Tapping Into the Power of Purpose to Drive Performance

By Marty Parker

When we talk about purpose, what we’re really talking about is emotion – what you’re passionate about, what inspires you to go the extra mile, and how you connect to the work you do every day. As an organization, a connection to purpose can drive people toward your mission and vision, and make them want to achieve on your behalf.

I recently sat down with Shirlee Sharkey, president and CEO of SE Health, to talk about their unique mission and how they’re raising the bar on performance by tapping into the power of purpose.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
SE Health has been a real high performance and innovative organization, but as a social enterprise, as a not-for-profit social enterprise, how do you define high performance?

Shirlee Sharkey:
Well, there are certainly the targets and the data and the statistics that I think any business needs to focus on, but I look at those as sort of table stakes. You have to perform to actually be well in any industry and be successful.

What we’ve looked at with performance is, how do we actually raise the bar? And how do we actually solve what are some real social issues above and beyond the business of home care and health professionals, et cetera? But some of the real difficult social problems that exist, what impact are we having, small or large, or even identifying that there are issues?

Probably one of the key things I’ve been very proud of with SE Health is our end of life care. We provide a lot of palliative care in the communities with, let’s call it our business. But what we felt was critical is to invest in support, so many other organizations and other services, and rise up, really, the choice that people have to be at home by creating that capacity, not only within our organization, but within society at large. In particular in Toronto, we created our Journey Home Hospice, which is end of life care for the homeless population.

Certainly, the financial targets and growth and productivity, those are interesting. But for me, what gets you over the finish line with performance are these kinds of social impact changes that we’re trying to make.

Marty Parker:
Well, it’s really interesting because the SE Health mission is to spread hope and happiness…Talk about how you can do that and how that helps you drive outcomes in what can be a very serious business with a lot of things pulling on you.

Shirlee Sharkey:
Yes. It’s not a very traditional healthcare mission. Actually, when I get up sometimes and say, “SE Health, people, talent, numbers, and what we do, we spread hope and happiness,” everybody sort of goes, “Does she realize where she’s talking, that this is a health conference?” And I will go, “Yes, I do.”  We do want to change the language because we want to move beyond describing what we do and who we are. In healthcare, we typically move right into that, “We’re health professionals. These are the services we provide.” And what we’re trying to actually achieve for people, I mean, it’s certainly quality, excellence, innovation, safety. Again, I look at those as the table stakes of what any organization needs to have. I don’t suggest that it’s a simple process, but I think to really strive for something different and really reach a different level of performance as an organization, this is where you have to, I think, come up with new language that explains what it’s all about.

We had a virtual town hall meeting and we interviewed some of our staff and asked them questions of how they’re living this hope and happiness. Actually, for years, we actually gave people $25 and said, “Now spread hope and happiness in whatever way you think is relevant.” But actually, during COVID I was talking to one of our healthcare aids in Alberta and she was saying, “It was a very simple action that I took.” She had a client that was not able to get his hair cut. It was bugging him. He was going crazy with it. And she said, “I just said, ‘Well, you know what? I’ll cut your hair.'” The happiness and joy that he got with that intervention, we can look at that as a small thing, but it has a huge impact on people’s lives. That’s where it brings us full circle to, yes, maybe the care that’s being provided, but also the happiness that we want to get through that experience with people.

That’s what’s compelling when we recruit people, that they go like, “Really?” And we go, “Yeah, really, because this is what health is all about for people.”

Marty Parker:
So talk a little bit more about that recruiting because you truly understand that team members, future employees today, want to connect to the purpose of an organization and feel like they have a real impact, or it’s a shared purpose – that they’re aligned. So how have you been able to leverage that to kind of retain your top talent but also find top talent?

Shirlee Sharkey:
I spend a lot of time scouting, not so much just the competencies, but the right match with the organization. I mean, our starting point, and I’m always very clear with people that we are an incredibly competitive, passionate, non-profit, social enterprise. And so people right away go, “What the heck is that?” But it actually is one heck of a strong anchor when you’re truly saying to people, “We have purpose, and this is what we’re trying to do.” We’re not just saying it, we’re living it”, and we’re actually designed that way to position ourselves.

So I really leverage who we are. Why not? I don’t apologize for it. In fact, I’m very bold with it. So that I’ll say to people, “If you’re looking for something that is going to be more meaningful work, it doesn’t get any better than here because we really are true with that and want to achieve that.” I also feel we use different words because, I mean, typically, and I’m even uncomfortable sometimes when people say, “What are you looking for?” I go, “I’m looking for people who actually love people.” That’s an unusual word to use where it’s usually, “We care about people.” But I go, “I want somebody who really loves people and really leads from the heart and wants to be part of something bigger.”

I do think it’s changed because I know 30 years ago when people asked me what I was looking for, I was not saying, “Something bigger.” I was probably saying, “More money,” … But now, so many people say to me, “I don’t know what it is. I don’t care what the job is. I don’t care what the title is, but I want to do something that I believe is making a difference.” Those are the people that we’re trying to attract.

But then there’s a real responsibility on our part to actually deliver on that. It goes back to the authentic culture. Because if you’re just talking that talk and then they move into the role, then they’re very dissatisfied. That is as problematic as not having the right talent as much as bringing in the right talent and then they’re no longer inspired. So I really work at every level in the organization to say, “We have a commitment now to make sure we’re living this,” because we have really had people put a trust in us that they can achieve their goals in this organization.