1st Executive Blog

10 Jul Purpose or Passion?

The key question in executive search


I am sure that there are many interviews in which a candidate, however senior, is asked the question ‘what is your passion?’

It is also impossible to be unaware of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” and how that has become an almost universal prologue for both strategy and for leadership development that is focused on the individual.

Each scenario poses two completely different questions. Passion and purpose are quite different.

My thoughts in this area have been prompted by a couple of paragraphs in the book ’Company of One’ by Paul Jarvis (Penguin Random House UK 2019).

The book has a whole section on “When passion is a problem” and it led me to examine the types of questions that we ask senior executives in executive search interviews.

As I reviewed a series of recent C-Suite placements, I started to reflect on the discussions that my business partner and I had with these executives. At this level, most people are having compelling careers. They have developed extensive skill sets in their areas of technical expertise, strategy, management of people and teams and financial dexterity. They have interpreted enough data in their decision-making lives to have developed a refined ability to trust their own intuition.

Becoming a senior executive is a craft just like any other. In all of these cases successful senior people have been able to describe both a personal sense of purpose and also the purpose that they helped to create for the organisations and teams they managed. As I thought deeply about the executive search process, I realised that questions about passion generally came at the end of the interview discussion.

One of the things that Jarvis identifies in his book is that where skilled people have developed passion, this has come afterwards, because of their compelling work. They became passionate about the purposes they were pursuing.

There is a sentence in the book:


“The crafts-person mindset keeps you focused on what you can offer the world; passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.”


Therein lies the distinction between the early career workers who often drift from role to role searching for their passion and successful senior executives who have built careers of purpose. This requires an acknowledgement that along the way they will have been doing work that they didn’t necessarily like doing. Yet, they were prepared to develop their skills because of the contribution made to the greater purpose. Such an acknowledgement is an anathema to the “passion chaser” who often, on coming across a less than enjoyable body of work, will seek their passion somewhere else…… again!

I’m thankful that in our executive search processes we go so deep on skills, experience, competencies and purpose and can then enjoy a brief conversation towards the end about the love of music, sport, the arts or something similar that is undeniably grounded in passion. It is just that, for the vast majority of people, these pursuits lack the purpose to make a living out of, and contribution to the world, from.