As a distribution leader, have you ever wondered about the following questions?

  • How do I prevent people from just “going through the motions” at work?
  • How do I get people to devote more of themselves to work?
  • How do I motivate people to take initiative in their jobs?
  • How do I get people to perform to their full potential?

Every CEO wants to have a more committed workforce, but many of them don’t know how to accomplish this. If you are struggling in a similar way, then you may find some inspiration from the experience of DTE Energy’s CEO, Gerry Anderson; this was chronicled by professors Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor, in the July-August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review. This article discussed how an aspirational mission can motivate employees and improve performance, and specifically, how Gerry Anderson successfully led the company through the 2008 economic crisis and achieved excellence by adopting one simple strategy: developing an authentic higher purpose.

When Anderson started his tenure as DTE’s CEO, he did not believe in the concept of higher purpose, because it didn’t fit into his understanding of the economic goals for a firm. But by way of his visits with some USAA call centers, he learned a very important lesson — connect people to their purpose, a concept largely overlooked at DTE at the time. As a result of these USAA visits, a new statement of purpose for DTE was developed: “We serve with our energy, the lifeblood of communities and the engine of progress.” This higher purpose was shared with all the employees, at all levels, and through multiple channels, and it drove a company-wide transformation. Today, DTE is a recipient of a Gallup Great Workplace Award for five consecutive years, and its stock price more than tripled from the end of 2008 to the end of 2017.

So, what lessons can distribution leaders learn from DTE’s success? Here are four:

  1. Clarify your personal purpose. To be able to lead others, a leader must first know the purpose himself. As a distribution leader, what is your core mission? What is your highest purpose? What is your gift? To whom do you want to give that gift? When your purpose is oriented toward contributing to the welfare of the whole rather than fulfilling your ego, you will function differently as a leader.
  2. Connect with your people. No matter how clear your vision and how important your mission, without people for execution, they will remain statements on the wall. Remember: People desire to make contributions and to have a meaningful impact; and in times of crisis, they will rise to a higher effort. There is an enormous amount of untapped discretionary energy within your employees; as a leader, your job is to discover it and draw it out by paying genuine respect for your people and connecting with them. If you want to achieve continuous improvement, you have to go for your employees’ energy.
  3. Make your purpose authentic. Many organizations have well-written Vision, Values and Mission statements; however, they are not used to drive day-to-day business decisions. As a result, they are often given lip service and perceived as irrelevant by employees. If your employees feel you are pursuing a purpose with solely economic outcomes in mind, the purpose will likely lose its authenticity. Believe it or not, people hunger for meaning; so when you give them purposeful work, they will give you extra energy.
  4. Lead with influence. Your leadership position doesn’t make you a leader, your influence does. Being influential means developing an authentic higher purpose for your company, making personal connections with your employees, and designing meaningful jobs to maximize their potential.

What Gerry Anderson has done at DTE seems to be ordinary, but the results are extraordinary. This is because Anderson has found the most fundamental principle of organization success: effectively connecting with people. By gaining a deeper understanding of what people want — to make meaningful contributions — Anderson has discovered the key to continuous improvement. What he has learned is particularly relevant to today’s workplace that will soon be dominated by millennial employees who long to contribute to meaningful causes not just to economic success. Take heed!