October 11, 2020

Using Fear to Hone Purpose

Guryan Tighe
In this four-part series, we explore how and why companies can leverage purpose—determining it, making it central to operations, and keeping accountable to it. The first article, The Power of Purpose, outlined the importance of aligning to purpose as the ultimate differentiation for companies of any size.

Purpose is a big concept. Sometimes conversations around purpose can feel a little ethereal, vague or academic. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Purpose shows up in a million real-world decisions that impact our lives and the lives around us. As individuals, when we’re in touch with our authentic purpose, our choices become more intentional and lead to more contentment and success.

And the same holds true for organizations of all sizes. Even small ones like ours. 

Josh Reynolds, CEO and Founder of Rob Roy Consulting, and I have known each other and worked together off and on for more than two decades. I joined the Rob Roy team on March 23rd of this year—just one week into the Shelter-in-Place in California. Just a few months prior to me joining, Josh had brought on our new creative director, Chris Lane, whom he’d also known for more than 20 years. All together, we were a team of five people, plus our global network of partners and freelancers.

It was time to upgrade our marketing. Prior to our arrival, it was all about “the Josh Reynolds show”. Don’t get me wrong—it’s an amazing show. But in the Spring of 2020, with a growing team, it was time to reorient our company to our deeper purpose – to what we make possible as a team. So, we began to look at our messaging.

As the weeks and months wore on, we began to realize the pandemic wasn’t going to pass quickly. And like millions of other people, we had some scary new realities to face. So much fear and uncertainty for our lives and livelihoods, brought on by COVID, racial injustice, economic turmoil and climate change. We watched real and perceived fears impact many of our clients. Events got canceled. Campaigns and projects got put on hold. New work was slower to emerge as budget holders were gripped with fear. Fora few months, our revenues were half of what they were last year.

It was terrifying. And we talked about it openly. How would we respond? Cut salaries? Become something less than what we were? Abandon our mission?

No. We decided it was time to do what we believe is most important for all our clients to do in a time of crisis. To be in service of our purpose. Our mission is to make businesses and business leaders more persuasive, through the power of curiosity, compassion, courage and conviction.

It was time to take our own advice and put our faith to the test.

We decided to re-examine our mission, brand promise, messaging, solutions offerings, marketing and sales strategy—all of it. The timing was inconvenient, to say the least, considering everything else we were dealing with. But with the future of our small business feeling so uncertain—like it has for so many others for the past several months—we drew confidence and clarity from orienting our business around the one certainty we had—who we are, what we stand for, and what we’re here to do.

We didn’t do this naively. To put it bluntly, sh*t got real. Josh shared the financial performance of the company with us, fully transparently. The forecast and pipeline, money coming in, money going out. The thresholds we had to meet to stay afloat. The risks we were all taking and how to manage them. And we talked about why this risk was worth taking.

In the end, our shared belief in our mission led us to stick together. We invested our time in upgrading our marketing, operations, and service offerings, with confidence that our purpose would see us through.

Ultimately, after a few months of frighteningly slow business, our revenues and new business pipeline returned to pre-pandemic levels. And it didn’t happen because we focused on the numbers. It happened because of our shared commitment to our purpose, and our trust in each other.

So, how do you know if now is the right time to revisit your purpose and make sure your operations, marketing and executive team are all purpose-driven? Here’s a quick check-list of signs that now might be a good time:

Identifying your North Star may feel like an audacious, time-consuming or even daunting undertaking, and the payoff may not be immediately obvious. But when we look deeper at the fears that hold us back from examining our purpose, they shed light on why it’s such an important exercise.

How Fear Can Lead to Purpose

Fear gets a bad rap these days. In truth, it’s a wonderful evolutionary gift that’s greatly misunderstood. Fear, at its essence, is meant to protect us. Which is the perfect response if we find ourselves in a situation where a rational fear is present. If a shark is chasing you, the fear that motivates you to swim faster or fight back and punch it hard on the nose. This is fear at its most useful, its most rational. But there’s another type of fear—irrational fear. For example, you’re worried where your company is heading, and that you and your department are going to be left behind. You start sharing less information and operating in a silo. In this context, fear can drive you to make things worse for yourself. The trick is to know the difference between rational and irrational fear, and that takes a little work.

On a neurological level, our brains won’t respond to irrational fears differently until we teach them otherwise. Rational fear lives in the present moment and poses an actual threat to your survival. Irrational fear lives in the future. It’s the “what if” scenarios that can keep business leaders up at night, or keep organizations from looking at incredibly important information. Rational fear drives you to connect. If your life were in danger, you would ask a stranger — even an adversary — for help. Irrational fear causes us to isolate, withdraw and disconnect from other. In a dynamic business environment that’s evolving as rapidly as our is, there’s no time for disconnection.

Our fear launches into protective mode when it senses danger. For irrational fears, danger can be the unknown. What’s incredible, however, is that that very fear is actually telling us where to go and what to look at.

In short, fear is not the enemy. Fear is data! We can either react to it unconsciously or respond to it consciously. And we often become our own worst enemies when we don’t take the time to listen to what fear has to teach us, and choose our response rather than having our knee-jerk reactions dictate what happens next.

Make Fear Your Ally

This is a topic that’s long been the subject of psychoanalysis. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, each in their own way, referred to it as “owning your own shadow.” And the same holds true for organizations and business leaders. Fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. Rather than fear and courage being two separate concepts, consider them part of the same spectrum — just at opposite ends.

Fear reveals our deepest values—family, loyalty, personal success, or our participation in some purpose that’s bigger than ourselves. Whatever it is, fear points us towards what matters most, what we’re in service of—our purpose. Fear can be our flashlight, illuminating the path to purpose for our courage to walk through.

That’s what the Rob Roy team was dealing with this summer—a big, heaping pile of Fear. Could we generate enough business to keep everybody on? And before we took the time to examine that fear, we fell prey to a few bad habits. We got a little pushy trying to sell clients on more services. We became overly apologetic for things that were out of our control. And we worked ourselves around the clock to try to hold the business together. It wasn’t sustainable.

And it wasn’t who we were. So, we stopped.

We talked about it. We invoked our values and our shared purpose. We held ourselves and each other accountable to what we believe in: the power of curiosity, compassion, courage and conviction.

We embraced compassion by naming the fears we had and determining what was true, how we were behaving, what was most important to us and what we could do different. We applied curiosity and went through the exercise of what we do for so many of our clients. We conducted a rebranding to determine who we are today, what we stand for and how our offerings support that. We are grounded in the truest thing we know. Our vision is to make honesty the new norm in business. So first we had to be honest with ourselves. And yes, it took courage every step of the way.

Thank goodness our fear was showing us where to apply it.

Finding Purpose: An Exercise in Listening to Fear

Here are a set of questions you can ask yourself to help identify what you are afraid of and what’s beneath that fear (what truth or value is being triggered or put in danger).

Identifying Rational vs. Irrational Fear, coping mechanisms and moving into curiosity

In short, Fear is Courage unrealized. And Courage is Fear actualized with intention.

What’s more, exploring your fear courageously is an incredibly effective way to reconnect with your purpose on a deeper level. And as studies have validated, when you put purpose at the core of your business, amazing things can happen.

In our next article, we’ll examine the Eight Basal Fears©, what they have to teach business leaders, and how they’re especially useful in a time of crisis.
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