindle the passion some people seem to lose between childhood and adulthood? Good questions for which there are no easy answers and certainly no quick fixes.

Learning what makes people passionate comes from being in relationship with them. That’s why leaders who spend time with their people and are in touch with their needs have an competitive advantage over those who don’t. They develop the ability to better understand what their people were made to do and what turns them on. The demands placed on every business in the 21st Century will require that people bring all of who they are to the game. Actively engaged hearts and minds, unwavering commitment, laser focus, and relentless determination are all motivated by passion. There’s a tremendous opportunity for the leaders who are willing to understand and cultivate passion in their organizations and embrace it as a strategic weapon!

Cultivating Passion in Your Business
Many factors contribute to creating passion in an organization. Reducing passion to a formula would be both naive and uninformed. That said, in our research with “really cool companies” we have discovered three major approaches to cultivating a work environment where people are passionate about what they do. These include helping people:
  • Define what it means to be successful,
  • Transform projects into really cool projects,
  • Define the work in terms of a heroic cause.
Helping People Define What it Means to be Successful
Passion, in part, is the result of reflecting on what it means to be successful. Through their own career development programs, really cool companies encourage their employees to ask three very important questions:
  1. What are my gifts and talents?
  2. What am I passionate about?
  3. What needs to be done?
When people can answer these three questions clearly and the answers intersect, they become passionate about what they do. Few things are professionally more fulfilling than doing work that you are extremely good at and turned-on about. It’s an incredible feeling when what you’re good at and excited about enables you to make a contribution that truly adds value to the business and its customers! Work ceases to be a vocation and becomes an avocation or a passion.

Many of us have experienced the frustration of being engaged in work that we’re good at but not passionate about. Others have felt the despair of being excited about something for which they lack the requisite skills. Still others know the difficulty of building a career on talents and passions for which the organization has no use. The result is a deadness that pervades the organization.

What makes the really cool companies REALLY COOL is that they understand the importance of “fit.” They work hard to help people carve out places in the business where the answers to these three questions align to create one big “YES.” The result is meaningful success.

Are your employees engaged in work that truly utilizes their gifts and talents? Are they doing what they’re good at? Even if they are extremely good at their jobs are your people enthusiastic? Do they like what they do? Does their work add value to the organization in a significant way? What adjustments do you need to make in your business to create a better fit?

Transform Projects into Really Cool Projects
World-class people want to be involved in work that matters—projects that have meaning, projects that are memorable, projects that will change the world! Cool projects stimulate the passion in everyone. They’re the things from which legends and legacies are made. People love to tell stories about being on a cool project team. These stories give rise to the warrior spirit and reinforce the values driving the business.

Read Tom Peters’ book, The Project 50: Fifty Ways to Transform Every “Task” Into a Project That Matters! Peters says that if the project you’re working on now is not a WOW, you should transform it, reframe it, and redefine it until you fall in love with it. Why is this so important? Primarily because the projects your employees are working on today are statements about who they are, what they think, and how they feel. What do the projects in your organization say about your people, your company, and your leadership? How many of your people are working on projects right now that five years from today no one will remember? What does your answer say about the level of passion and enthusiasm in your business? What does it say about your competitive position in the marketplace?

Really cool projects have several things in common:
  • They attract the attention of bright, intelligent, idiosyncratic, creative, strong-willed, hard-working people with a revolutionary spirit who want to make a difference.
  • They often venture into uncharted waters. They involve doing something new and different—something unconventional that has not been done before. They have often been transformed from the mundane into the exciting. The people working on them have the wisdom, creativity, and guts to take a routine task and turn it into something heroic and exciting. Really cool project teams know that they are engaged in work that has high impact.
  • They move with speed, they are charged with momentum—even if it means breaking some rules to get things done. Part of the excitement and passion behind a really cool project is how fast it moves. When things get weighed down (for whatever reason) people lose interest and enthusiasm.
  • They leave a legacy that lives on in the organization long after the project team is on to something new. A cool project is memorable.
Define every project in terms of these five criteria and watch the passion in your organization grow. Be relentless; don’t settle for good when it can be great. If the project is not COOL keep redefining it until it is!

Define the Work in Terms of a Heroic Cause
One of the deepest needs of human existance is to know that our lives count for something. Our significance ultimately depends on the fact that we are created by God. Period. End of story. However, most people want to know that the gifts and talents God gave them are being used to make a difference as we live out our lives in the work-a-day world.

Since work is so much a part of our lives, we want it to be meaningful. To know that our work counts for something important is to know that we count. That’s why mundane work sucks the life out of people and leaves them feeling anonymous and alienated. They go home at the end of the day emotionally drained with little or nothing left to give their loved ones.

