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Why focusing on purpose over job titles can lead to a more fulfilling career

A traditional career mindset will have you believing that success is measured by climbing up the proverbial ladder, starting in a junior position and then moving from one job title to another until you become the “ultimate” leader of an organisation. In fact, I remember a time when the ultimate career goal of each one of my peers was to become the CEO of the companies we either worked for, aspired to work for or companies we owned/would one day own. This was until #adulting reality hit and we realised that in organisations of tens of thousands, there is one CEO at least every five years or even more, which means that statistically, only a handful of people will become CEOs of the organisations they work for. The other reality that hit us is that not all of us can or will have our own companies because not all of us are entrepreneurial, and even if we were, no economy could be sustained that way. If you had asked us each of us why we wanted to become CEOs, I bet we wouldn't have been able to answer or that if we were to provide an honest answer, it would have been that we were attracted to the prestige of the title of CEO because we were raised in a culture where people respect job titles more than they respect the value that the person has to offer.

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall - Thomas Merton

The limitations of job titles

The reality though is that job titles are very limiting if they are to be used as the only means by which we assess the value of our contribution to an organisation and as a measure our success. Firstly, job titles are limited in how they describe the work that we do and the value that we bring to the organisation. People with the same job title in different organisations can have very different job specifications, very different work loads and very different leadership responsibilities. And therefore, to truly understand the value that someone brings to an organisation, we'd have to go much deeper than the job title to find out what they do on a daily basis; what changes and improvements they have implemented since they took on a specific role; and what impact their skillset, personality and experiences have had on the organisation. Secondly, a job title doesn't always reflect the responsibilities that a person has on a day-to-day basis as once again, there is no uniformity in how job titles are applied and there could be a misalignment between the title of the role and the actual work that a person does. Finally, while convention will argue that job titles matter as they have an influence on how future employers can view the suitability of your resume / CV for a role in their organisation, adopting this thinking has the potential to limit you to a narrow career perspective and keep you from applying yourself beyond the boundaries of your job title in the workplace. In a world that increasingly requires collaboration between different functions and roles to achieve organisational goals, limiting yourself to you job title can keep you from adjusting, contributing beyond your "scope" and remaining relevant. This is not limited to the workplace, and can also apply in entrepreneurship too, I have seen people hold on to the CEO title as entrepreneurs to the detriment of their companies when they are better suited to play a different role (even though they started the company) and make space for someone better suited to actually run the company as CEO.

The Power of Purpose

In the book, A Return To Love, Marianne Williamson defines success in the following way, "success means we go to sleep at night knowing that our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others". This, for me, summarises what it means to have a purpose-driven mindset towards our careers. It means that in whatever role, despite the job title, we show up with an attitude of serving. That there is nothing beneath us, and nothing above us. It means that we show up not with the attitude of self-advancement but with the motivation to serve the greater needs of the organisation (as per the transformational leadership theory) with advancement, promotion and career growth as a by-product of our efforts and not the main pursuit. It means the recognition that whether someone holds an executive role, is a team leader, or is a member of a team - no role is above the other, in terms of its value in the organisation, and that each role equally matters for the functioning and sustainability of the organisation.

The benefits of showing up with a purpose-driven mindset is that:

  • The impact that we have on the people around us and on the organisation as a whole will speak for us much louder than our job titles can (of course, there may be a need to do self-promotion and to ensure that decision-makers are aware of your impact - I'll blog about this soon).

  • It has been found that employees who have a sense of purpose in their jobs have a higher level of job satisfaction. This means that a lack of job satisfaction will not necessarily be cured by another role with a fancier job title, but most likely by us doing the deeper job of seeking and finding meaning in the work that we do.

  • The more purpose-driven we are, the more focused we will be on taking on roles in which we can show up holistically (talents, skills, expertise) and not just limit ourselves to certain roles because the title sounds fancy.

