What Matters To You Is What Makes You A sense of purpose drives us personally and, more broadly, fuels any organization’s success, says convention keynoter Roy Spence. Features
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Features  |   September 01, 2018
What Matters To You Is What Makes You
Author Notes
  • Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. bmurraylaw@asha.org
    Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. bmurraylaw@asha.org×
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Development / Special Populations / Genetic & Congenital Disorders / School-Based Settings / Healthcare Settings / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Features
Features   |   September 01, 2018
What Matters To You Is What Makes You
The ASHA Leader, September 2018, Vol. 23, 42-46. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.23092018.40
The ASHA Leader, September 2018, Vol. 23, 42-46. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.23092018.40
The town of Brownwood is not big. A dot on the map, smack in the center of the great state of Texas, Brownwood lies just south of the Pecan Bayou. But in this little town of 10,000, young Roy Spence began formulating some big ideas. His inspiration came from two people he saw as larger than life.
One was his mother, Ruth, and the other was his older sister (by four years), Susan.
Susan was born in the mid-1940s with such a severe case of spina bifida that doctors feared she would die. They wanted to keep Susan in the hospital, but Spence’s mother insisted on taking her home. A driven woman who’d been a high school valedictorian and University of Texas graduate with honors, Ruth was convinced Susan would thrive in the loving care of her family.
Care for her they all did. Spence and his other sister, Mary Gordon, helped her with toileting and rubbed her legs to prevent bed sores. And every day, Spence would push her to and from school in her wheelchair. They were all proud when Susan graduated from high school and went on to community college—“unheard of in those days,” Spence says. In fact, Susan lived to be 49, for which Spence credits his mother. It’s also from his time with Susan that Spence derives his sense of purpose.
Because as Spence sat with Susan on her deathbed, he had a life-changing insight. “I realized that all the years I thought I’d been pushin’ her in her wheelchair, she’d actually been pushin’ me. Pushin’ me to be better, to not let anything hold me back,” Spence says. “She always used to say, ‘Roy, you don’t have to have legs to fly.’ And I realized my life’s journey, when I’m the happiest, has always been in the service of others.”
Now that Spence had grasped the importance of purpose, he wanted to help others do the same. As co-founder and CEO of the Purpose Institute, he’s devoted himself to this … well … purpose. Spence has brought his purpose-finding message to the marketing campaigns of organizations like Southwest Airlines, DreamWorks, the Clinton Foundation, Gallup, NBC Universal and Walmart. You’ll be familiar with the products of his advertising agency, GSD&M, which include those humorous Southwest spots and the iconic “Don’t Mess with Texas” slogan (did you know it began as an anti-litter campaign for the Texas Department of Highways?).
This November, Spence will bring his message to the ASHA Annual Convention, where he’ll deliver a keynote speech on the revolutionary idea of purpose—tied to the convention theme, “Revolutionary Learning, Evolutionary Practice.” Spence will emphasize the importance of ASHA’s vision to the lives of ASHA members and their clients.
“Making effective communication, a human right, accessible and achievable for all—that’s a mighty purpose,” Spence says. “That’s incredibly important work.”

“Quit asking yourself and your children what you want to do in life. Ask the different question: What do you love to do in life? If you love to fish, go open a fishing store.”

Personal purpose
Why does purpose matter so much in people’s work? It both satisfies and motivates, Spence says.
“Number one, the road to purpose is full of happiness and joy,” he says. “Every time I get off the road to purpose, I’m not as fulfilled, not as happy, not as productive. Number two, if you have purpose in your work, you never have a job. You just have work to do. Purpose in your career is waking up in the morning and saying, ‘I can hardly wait to see what’s out there.’ Versus, ‘Oh my God. I can hardly stand the thought of it.’”
Spence admits, though, that people can lose their sense of purpose, especially when hard times hit. When this happens, he says, it’s time to turn off the distractions in your life, ignore the naysayers and take some advice from one of Spence’s main heroes—Aristotle: Where your talents and the needs of the world intercept, therein lies your vocation.
So refocus on your strengths and passions, Spence advises: “My mom used to always say, ‘When you really get down on yourself, or you start thinking you’re the coolest person on the planet, either way, you need to break the cycle.” This requires time out from your day-to-day grind, usually by yourself, he explains. “Go climb a mountain. Go make a dress. Put your damn phone down. Unplug your computer. Don’t worry about what other people think, because that will hurt your thinking. Go do two or three days in the wilderness. Whatever that wilderness is. It doesn’t have to be the actual woods.”
Also, quit asking yourself and your children what you want to do in life, Spence advises. “Instead, ask the different question: What do you love to do in life? If you love to fish, go open a fishing store.”
Know this, though: Once you’ve broken the cycle and pinpointed your purpose, you can’t go it alone. You need people to help you fulfill your purpose, Spence says, but they need to be the right people. His mother, unsurprisingly, offered him life-guiding words on this point, too: “She said, ‘Now Roy, you know there’s two kinds of people in the world: the vinegar people and the honey people.’ I went, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Vinegar people are takers. Honey people are givers. Always hang out with the honey people.’”
Over the years, Spence has learned firsthand why this philosophy makes such a difference. “Because when you hang out with givers, you get more than you can ever imagine, because then you become a better giver, too,” he explains. “But if you hang out with takers, you just want to leave. It’s sort of like that saying: ‘If you don’t want someone to drive you crazy, don’t give ’em the keys!’”