Really cool companies make it a priority to help employees see the ultimate value they bring to the world. They do this by helping people see how their individual contributions at work and in the community link to a larger, nobler cause. It’s the janitor in a large health care system who believes he’s a part of saving lives; it’s the photo developer who knows that she preserves people’s memories; it’s the tax compliance specialist who gives people peace of mind; and it’s the sailor who understands that the combat readiness of his ship strengthens peace negotiations in the Middle East. When people establish a connection between what they do and changing the world for the better, heroism is the result.

Everyone wants to feel heroic about something because at the heart of heroism is meaning and significance. Heroism fuels the fires of passion and passion is the key to perseverance in the midst of demands for better service, higher quality, lower prices, and faster innovation.

The really cool companies are more than just places people go to earn a paycheck and a set of benefits. They’re places where people with shared values and a common vision define their work in terms of a heroic cause. The cause is heroic because it has to do with changing the world and making it better. When work becomes a cause what follows is a movement.

Movements are adventures that tap into our highest ideals. They help us express what we’re truly passionate about. Really cool companies are extremely attractive places to work because they give people the opportunity to be a part of something meaningful, exciting, and adventurous—something larger than them. At the end of the day people are physically tired, but emotionally charged because their work allows them to pursue something they deeply believe in. The result is passion!

When you get beyond profitability and shareholder return (without which nothing significant can happen), what is the ultimate value your people bring to the world? What is the heroic cause for which you fight? When your people define the business as a cause, a movement worth fighting for, you will find that there is no height to which their spirits cannot rise. You will also find that you have cultivated something that is extremely difficult to replicate.

The Business Case for Passion
Is there a business case for cultivating passion in your organization? Is it really a competitive advantage? Can passion make a difference in terms of accomplishing your organization’s objectives? Consider the benefits:
  1. Passion intensifies our focus. In a complex world where we’re moving at .com speed and we’re bombarded with information, it’s easy to get distracted. Passion gives people the courage to say “No” to distractions by staying focused on the bigger “Yes.” It’s the magnetic force that keeps people working on things that make the business more competitive.
  2. Innovation and creativity become key factors in adding value to the customers we serve. Approaching the business with a fresh, new perspective requires people who are fully awake, fully alive, and who have an active, intense, engaged focus on making things better. Innovation requires that our minds work furiously when we come to work. Passion activates our minds, expands our awareness (we observe more intensely), and challenges us to think outside the conventional box.
  3. With intense pressures to perform it’s easy to cut ethical corners and compromise doing what’s right. It requires passion to protect and promote the values driving the business. To say, “No“ to a questionable business deal that will generate a lot of revenue takes guts. It takes the courage and passion to stand upon your convictions.
  4. People with passion raise the standards of performance in an organization. They have a tendency to hold others accountable and tolerate nothing less than the full-blown commitment of everyone around them. Their commitment to a higher standard becomes contagious, spreads throughout the entire system, and eventually becomes a part of the fabric of the culture.
  5. People with passion create an electric, exciting work environment that energizes others. They contribute to building the kind of culture that attracts world-class people.
  6. Passion creates a sense of urgency that is required of every organization going through change in today’s highly competitive world. Passion is the enemy of apathy, complacency, and procrastination. Passion is usually dissatisfied with the status quo.
  7. Passion helps people deal with fear. Change is scary—for anybody! But when our passions are bigger than our fears we develop the courage to step outside our comfort zones, risk more, fail faster, and learn like crazy.
  8. There is less attrition and absenteeism in a passionate work environment, where meaningful work and a heroic cause energize people. People don’t want to miss the thrill of the journey and the significant things going on at work.
  9. It seems that the cultures of many firms in corporate America and around the world breed a political correctness that is socially acceptable. Unfortunately, it’s not conducive to the burning fire or radical passion that is required to bring about revolutionary change. Dramatic change and complexity are requiring an unprecedented effort from the contemporary work force. Passion will be the key to PERSEVERANCE in the midst of this change.
  10. Perhaps the most exciting benefit that comes from cultivating passion in an organization is the contagious enthusiasm it generates. Passionate people ignite enthusiasm in the rest of us. Something so alive in them awakens something that needs to be alive in us. Passionate people inspire hope and enthusiasm. That’s why they’re so attractive to be around. There’s an intensity, a commitment, a PASSION with which they approach their work—it’s inviting and tantalizing, it’s heroic and alluring, it’s inspiring and provocative all wrapped up in the same package.
The incredible challenges and opportunities of doing business in the 21st Century will require many things of us. One of them is that we become a passionate people who are not afraid to ask the tough questions in our search for the best answers.
  • Are we working on things we are truly good at?
  • Do our people go home at the end of the day emotionally charged or emotionally drained?
  • Will the projects we’re working on today be remembered five years from now?
  • Are we proud of the work we do?
  • Does the cause for which we fight go beyond making money and increasing market share?
  • Does it create meaning in our lives?
If we can answer “yes” to these questions, we can cultivate the kind of passion that enables us to live more fulfilling lives, lead courageously, engage in work worth bragging about, and stride boldly into a future of our own choosing!

Copyright Jackie & Kevin Freiberg. All Rights Reserved.

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