As the three of us sat around the fire pit, watching the sunset, the radiance of the pit and the alcohol’s effects carried a conversation among accomplished men in their 50s in this philosophical direction: How will we find people to carry forward the institutions that we helped to build? How do you secure the efforts of persons with a long-term commitment to excelling in personal performance? How do you identify persons with leadership capabilities, possessing both the desire to elevate the enterprise and their careers by realizing their full potential?

In a time where resources are particularly precious, the correct investment in human capital is critical and mistakes are costly. Reviewing resumes, letters of reference and writing samples for anything but shallow background is ineffective in an era of fabrications and prior-employer fears of being sued. The wise path, I offered to my friends, is to secure the efforts of persons possessing two qualities: A sense of purpose and a sense of urgency. While the two qualities are not inextricably related, the employee’s sense of urgency is pointless without a well-developed sense of purpose; and a sense of purpose may never be fulfilled without a sense of urgency to power it.

Sense of Purpose:
By a “sense of purpose” I mean a developed guidance system producing in a person some long-term vision that lends profound significance and overall direction to his or her adult life. Here’s what to ask a recruit (in person, where there’s little opportunity for “massaging” answers) for a position to learn if he/she has developed a sense of purpose: What is your area of deepest expertise? What is your greatest passion in life? What do you believe in so strongly that you doubt you ever could be persuaded to change that view? Where do you feel you are able to add real value to potential clients/customers? If none of these questions is answered with any hint of ease by the recruit, you must ask yourself if there has been enough self-reflection going on in the interviewee for the person to own a meaningful sense of purpose—or alternatively, consider whether the person’s sense of purpose is being concealed because it is incongruent with your enterprise’s institutional goals.

Accumulating wealth or a position of power are legitimate purposes in life, but to what end? is a legitimate follow-up area of inquiry. I have interviewed, I know, a number of persons who wished to enter law practice for the primary purpose of making a great deal of money. There is nothing inherently wrong with this goal, but the lengths to which a person may go to achieve this end (or the end of accumulating power) may create problems for the institution, either from the ethical dimension (which hurts the external reputation of the firm or its internal culture) or in terms of damage done to other personnel in the firm in the process of the employee’s “getting ahead.” And those problems are likely inevitable, unless there is some apparent altruistic “by-product” of the quest for wealth/power. Recall that the intention to accumulate wealth or influence, especially in a person who has led a life of deprivation or lower-rung status, frequently drives a sense of urgency. However, the urgency in that instance should include implementing goals that will address the “to what end” inquiry.

Sense of Urgency:
John Kotter, emeritus of Harvard Business School, in his post “An Astonishing Lack of Urgency (And What You Can Do About It)” in the HBS Conversation Starter blog, summarizes a purposeful sense of urgency well, I think: “True urgency is a set of emotions, a gut-level feeling that we need to get up every single day with total determination to do something to deal with [issues] and make some progress, no matter how modest, and do so today. It’s not naïve. It doesn’t assume you have the power to create a miracle, or that big problems can be solved in a day. But that doesn’t slow a resolve to do something now to help the [enterprise] win, no matter the circumstances.”

Otherwise stated, a sense of urgency mandates an intention to accelerate getting on with the business of attaining goals endemic to an adult’s sense of purpose. I have worked with a variety of persons in several careers who did not care whether consumers of their services were satisfied with their output, so long as their personal needs were not compromised and they could keep their job. I’m not much surprised anymore to hear that the “apprenticeship” periods prior to management conferral of ownership or leadership status on an employee have lengthened in duration, and that turnover in most offices has been increasing. I’m convinced that it’s harder to find persons with both a sense of purpose and of urgency these days. Why? Is it the product of a generation or two that developed a sense of entitlement? Is it a pervasive belief that beyond one’s friends and family, and one’s favorite athletic squads, there’s not much out there worth being passionate about? Has careerism lost its appeal? Have the demands of modern living worn us down? Or is there just not much understanding that purpose and meaning in life and personal fulfillment are inseparable?

So what can you ask the prospective hire to flush out contours of his or her sense of urgency? How about this: Do you recall a time during your life of sustained effort in difficult circumstances—what did you do, and what were the outcomes? How long do you think it will take you before you play a major role in decision-making in this company—and how do you think that will come about? If the recruit cannot give any answer that leaves a satisfying feeling in you, there’s a possibility he or she hasn’t any sense of urgency at the present time. You’ll have to decide how much to invest in the hire in return for the hope that a sense of urgency will develop over his or her career with your business.