Leadership Playbook

Powerful Ways to Connect People to Purpose at Work


Thuy Vu, CEO of Global Mentor Network, talks to Jonathan Fear, VP of Coupa University at Coupa Software and Sean Burns, Global Head of Learning & Development at Coupa Software, about connecting people to purpose at work.

Powerful Ways to Connect People to Purpose at Work

About This Series

Imagine if you could learn from some of the top experts on how to build company cultures where everyone can be fully engaged, feel valued, and have impact. In this series of interviews from GMN’s Leader’s Playbook podcast, we talk with leaders who are laser focused on that mission, including Chief People Officers, Heads of Talent Development, DEI specialists, ESG experts, and more. They candidly reveal the challenges they’re facing during these extraordinary times and share their most effective strategies for how to create positive changes that are transforming the future of work. And yes, we also hear about the ideas that did not work. Why? Because the best leaders pay it forward and help others avoid their mistakes.

Featured Guests

  • Jonathan Fear, VP of Coupa University at Coupa Software
  • Sean Burns, Global Head of Learning & Development at Coupa Software

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

We started the conversation by asking about the Great Resignation:

Thuy Vu

We’re living at a time now where many people are feeling disconnected from their work right now, and they’re quitting their jobs. Why do you think that is?

Jonathan Fear

I think, Thuy, if we even begin with just, you know, the elephant in the room of COVID, the pandemic, how it’s affected our global society, the stress that that’s created, the physical and mental isolation that that’s created, it’s just this massive unknown, and the duration of that unknown has gone on far too long.
And so when you have that amount of stress and the physical separation of work and family, and friends, I think it really starts to impact that sense of community. Then you start re-evaluating, what’s important, right? What’s important to me as a person?


A lot of companies have already said that even when they go back to having people back in the office, it will be probably some kind of hybrid system. So, a large percentage of the workforce will still be working at home for some percentage of the time. What can be done to build connections if we don’t have the opportunity to be in person as much, and interact in person as much?


When we evaluate that, when people start talking about the hybrid workforce, and whether or not it’s in office or out of office, I think it’s really beyond that…I think that work-life integration is the flexibility to actually perform family activities during that traditional, eight to five, nine to five work day. And so it’s really beyond just a scenario of do I drive into the office or not? It’s more, can the companies—in the sense of that re-evaluation period - have the companies really taken an intentional approach to responding to the needs of the employee?


What are some questions they should be asking themselves if they are feeling like I’ve lost my sense of purpose at the organization?

Sean Burns

f that purpose is in part driven by connection, it’s really important that people think about, how did I find connection at work? What did I value about the way we interacted previously? And try to replicate that. Work with their manager to say, how can we (do this)? Maybe it’s having a team meeting once a week in person to the degree that you can. Maybe it’s meeting for a dinner a couple of times a month to say hey, let’s just have a personal check-in and see how things are going.

But the truth is, we were also able now to have a little bit more flexibility, in terms of connecting outside of work.I had a friend who I grew up with, texted me at noon today, and said, “Want to go to lunch?” I shouldn’t say this in front of Jonathan, but I might’ve done that on a particular day. And so, I have an opportunity to connect at a human level with my family in a different way because I’m at home.


It’s interesting that you bring that up Sean, because when you say, hey, look, you shouldn’t tell me that you were going to go have lunch. No, absolutely. That is the authentic conversation we should be having between employer and employee, with the participants of this organization that we’re driving, because your purpose, part of your purpose…is family, is friends. It’s very important to support that and not shut that down.

Absolutely, you go to lunch, enjoy, have a good time, come back re-energized, right? I mean that is really the focus. It’s trying to truly raise that level of EQ, if you will, within your organization so leaders are prepared to be able to understand and have empathy for what drives somebody, what their purpose is.


Well, all right, Jonathan and Sean, look out for that lunch invitation from me coming shortly. Coupa is a tech company. It produces software that helps businesses to manage their spending, and if you will excuse me for saying so, that can sound pretty dry. How do you help people find their purpose at Coupa, to instill a sense of a higher purpose, a meaning in their work that goes beyond the tech elements of spending management?


Wow, there’s a number of ways in that. Just to start with, I think that employees really want more than just a paycheck from their employers if you think about the meaning of purpose. And I think McKinsey just came out with a report recently, Thuy, that said roughly 70% or so of employees find their purpose at work. And what does that mean if you think about purpose? It’s that they want to be challenged, that they want to be authentic. They want leaders to do what they say, and say what they do. And most of all, they want to learn and grow.

