Looking for Purpose with Roy Spence

Author: David McMillin       

Roy Spence ‘Conferences are interventions.’

As the chairman and cofounder of Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M, Roy Spence has been the creative engine behind campaigns for Southwest Airlines, Walmart, BMW, and a range of other brands. When we reached out to Spence in January, a few weeks after he presented a session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2018, he was preparing to take on the biggest client — certainly in geographical size — in his history: America. The campaign isn’t exactly a traditional advertising campaign, though. It will last eight years, and Spence isn’t charging a dime for his work. It’s called The Promiseland Project, and Spence will lead some of the best marketing minds in the country in an effort to “market America to Americans.”

“We constantly hear negativity about politics today and about how each side is bad,” Spence said. “We’re going to try to move the us-versus-them culture to a culture of us — as in USA. In eight years, the country will celebrate its 250th birthday, and by that time, we’re hoping that we can give a sense of rebirth to the purpose of America.” Spence acknowledged that the project “may sound a bit audacious,” but no doubt he’s up to the challenge. After all, the idea of purpose is at the center of everything he does. Spence has stepped away from advertising to focus 100 percent of his time and energy on The Purpose Institute, the consulting firm he co-founded to help people and organizations uncover a deeper sense of mean-ing and value in work and life. Before making an official announcement about The Promiseland Project in a keynote at SXSW 2018 in Austin last month, Spence shared his perspectives on being a leader, riding at dawn, and putting purpose to work at face-to-face events.

Can you share some thoughts on discovering your own sense of purpose? Have you always been in tune with understanding your own purpose in life, or were there certain milestones in your personal and professional life that gave you a greater sense of your own meaning?

I got lucky on the road to purpose. I didn’t know I was on it. My sister Susan was born with spina bifida. She was supposed to live to be four months old, and she lived to be 49 years old. When we were growing up, I pushed her to school every day, and when she passed away, I realized something: The whole time, she had really been pushing me. Because she couldn’t walk, I learned the power of walking in someone else’s shoes. When kids would stare at her, I felt like I was in the wheelchair. And I just got this sense of empathy — not sympathy.

My dad would always tell me to be extra kind to everyone you meet because everyone has some kind of problem. So that sense of walking in some-one else’s shoes and truly understanding what other people are going through has helped inform my whole life.

You sign off your videos on your website with “Ride at dawn!” What does that phrase mean to you? And what’s your morning mindset to tackle the day ahead?

To be honest, I didn’t remember that phrase coming to life. I was in Houston about 25 years ago. Our team had just landed a big advertising account, and we were all feeling pretty excited. We went out for drinks, and around midnight, I stood up on a table with a shot of tequila and said, “Drink up my friends. We ride at dawn.” One of my creative directors wrote it down. So I don’t even remember saying it, but it certainly served us well in the moment and gave everyone a good laugh. Now, it’s become one of the guiding principles I apply to life. I usually wake up at about 4 in the morning. Every now and then, I email myself a note that says, ‘I wonder what the world has in store for me today….I think I’ll go find out.’ It’s the attitude that whatever is going to happen is going to happen anyway, so you might as well go do it. Get up. Get going. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen. “Ride at dawn” is about being confident and being ready. Face it, and help others face it, too. It’s also got a little bit of kickass empowering motivation in it.

For those of us who might be struggling to identify a sense of true purpose, what are the key steps toward embracing a purpose-driven approach to life?

A great friend of mine, Richard Leider, wrote The Power of Purpose. He was the pioneer. What I learned from him is that your purpose is already inside of you. Finding it, though, relies on asking yourself an important question that we don’t all bother asking. I advise young people and parents of young people to quit asking, “What do you want to do?” Instead, why don’t you focus on finding the answer to a different question: What do you love to do and what are you really good at? In eighth grade, I turned in a paper, and I got the paper back with eight misspelled words. I got a C-. A few months later, I got another paper back, and it had 11 misspelled words. Some-how, there was an A-. It didn’t make any sense to me. My mom said, “You can’t spell, but you can write. I don’t want you to spend another second of your life trying to be average at what you’re bad at. I want you to spend the rest of your life trying to be great at what you’re good at.” And I think purpose is exactly that. Figure out what you love to do and what you’re good at. If you can find that out, that basically is your purpose in life.

Let’s switch gears from individuals to events and businesses. Many meetings, conferences, and events have mission statements, and organizations have strategic visions. But what’s the difference between these ideas and a true sense of purpose for an organization?

Purpose is why you exist. It’s a simple idea that should be easy to communicate, but it can be very difficult to find. I figured this out when I was working with Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines. When Herb started the airline, only 15 percent of [the population] had flown. Flying was for the super rich. He went to the Supreme Court to deregulate the airline industry and worked so hard to figure out how to make flying an activity that everyone could do. All that work made me say, “Herb, I don’t think you’re in the airline business. I think you’re in the freedom business. You have set out to democratize the skies.” Southwest exists to give people the freedom to fly. That’s the company’s purpose. Mission is how you get it done. The mission at Southwest was to keep operational costs down so that fares could also stay low, which gives people the freedom to fly. Finally, your vision is how you see the world improved when you accomplish your purpose.

Can someone make purpose contagious? If a leader in an organization embraces a sense of purpose, can it spread to employees and customers?

Absolutely. The No. 1 job of a great CEO is to champion the purpose of the organization. Because if you don’t, no one else will. It helps avoid let-ting decisions be tactically driven. That means that when a CEO starts a meeting, it’s not about accounting or budgeting or some other business term. The meeting is about something bigger. It’s about helping the company achieve its purpose. How do face-to-face events play a role in sending attendees home with a better understanding of their meaning in the world? What role does purpose play in the decision for someone to register for a conference, get on a plane, and spend days at a convention center? The human need for interconnection is getting overwhelmed by technology. It’s not in human nature to just sit behind a computer, and yet if there are not designed and planned face-to-face, mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart events and gatherings, technology could become the most addictive force invented. Addictions need interventions. Conferences are interventions. Because you can’t shake hands over Facebook. You cannot give a hug on Twitter. You can’t put your hand on a shoulder on Google.

It’s been proven that the more you have human connection, the longer you live. National Geographic asked Dan Buettner to study what are now known as Blue Zones, the areas in the world where people live the longest. All the research revealed that human connection is the key to living a long and fruitful life. So, for people in the business of putting on conferences and events, it’s essential to remember that the ability to connect is the ultimate difference-maker in a person’s day. Whether it’s a car convention or an IT meeting, the greatest asset of that event is not education or networking. It’s the ability to build an event that allows people to be together, to take their guard down, to have fun, and to lighten up. We all have to get out of our computer zones and get into our connected zones.

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