It’s hard to understand why purpose matters so much at Parisleaf without first coming clean about how and why I found my own. This is the first time I’ve put myself out there in public.
After opening up about my past on a personal level with friends and even occasionally with clients, I realize that all leaders – like all humans – have skeletons in their closet. I believe that openness is medicine for relationships. So far, sharing my story has brought me closer to others rather than pushing them away. At least it has for the right ones.
We’re all good at hiding our bruises, scars, and bumps. Even those of us who have never smoked a cigarette in our lives are addicted to something. Some people can’t stop checking their phones, others bite their fingernails, and some unlucky ones compulsively eat toilet paper (seriously, look it up). In my case, I was addicted to drugs and alcohol.
I lost my foothold the first time I dropped out of college. The label of “dropout” stuck to me for a long time. What began as a tough existence at some point turned against me and became an aimless, selfish, and deceitful one. I would take on low paying jobs where my lifestyle went largely unnoticed or unchallenged. None of them lasted long. I was just about surviving, with no sense of direction or reason to exist. I was getting loaded every moment of every day for years until I eventually hit rock bottom in 2005.
Finally, after getting into some trouble, I ended up going to a therapist, who referred me to a 12-step program. He was like me, so I trusted him. I remember arriving halfway through the first meeting. I sat down, and within moments I felt at home. So, I picked up a white chip, the international sign of surrender.
My recovery hasn’t been a straight line. I’ll spare you the vivid details – but, through painful self-reflection, I began to heal. As I attempted to untangle my experiences, I asked myself what to do with this second chance. I desperately needed a purpose, a sense of direction. As Nelson Mandela (and a few others, I believe) once remarked, “As we let our own light shine on the world, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” For the first time in my life, I decided to try being me.
Yet here I was, a college dropout. I had been through maybe 100 jobs at this point, and unsurprisingly most of them were horrifically caustic work environments. I had never been a good employee, but instead of continuing to beat myself up, I had a realization. Maybe it’s time to go out on my own? The trouble was, I didn’t know the first thing about running a business. I didn’t know how to drive culture, or how to nurture and retain talent. I certainly didn’t know how to lead.
In 2007, a few years into being sober, I met my business partner – and now life partner – Alison. Together we founded Parisleaf in 2010. In the early days, our culture was amazing, but the quality of our work was rough (if I’m being honest). Then, the quality of our work was solid, but the culture took a nosedive. Looking back, this was my fault for not knowing our business’s purpose or how to communicate it, how to lead, or how to manage people from a place of clarity around our values. There’s a line in one of my favorite books that says, “You can’t give away something you haven’t got.” We ended up turning this lesson into our greatest strength as a branding agency: connecting a leader’s personal purpose to the purpose of their business. My purpose became helping others find their purpose. Why not do this as an agency?
Today, the quality of our work is way up there, but it’s our culture that I most often talk about. We have a team who are aligned with our purpose and roll up their sleeves for the same reason each morning. The one word I use to describe everyone here is lovely. In my opinion, it’s easier to make great work than it is to be a great human.
Our culture is the reason we are all now, in some way, part of the interview process – whether we’re bringing on new people or new clients. Everyone here is protective of what we’ve created. I’ve come to realize that, unfortunately, this isn’t the norm. Often clients come to us because they don’t know how to attract employees or ideal customers. They don’t know their values or how to practice them. They don’t know their purpose or how to communicate where they’re headed as an organization. What they share with the world comes from their heads, not their hearts. The latter takes courage, awareness, and perseverance.
More often than not, once leaders see what we’ve built, and what we’ve helped some of our clients build, most want in.
Our next challenge as a branding agency is figuring out how we can grow while still holding on to our hearts and our souls. Most organizations lose their integrity as they grow, but I think this is our great challenge – to prove that it can be done. I know the answer comes back to purpose and remembering that purpose every day. It’s important for a leader to know their reason for existing, no matter what that journey ends up looking like. It’s been almost 14 years since I turned a corner and decided to live with purpose. I have a tattoo on my forearm and a chip in my pocket to make sure I never forget mine.
Does this mean you need to follow the same path as I did to find your purpose as a leader? Absolutely not. But to lead others, I’ve found you must first look into your own shadow to find your true calling as a human being. As a coach of mine often reminds me, “lead yourself well.” In this day and age, humans want to be led by other humans.
If a business doesn’t have a purpose other than to make money, it will eventually become obsolete. If leaders are not aligned in their purpose for coming to work, there will be a trickle-down effect and employees won’t be excited about coming to work either. If you’re struggling to attract and retain talent, start at the top, and look in the mirror.
Mark Twain said that the two most important days in a person’s life are the day they are born and the day they find out why. I believe the third most important is when we find a way to align our why with the purpose of our businesses.