So, we can start with just that concept of Coupa, for example, is a place for personal/professional development. We really look at the employee first, help drive their personal/professional expression. And so, during this time particularly, I think we’re really proud to say that I think we’ve done in the last two years, roughly a thousand promotions internally. So allowing people that platform for personal development is big.


That’s terrific. That’s a lot of promotions…Are there other tools or strategies or programs that you have in place to assist with this, to help employees find their sense of purpose?


We have a 90-minute session where people do exercises and think about how they can get better, how they can make processes better. So that’s a focus on our culture. We do that with mentor programs and coaching programs. And interestingly…in our coaching sessions over the course of the past year, we have found that the focus on meaning and purpose is so much greater. They spend so much more time talking about that than say a year ago, and way more than two years ago.


Why do you think that is higher now than a year ago or two years ago, when the pandemic first hit.


I just think when there’s such a massive disruption in how we operate and how we interact, people just need to explore and make sense of that for themselves and try to find answers. I know when I was at Santa Clara University, I was coaching college tennis and really enjoying it. It was a terrific experience, but (the September 11th terrorist attacks) hit, and I reevaluated what was important to me and what I was getting out of my experience. I made a shift.


What was it about 9-11 that made you reassess what you were doing as a tennis coach and made you want to shift your focus professionally?


What I realized was coaching college tennis at Santa Clara, which I really enjoyed, was my entire life…Every evening, I was recruiting until 9 at night. Every weekend, I was either taking team members to tournaments or going and recruiting at tournaments…When 9-11 hit, I thought, you never know. Do I want more out of life? And I realized I do. I loved what I was doing. I loved the guys on the team, but I needed to expand my life, expand my horizons.


That’s a great illustration, thank you.


o give Sean a nod here, one of the things is that we as a leadership team really need to appreciate and invest in is our managers, right? Because the managers matter. But we have the concept of an upside-down org chart at Coupa. And so you think about a traditional org chart with the CEO at the top and everything kind of funnels out from there.

Well, if you visualize that 180 degrees and upside-down, with that CEO at the bottom, that’s your leadership team at the bottom, and all the branches going up, and the leaves coming out, being an individual contributor. I just described a tree, ultimately. And so, the way that we look at our approach is that managers have to support the success of those people that work with them. And we don’t say that we manage somebody. We support them.

So, the managers, and Sean has an entire 6-month manager development program around how managers need to understand that ethos, and really appreciate the fact that they are responsible for making their branches stronger, for making their leaves greener, for making that tree healthier. Part of that certainly is purpose, is to sit and understand from the team that they’re supporting, how best they can support their growth? How best they can support their work-life integration? How best they can support their well-being?


I know that sometimes the word “purpose” can seem too nebulous or too lofty, and it doesn’t necessarily resonate with everybody. Same for the word “values”…What do you do in those instances? I think you had said to me that sometimes you just say what “impact” do you want to have at this organization?


For sure, yeah, not quite as lofty. I was mentioning to Jonathan yesterday that we had one of our teammates in here. We were going to have a really big team encounter for 4 days…eight or nine people who are going to all be together in San Mateo. Out of everyone, there were only two of us who weren’t impacted by COVID, either ourselves or family members. So only two of us ended up here in San Mateo, and one person flew in.

But we had three dinners together where that was one of the questions that I had - what impact do you want to have here at Coupa? What impact did you have in your previous organization? How do you want to replicate that? How do you want to be different when you leave this organization? And having those conversations really created a stronger connection between us, but also helped me as the person who manages or supports that individual to know how to do that better.

Key Takeaways

  1. “Purpose” is no longer driven almost exclusively by work. It includes family and friends, as well as activities outside of work. Employers need to recognize that and allow people to integrate all of those factors.
  2. In order to feel a sense of purpose at work, employees want leaders to do what they say and say what they do. This includes providing meaningful opportunities to learn and grow.
  3. Managers need to be adaptable in how they communicate. For example, a word like “purpose” may resonate with some employees, but not others. Find alternate ways of  expressing a thought or question that will produce a better connection.

About the Interviewer and GMN

Thuy Vu is co-founder and CEO of Global Mentor Network, a pay-it-forward enterprise with a noble mission to solve one of the world’s greatest challenges – building the next generation of diverse, transformational leaders.

Prior to GMN, Thuy was a news anchor in San Francisco, seven-time Emmy winner, and recipient of a prestigious Edward R. Murrow award for in-depth journalism. She came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam and is currently a board member at The RealReal, as well as a former Advisory Board member at DocuSign.