What would be more satisfying: laying bricks or building a cathedral to the Almighty?
The women, and a few men, who gathered Monday morning, all in the health-care field, primarily pharmaceuticals, will probably never do either.
But "giving work more meaning is a very profound idea that can have a tremendous effect on the workplace. By appealing to people's hearts" and not just their heads, "extraordinary results can be achieved," Bruce N. Pfau told the Heathcare Businesswomen's Association's meeting at KPMG's Philadelphia office.
In pharmaceuticals, the work-higher purpose connection seems obvious: curing disease and saving lives.
But Pfau, who, until 2016 was KPMG's vice chair in charge of human resources, did yeoman's work in managing to connect his company's auditors, accountants, and advisers to their higher purpose.
How KPMG engaged its employees with their mission ended up being published in the Harvard Business Review under the title "How an Accounting Firm Convinced its Employees They Could Change the World."
"Our morale has been raised to an all-time high," maintained Pfau, now a consultant.
"Our turnover has sunk to an all-time low," from 28 percent in 2004, to 18 percent in 2014 to 12 percent today, he said.
For the HBA, Pfau's talk came under the category of leadership development. With 8,000 members nationally and 830 in the local chapter, the association has a goal to achieve gender parity in leadership and help companies fully utilize their female talent.
Pfau's remarks resonated with statistical programmer Afyia Miller, 28, who analyzes data at Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., a drug research company. She says it is critically important for companies to remind people such as her of their work's purpose. "I sit behind the desk and code all day," she said. "You have to think how your work is impacting the lives of other people."
In 2004, when Pfau became KPMG's vice chair, "we had a lot of problems," he told the group of about two dozen. "Morale was in the tank." Only half of KPMG's employees had a favorable impression of the company, based on an annual employee survey.
KPMG's retention strategy was centered on rewards — pay increases, career advancement. When Pfau came in 2004, his department improved diversity, training, and support for working mothers, pushing favorability to 82 percent by 2014.
But, Pfau said, in 2014, "I was at the end of my rope," with no more initiatives to inspire the kind of discretionary effort that accompanies engagement.
Out of ideas, Pfau decided to give a second look to a question on KPMG's annual employee survey that he had long dismissed as self-fulfilling. The question asked employees to agree or disagree that their jobs had a "special meaning." At the time, purpose-driven work had become a hot topic in human resource literature. Pfau cited a survey that said employees would forgo 15 percent of their pay in return for working toward a higher purpose.
The second look started out badly with too many employee focus groups, flow charts, flip charts, and exhausting deliberations over purpose and mission. "We were boring ourselves to tears," Pfau said.
The conversation shifted when focus-group employees were asked to describe what most satisfied or inspired them at work. It turns out that those auditors, accountants, and advisers had lots of stories and "a pent-up appetite" to tell them.
An initiative was born.
Typically, KPMG would launch initiatives with a company-wide web presentation, starring the KPMG chairman. If 2,000 of 30,000 clicked on the accompanying white paper, it was considered a success.
Instead, one Monday morning in May 2014, without fanfare, story posters culled from the focus groups went up in lobbies in KPMG offices worldwide.
"What do you do at KPMG?," a headline asked.
Answers such as "We champion democracy," followed. "When South Africa voted for Nelson Mandela in its first democratic election, KPMG South Africa was there to certify the results."
Next came the tag line "KPMG: We're here for a purpose."
KPMG created an app so employees could upload their stories and provided an incentive: If 10,000 came in by Thanksgiving, KPMG would give more days off in December.
"We launched the app and crossed our fingers," Pfau said.
By the July 4 weekend, "we already had 10,000 stories," and 42,000 by Thanksgiving. Employees could "like" each other's stories and offices were encouraged to print out the best stories and use them as posters.
Employee surveys showed immediate results: Six months in, worker satisfaction rose from 82 percent to 85 percent, and KPMG moved ahead of its accounting firm competitors on the Fortune magazine's annual "100 Best Companies to Work For" list. In offices where leaders promoted the program, satisfaction rose to 94 percent and turnover was cut in half.