Shifting the Focus: Purpose-Driven Career Paths

An experience that transformed my thinking from job titles to purpose was filling in a job application for one of the organisations that I really wanted to work for (and become CEO of one day - * Insert chuckle*). The prescribed format of the resume /CV required one to articulate under each job title the impact that one had made in each job role. This was a completely different way of looking at occupying a job role, and certainly something that I had never thought about before that. I am grateful to have had that experience at a young age because it transformed my approach to the roles I took on following that, which included working in organisations (big and small) and running my own business for a certain period of time. In each of the roles, I had to ask myself "what impact do I want to say I had on my CV when I leave this role". This shaped how I approached my work, how I persisted in influencing change in the organisation and how I sought opportunities to make a difference. Whenever I saw a problem I'd ask myself, "how can I be part of the solution to this problem?", and if a problem was beyond my scope of influence, I would ask myself "how can I be an influence for change to those who are positioned to solve this problem?". This grew to become my guiding principle and my professional value proposition.

The impact of this is that I have followed a career path which has helped me discover my purpose. Had I limited myself to being an accountant, and been obsessed with being a Chief Financial Officer at a young age, I wouldn't have discovered my passion for developing people and for driving impactful projects / initiatives for organisations. My career path has provided me with opportunities for meaningful impact - working with young professionals in the Inspire Mentorship Program, working with entrepreneurs in different platforms, driving transformation (diversity and inclusion) and driving organisational change in various ways.

In shifting my focus from job titles to impact / purpose, I took the following steps:

  1. I reflected on the roles I had occupied in the past. Both in the workplace and in the organisations I had served in, such as the Association for the advancement of Black Accountants in Southern Africa (ABASA), and I honestly reflected and interrogated myself on where I had missed the opportunity to have an impact and where I had applied myself intentionally.

  2. I wrote a vision of the impact I wanted to have in the future and kept this top of mind as I entered a new role.

  3. Doing this resulted in me developing the capacity to reframe problems and challenges in my work. Instead of feeling disempowered by them, I started to view them as opportunities for impact. I also used this thinking as input for decision-making on when it was time to move on from a role or organisation - if I felt I would not be able to make any further impact for whatever reason.

Overcoming Challenges

Of course, there may be challenges in adopting this kind of thinking, especially if we are working in environments that tend to value job titles over impact. However, we have to remember that the main idea here is not to avoid job titles altogether, but to let purpose (and not job titles) define us and the value we have to offer our organisations, and that in doing we so, we will be driven by a much more powerful force which will impact how we show up in the workplace and result in a fulfilling career with the possible by-product of climbing up the ladder and attaining the kind of success that benefits not just us but those around us.

Points to reflect on:

  1. What opportunities did I have to make an impact in my previous roles?

  2. Did I fully utilise the opportunity to make an impact in those roles? If not, what stood in my way and how I can overcome it?

  3. What unique skills and experiences do I bring to my current role that position me to have a unique impact?

  4. What bothers me about my organisation that doesn't seem to bother anyone else, and how can I be a force for positive change?

  5. How do I want my resume / CV to communicate impact in future and how can this provide a guide on how I can apply myself better in my role?

Did this resonate with you? Please leave a comment, share and don't forget to subscribe to get notified of new blogposts.


Jan 12

Thank you Likeleli for such a great article and very profound in a generation where we are valued for our job title or for how quickly we move through job titles.

Remaining in the same role is not stagnation for as long as your impact is growing and you are following your purpose. I really like what you said about serving an organization where your work is not driven by your narrow title but driven by all the skills and expertise available and how you use your position to create impact across functions and areas based on your purpose. Very powerful and important in our generation that for example only wants to be an investment banker but doesn't want to…


Jan 10

Thank you for sharing. This is profound and shifts one’s way of thinking especially when it comes to “climbing the corporate ladder”

Value and Impact !

  1. What impact did I make or am I making - this resonated with me and is a reflection point.

  2. What skills and experience do I bring in my current role and what impact will this have

Additionally, the impact that we have on people and the organisation is very important.

The timing of this is perfect. New year, returning back to work or office . This just sets the tone and what one needs to work on in having a different perspective when approaching what they do and what impact it has or wil…


Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I am a passionate leader, accomplished professional and a mentor. I believe that nation-building depends on how well we build people. Therefore, my mission is to contribute to the personal, professional and leadership development of people to empower them to reach their highest potential.

I do this through a mentorship program that I founded and through this blog where I share principles I've applied and insights I've gained in the past twelve years of my career and leadership journey.

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