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The Power of Purpose: How a Mandatory Staff Meeting Brought My Team Closer Than Ever Before

How a meeting devoted to team building turned into one of the most impactful business gatherings of my life.

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After I announced a mandatory staff meeting for December 17 one year, some members were upset. Getting together on the cusp of the holidays would conflict with some holiday travel plans, I recognized, and many began to speculate that I might be announcing my retirement, but I simply told them to expect a team-building exercise.

I never imagined it would become the most impactful meeting of my life.

A friendly competition

We met at a hotel. At the door, each person collected a name badge, which included a number that divided us into groups, four people in each. After a typical round of corporate speeches, we broke into those groups for an activity. Each got a box with their number on it, and inside was a bicycle for them to assemble. The catch was that each group’s toolkit was missing one tool vital to the assembly; to complete the task, they had to ask other teams for help in order to access all the necessary ones. 

At the beginning of the two-hour session, things were pretty competitive, but as time wore on, they started working better together — people were getting to know each other in new ways. As they were assembling, I could hear suggestions shouted across the room, including “This guy’s a good mechanic” and “Ask George…he’s good at fixing brakes.”

Related: How to Build More Purpose Into Your Work

The plot twist

After about two hours, I told everyone to stop, and we discussed the experience. I asked why they thought we did the activity, and everyone guessed the obvious: that it was a way of learning to work together. But they also described a perceptual shift — the moment when they grasped that working cooperatively would get the job done faster than engaging in simple competitiveness.

Then, I asked them, “What if I told you that the purpose of this activity was actually something completely different from what you think?” Everyone looked around in confusion, wondering about the possible alternatives. Not until the doors opened around the room and children came flooding in from all sides did they finally understand: The bicycles they’d just spent two hours assembling were gifts for kids from an underserved community. 

Related: Does Your Company Have a Soul?

Purpose changes people

Once they knew the true purpose of the task, it transformed the way they viewed their work, as well as the effort they put into it. People reacted emotionally: Some of them cried, but all of them immediately felt that their bicycles needed more work, whether it was better assembly or some aspect to make them safer, etc. Two bike mechanics had come along to the event to ensure the safety of their work, and I assured everyone that the bikes would get a full inspection before they were distributed, along with helmets and knee pads, the following day.

The children each had a number that corresponded to a group and got to meet the team that assembled their bicycle. Three Black employees later described an interaction with one of the kids, a child of color himself who approached them and asked what they did for the company. They described their jobs and how much they love their work, and the kid responded, “But you look like me.” This marked yet another level in this experience — the recognition of themselves as role models who could show children that there are opportunities out there for them. When the kids left, I had to give everyone a minute to get back to their seats, as many were still crying. 

Related: The Power of Purpose: Fostering Authentic Consumer Relationships in an Era of Woke Capitalism

“So,” I said before we reassessed, “purpose matters.” Within moments, a simple team-building activity (one that was maybe even a bit of a bore) had transformed into a meaningful act of kindness. Being thrown into that purpose together became a gift, not only for these kids, but also for our hearts. I don’t think any of us will ever be the same, and we all have this gift to thank for it, uniting us in a way we had never experienced. 

I’ve thrown traditional holiday parties, given up a Sunday, gotten gifts for employees and their kids and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, and many wound up not even having a good time, while others would rather have not shown up. But this — a simple exercise in finding purpose — was the greatest holiday party any of us had ever had, because when employees share purpose-driven experiences, it pushes them to do great things. 

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