Accounting — perhaps not the world’s most exciting profession, but that’s not to say it hasn’t had its moments in history. Accountants, after all, helped manage the Lend-Lease Act during World War II that helped defeat Nazi Germany. They helped resolve financial conflicts that enabled the agreement to free the Iran hostages in 1981, and they certified the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994.
The accountants cited above all happened to work for KPMG. Now, the firm is using these and other stories from its past to ramp up employee engagement by connecting their work to a higher purpose, writes Bruce N. Pfau, KPMG’s vice chair of HR and communications, in a new post on the Harvard Business Review’s website.
In connecting to a “higher purpose,” Pfau cites the (possibly apocryphal) story of President Kennedy and the janitor at Cape Canaveral: When JFK asked the janitor “What do you do?” the janitor replied, “Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
Citing research showing that connecting their work to a higher purpose motivates employees to go the extra mile, KPMG began an initiative last year “aimed at inspiring our already high-morale workforce to reach new levels of engagement by reframing and elevating the meaning and purpose of their work,” writes Pfau.
Pfau’s team created a video that highlighted great moments from KPMG’s past, such as the aforementioned accomplishments, with the theme “We Shape History!” Next, they created posters with the slogan “We Champion Democracy,” with the goal of helping employees see themselves as part of a profession that helps societies by enabling families to make better financial decisions.
Finally, the team presented KPMG’s employees with a challenge: Create 10,000 digital posters that celebrate the work you or your team does. Employees would receive two extra paid days off if the goal was met by Thanksgiving; that goal was met before July 4 and, by Thanksgiving, 42,000 stories had been submitted.
One year after the initiative began, Pfau writes, the percentage of employees who agreed that KPMG is a great place to work went from 85 percent to 89 percent on its engagement surveys, 60 percent said the initiative had strengthened their pride in KPMG, and the firm jumped 17 spots on Fortune‘s 100 Best Companies to Work list to become the highest-ranked Big Four firm for the first time in its history.
One problem Pfau encountered was that, although a key ingredient to success appeared to be managers’ willingness to talk to their teams about the positive impact of the work they did, some managers did not do this. The difference was noticeable: The turnover rate within the group whose managers talked to them about purpose was 5.6 percent, versus 9.1 percent within the group whose managers did not do this.
In response, Pfau incorporated “purpose storytelling training” into KPMG’s leadership development programs. The training certainly appears to have been effective in one example he writes about: In speaking to a group of 1,500 interns about her higher purpose, a partner who’d gone through the training concluded with a parable about three bricklayers restoring a church — when asked what they were doing, one bricklayer replied “I’m laying bricks,” another replied “I’m repairing a wall” and the third replied “I’m building a cathedral to The Almighty.”
“So,” the partner concluded, “do you want to be bricklayers or cathedral builders?” The crowd leaped to their feet, writes Pfau.Twitter It!