Meaningful Work

Kathleen Miller is a Fellow of Virginia Tech's Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability

By: Kathleen Miller Perkins

We are a pessimistic society these days. We are concerned and anxious about the future in a world filled with terrorism, vast political divides, income inequality, and climate change. Many if not most of us want to do our part to find solutions to the many problems that plague our world. According to a recent study carried out by Deloitte, a financial and risk management firm, millennials believe that the workplace offers them the greatest opportunity for making an impact on society (1).

The CLiGS XMNR program is focused on providing students with the inspiration, knowledge and skills to positively influence society through their roles in the workplace. As a member of the faculty in the XMNR program, I work with my colleague Emily Talley to guide the students through an individual development process to help them clarify and prioritize their own career goals. We support them through career planning, professional networking, and directed study. Our hope is that all students, upon graduation from the program, are equipped to carry out work where they can make a meaningful contribution to society.

Most of us, regardless of our generation, want work to be meaningful. Yet many of us work for companies that we don’t respect in jobs that we don’t love. This is especially alarming in light of the fact that we spend up to a third of our time on the job. Our work represents a greater proportion of our lives than any other single endeavor.

Given how much of our lives we give to work, finding meaningful work is imperative not only to our job satisfaction but also to our physical and mental health. One way to find work with significance is to seek out jobs in organizations that stand for something other than just quarterly profits and creating wealth for shareholders. Thus some of our XMNR students choose to work for organizations in the nonprofit sector such as NGO’s. Others seek to make an impact through their work in government agencies. However some of our students pursue jobs in the private sector.

Fortunately an increasing number of successful private sector companies do emphasize purpose, values and long-term institution building. These purpose-driven companies believe that they are integrally connected to society and have responsibilities beyond mere economic transactions. In fact they value financial success partly as a means for fulfilling their more aspirational obligations to society (2).

Consumer products conglomerate Unilever is an example of a purpose-driven company. CEO Paul Polman states “Winning alone is not enough; it’s about winning with purpose (3).” He argues for a sustainable and equitable capitalism. Unilever has three targets to measure its progress: improving the health and wellbeing of one billion people, reducing negative environmental impact and sourcing raw materials in a sustainable way while enhancing livelihood (4).

Unilever CEO Paul Polman

Likewise, Nespresso offers another case of a purpose-driven organization. This Swiss coffee company has introduced goals for 2020 that they refer to as The Positive Cup. They state, “We believe that each cup of coffee can not only deliver a moment of pleasure, but also restore, replenish and revive environmental resources and communities. The Positive Cup’s overall vision is to create a cup of coffee that has a positive impact on the world (5).”  They aim to create shared value, which they define as delivering long-term positive impact for farmers, society and the environment.

Green coffee tasting in Nespresso Production Centre in Switzerland

While the list of purpose-driven companies is growing rapidly, we would be naïve to think that any organization is perfect.  Polman readily admits that living its purpose is a journey for Unilever. Most likely all purpose-driven organizations experience bumps and hurdles as they seek to fulfill their commitments.

Nevertheless, those of us who desire meaningful work (and who doesn’t?), can take a step forward by seeking jobs in organizations with purpose. Of course sometimes looking for a new job just isn’t practical; however,  we can still look for ways to make our work meaningful.    For example, we can reflect on the purpose and significance of our work.  Sometimes the urgency of meeting deadlines and getting the job done prevents us from considering why we are performing the work in the first place.  When we take the time to reflect, many of us will see that we are making a contribution to society already.  And we can also look for ways to increase our impact even within our own organizations. 

The mission of the XMNR program is to educate, inspire and empower professionals. We believe that work can and should be meaningful. We prepare our students to seek out new opportunities as well as create opportunities within their current organizations where they can make a contribution to society and thus experience their work as meaningful.


For over 37 years, Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins has worked with both national and international clients in areas such as leading change, sustainable organizational culture development, and global leadership development. Dr. Miller designed the Sustainability Culture and Leadership Assessment (SCALA™), an instrument that enables companies to assess the degree to which their culture supports sustainable strategies. She is a member of the Executive MNR faculty and a Fellow with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, as well as a social psychologist, consultant, writer, and researcher. Dr. Miller also serves as a visiting professor in the Doctorate of Business Administration program within the Business School of Lausanne in Switzerland.



(2) Kanter, R.M. (2015) How purpose-based companies master change for sustainability. In R. Henderson, R Gulati and M. Tushman (Eds.), Leading Sustainable Change (pp.11-139). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.