Increasingly passion is being highlighted as a key ingredient for success at the individual, team and organisational levels. In today’s rapidly changing and volatile business environment, companies need passionate people who will drive outstanding performance and sustained success.

Passion is best defined as a “fire in the belly” or positive energy to achieve and outperform against one’s goals. Based on a lot of research over the past two decades, we know that when people are in jobs that enable them to play their strengths, they are far more likely to demonstrate higher levels of passion for what they are doing and go “above and beyond” to achieve exceptional results. Passion is also highly contagious, as anyone who manages enthusiastic people knows. If people love their jobs, others in the team will soon ‘catch the bug’ and a virtuous cycle of success and confidence is generally created, which becomes a catalyst for even more success.

So what can companies do to recruit, develop and retain passionate people who wake up energised every morning and arrive at work wanting to do their best work?

1. Clarify the company’s purpose and value it delivers

Companies with a clear purpose will find it easier to recruit and retain people who are wanting to make a difference by contributing to that vision. The purpose should describe the company’s reason for being, the value the business will deliver to customers and how it will conduct itself. A purpose is not a financial or numerical goal, it is a combination of the company’s vision, mission, and values. 

One of the best operationalised statements of purpose I’ve ever experienced was at Danish-headquartered Novo Nordisk, a world leader in diabetes care. The company’s stated purpose is to create value for patients by improving their lives and the way diabetes is treated and viewed around the world. All employees are expected to understand the day-to-day challenges for diabetic patients as well as the company’s values, operating principles and core processes.

Clarifying a simple purpose and explaining how this helps create value for customers/stakeholders will help engage the full energy and passion of your people. It is also important to ensure that all employees have an opportunity to discuss and relate their own aspirations and values to the overall purpose.

2. Stretch people in areas of strength

We often here the mantra that people need to be “stretched beyond their zone of comfort”. This is an incomplete picture as the wrong type of “stretch” can actually lead to demotivation and very high levels of turnover, absenteeism and stress-related problems. We distinguish between two very different types of stretch – Positive Stretch and Negative Stretch.

‘Negative Stretch’ is too great a challenge in areas of weakness. Although some of this can be good if an employee needs to improve in a particular area of weakness, too much can be demotivating and undermine performance, particularly if this isn’t balanced with opportunities for the person to optimise their strengths. Stretch can also become negative if there is no support in place from the manager, peers or others to enable to person to achieve their goal.

‘Positive Stretch’ involves discovering a person’s natural strengths – those underlying qualities that energise them and they are already good at or have potential to become great at. Once these have been identified, the manager can coach and support the person to develop in these areas, ensuring the relevant support is provided should they require it. This will maintain high levels of energy and passion whilst avoiding negative stress and burn out.

3. Hire people who get excited about your purpose

There is an old cliché “hire for attitude as well as skill” that appears to have stuck within HR and recruitment circles, yet few people know how to translate this into practical action. Some of the ways we help clients to do this is to ensure interviews look beyond the usual list of skills, experience and qualification in the role. We profile the person’s cultural fit, learning agility and unique character strengths. This is increasingly important as job roles can change at lightning speed meaning that the tasks you are wanting done today can look very different in 3 or 6 months’ time. A good understanding of people’s strengths enables you to quickly deploy them across a range of energising activities and tasks well beyond their initial job role. The most successful people who have high levels of passion for the company’s purpose are more likely to remain positive, embrace learning opportunities and adapt to changes in the company’s strategy and structure.

4. Encourage learning and challenge

The quickest way to kill off passion is to stifle ideas and creativity and free exchange among your people.

Of course a flat structure and a shallow hierarchy helps, as there is a shorter communication distance between managers and employees. However, the key is not just to change the structure, but to build an open and informal culture where every employee has a voice and feels safe to disagree and challenge others, even top management, without fear of direct or indirect repercussions.

Organisations such as Facebook, Novo Nordisk, Graze and Innocent encourage high levels of shared learning and open debate, building physical and virtual social platforms to give people the time and space to initiate and evolve ideas, debate and solve problems. Simple ways to do this include changing the company’s workspace to create social meeting hubs, collaborative spaces and chill-out zones. Several of our clients have also ‘borrowed’ a custom from Scandinavian working culture and start Fridays (or another day of the week) with an informal breakfast gathering to which everyone in the team is invited

5. Reward effort

Elite sport has provided a lot of insight to business about the way to build a high performance culture and the theory of marginal gains is one of the most useful concepts to be adopted by businesses in recent times. According to this, every bit of effort and input focused on improving performance can have a multiplicative effect and help improve results, particularly if the whole team are optimising their strengths and exerting high levels of voluntary or discretionary effort beyond the minimum requirements.

This is the reason why companies should build a culture where successes, even the small ones, are appreciated and celebrated regularly, ideally everyday. Most companies only celebrate big achievements and in our experience, are not particularly good at doing even this, which undermines passion and morale. There are numerous ways companies can do this which involve no or little cost including providing simple “thank you” notes or cards, time off, gift vouchers, lunches with the manager, recognition in team meetings, etc.  

As Warren Buffet, one of the most successful businessmen in the US and founder and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company which owns subsidiaries engaged across a diverse range of businesses stated: “Without passion, you don’t have energy. Without energy, you have nothing.” Passion will help your people go way beyond expectations to see your company’s vision fulfilled. It will be the fuel for your journey and create unstoppable energy in the business. By following these five principles, you can fast-forward a culture of passionate, confident and exceptional people.