“The road to purpose is full of happiness and joy. Every time I get off the road to purpose, I’m not as fulfilled, not as happy, not as productive …. If you have purpose in your work, you never have a job. You just have work to do.”

Organizational purpose
This idea that shared purpose propels people’s collective efforts is the crux of Spence’s work with organizations. Purpose doesn’t just drive individual success, he says. It does the same for organizational success. When personal purpose and organizational purpose come together in people’s careers, says Spence, magic happens.
He elaborates: For an organization’s employees to truly take pride in its product—and for consumers to truly embrace that product—the organization should be able to answer the following questions: What does your company stand for? What idea is it fighting for? What are its values? What purpose does your company serve? To illustrate, Spence points to his work with Southwest Airlines.
When Herb Kelleher started Southwest Airlines in 1971, the airline industry was heavily regulated. It was an oligopoly, which, Spence says, kept ticket prices so high that most Americans—85 percent—had never flown. Kelleher and others pressured the Supreme Court and Congress for change, noting that most Americans were priced out of flying and had to drive or take a bus instead. Their efforts paid off, and in the early 1970s the airline industry was deregulated and Southwest Airlines took off flying.
As Southwest ramped up its operations, Kelleher recruited Spence to help with marketing, and Spence immediately focused Kelleher on Southwest’s purpose. Spence’s thinking was fueled by such books as Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ 1994 book, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” which posed that enduring companies always have a purpose beyond making money—and, as a result, make more. “That book was a real wake-up call to corporate America,” Spence says.
At the time, Spence was gathering material for his own book, “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business is Driven By Purpose,” which would be published in 1994. As he considered Southwest’s purpose, it crystallized: It’s giving people the freedom to fly.
Spence told Kelleher: “Herb, you’re not in the airline business. You’re in the freedom business. He said, ‘What are you talkin’ about?’ I said, ‘You’re liberating Americans, democratizing the skies, letting ordinary people access the same things as rich people.’ He went, ‘We are? Well yeah. We are.’”
The company then built its marketing efforts on this freedom mantra, which, Spence says, reinforced that core value for its more than 57,000 employees. For Spence, this is a key ingredient of an organization’s success: Yes, customers need to sign on to its stated purpose. But, critically, its employees need to as well.
“When they have meetings at Southwest—whether it’s accounting, marketing or HR—they start with, ‘You know why we’re here? We’re here to help Americans have the freedom to fly. We’re not employees; we’re freedom fighters. That’s what this meeting’s about. Now let’s talk about accounting,’” Spence says. “So purpose just drives everything.” He adds that 85 to 87 percent of Americans have flown since the advent of deregulation and Southwest. “Economists call it the Southwest effect,” he says.

“When you hang out with givers, you get more than you can ever imagine, because then you become a better giver, too.”

For the greater good
A company’s stated purpose should also drive its most pivotal decisions, Spence believes. He returns to the example of Southwest, which two years ago faced the tough decision of whether to start charging fees for checked baggage, as most airlines do. A consultant advised the airline that it needed to charge for bags because it would add $350 million to the bottom line.
But, says Spence, “I said if you do that, it violates the purpose of the company because a bag costs the same amount as a ticket to Disneyworld. And we’re in the business of letting people dream and giving them the freedom to make that dream happen. So we didn’t charge for bags, and we marketed the hell out of it, and we drove billions of dollars of new revenue by keeping bags free.”
So, yes, we have Spence to thank for that. He, though, gives most of the credit to Southwest’s management and employees—for enacting the company’s liberating purpose. Much of Southwest’s success, be believes, comes from its employees’ strong engagement in that purpose. In less-successful companies, you often see relatively high employee disengagement, of 30 percent or more, says Spence, based on his work with Gallup.
“And when employees are disengaged, the company needs to look in the mirror,” he says. “Ninety percent of the time it’s the company’s fault. The leadership is more interested in money, rules, regulations, demands, covering their butts, whatever. Employees seem to be second-class citizens.”
Remember the remedy? It works on the organizational level, too: Break the cycle, go to the wilderness, find that sense of purpose—that mission of kindness and goodness—then share it and live it.

“I tell people, you can’t change the world, but you can change your world. And if enough of us change our own world, the whole world changes.”

“The world and America need more kindness and goodness. And goodness is not kumbaya. It’s hard work,” Spence says. “I tell people, you can’t change the world, but you can change your world. And if enough of us change our own world, the whole world changes. I know that sounds a little strange, but I believe it.”
Spence name-checks another of his heroes, Gandhi, as inspiring his belief that we find ourselves in the service of others—that we realize “the thrill of life” when channeling our talents in service. Getting there is easier than we think, he says, if we’re deliberate about it. He cites the example of a dental insurance company driven by the idea that everyone deserves to have a healthy smile.
“When everyone embraces that thought—that they’re not in the dentist business, they’re in the business of smiles—those employees go to work every day thinking that when they’re at their best, it’s a thrill to democratize dentistry,” Spence says. “And, God knows, we need more smiles now in the world.”
He sees the mission of audiologists and speech-language pathologists similarly: “You’re democratizing the ability for every human being to have effective communication. That’s what you’re doing when you’re at your best. That’s a thrill. It’s thrilling to look back and go, ‘God, I did that. I was a part of that.’”
Gear up for Roy Spence’s convention talk by learning more about him at www.royspence.com/who-is-this-guy.
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September 2018
Volume 23, Issue 9