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ATD Blog

Sharing Your Career Purpose Story

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Since time immemorial, mankind has told stories. This was never a marketing buzzword, as storytelling remains an important skill that everyone needs to learn. Much of what we do as leaders, managers, and employees is tell stories to clients, teams, or our managers. Stories convey emotion and can persuade across cultures and generations.

Observing the rise of podcasts underscores the value of storytelling. Last year, 44 percent of Americans listened to a podcast. Most are between the ages of 18 and 34.

Learning how to tell a well-crafted and listened-to story takes time and starts with self-exploration. At work, your “purpose story” is the intersection of your values and strengths with how you impact the organization. It is a balance between what’s going on inside and what’s happening externally. It’s not about slides, a tagline, nor a pitch document. A well-crafted story is simply an authentic voice that engenders trust.

With social sharing on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram, we walk a fine line between self-promotion and connection. Some of us are reluctant to talk about ourselves, preferring to downplay achievements rather than sound like a boaster. There’s a balance between overselling yourself and sharing what you know. A story provides an avenue to move beyond self-promotion, as it should instill confidence and elicit connections.

That purpose story begins by sharing—what you know, where you’ve been, and how you impact the organization. It is your moment of truth, with enough visible vulnerability. You'll know you’ve been heard when your ideas flow through others, up, down, and across the organization.

To get started, do a bit of soul-searching to explore the who, why, and how of your purpose. The goal is to tell others who you are, why you do what you do, and how you impact the organization in less than three minutes. Admittedly, this takes some rehearsal. Uncovering your purpose is to do an internal audit on your values and strengths and see what matters most. Your “Who I Am” narrative will not magically appear until you sort through the past. It’s like an archaeological dig, but this one’s internal.


You can try using the following steps:

  1. Look back on pivotal career events, something that significantly impacted your career up to the present.
  2. As you reflect on your past, let your mind wander; don’t judge, criticize, diminish, or question. Jot down a few strengths.
  3. Do some free-association writing or sketching, keeping in mind the themes of "who, why and how." Take a couple of days and start with 10 minutes of writing.

Upon reflection of past events, you'll start to see patterns of strengths that pulled you through and helped you navigate success or overcome obstacles. If your strength is courage, for example, write a short narrative from this strength and how courage surfaces at work. Rather than stating "Courage is one of my strengths," demonstrate it through an action in your story. Show, don’t tell.

Your pivotal events are a quest story—an adventurous journey, through a series of obstacles, ending with learning through the experience. A great story involves a central character (in this case, you) faced with challenges and difficulties and overcoming them—your pivotal events.


In every quest story there’s a turning point where something happens. A shift in your career, promotion, relocating to a new country. Look back and find those obstacles or problems that you redefined with some humility.

As you craft your story, weave in personal anecdotes. Think of your audience: How much you know about them? Is this a story to your boss, your client, your team? What you share will shift depending upon the recipient, and with each telling, you will reframe it.

When you refresh your draft, tell the story from different angles. Start with the end of the story and work backward. “There is an unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present” (Henning Mankell). Writing your career purpose story incorporates several events, blending past and present, and unlocks the pattern to finding meaning at work.

In reviewing your story, does it:

  • Demonstrate your strengths, and what you bring to the organization?
  • Show your values and the impact on the team?
  • Help others see what you see?

Consider targeting points relevant to your audience's perspective. A familiar theme, such as a values-based story, holds us with a connection that binds. Learning how to tell your purpose story is an investment of time, energy, and lots of practice, and you will benefit from all the effort. An authentic story will win out over bragging self-promotion any day. By connecting on an emotional level, your story becomes an instrument of change for yourself and those around you.

About the Author

Jane Horan, an author, speaker, and leadership expert, is the founder of the Horan Group, a strategic consulting firm helping organizations build inclusive work environments and meaningful careers. Prior to the Horan Group, she held senior Asia Pacific management positions at the Walt Disney Company, CNBC, and Kraft Foods. Jane has an extensive background in cross-cultural leadership and global team development, and is a frequent speaker on transformational women leaders, workplace politics, career transitions, and unconscious bias. She has authored three books: I Wish I’d Known That Earlier in My Career: The Power of Positive Workplace Politics, How Asian Women Lead: Lesson for Global Corporations, and Career Arcs. She holds a doctorate from Bristol University in leadership education.

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