The first step to developing professional purpose is to think about what actually empowers you.

This week, I conducted a training programme for a group of managers from one of Malaysia’s largest highway concessionaries.

It was an exciting programme for me, not least because I’d never run a programme in a highway toll plaza, before. More importantly, it was interesting because of a question that I was asked at the session.

The programme centred on how to develop a strong purpose drive in order to achieve both personal and organisational results.

One of the managers who attended the training programme was in complete agreement with the premise of my training that he needed to establish professional purpose, but he lamented that he had found it so difficult to nail this down.

I suggested some ideas for him to consider, and I figured it would be worth sharing them here.

You have heard this phrase “leaving a legacy”. Many think that leaving a legacy or wanting to be remembered in a particular way is perhaps the best foundation for your professional purpose.

I suggested to him that he should focus less on this, and more on what empowered him and made him feel proud. Through my work, I meet many people who focus just on what others think of them. For these types of people, their actions are all about showing others that they are good people.

I also meet people who are hugely successful as executives, entrepreneurs and leaders. Now these types of people always focus on their strengths, inner core beliefs, and values. They do not chase after external motivation, like fame and fortune. But they do understand that fame and fortune are ensuing by-products of doing the right thing, or of serving a higher purpose.

So, your first step to developing professional purpose is to think about what actually empowers you.

The second question I asked him to consider was what resonated with him.

Years ago in one of my earliest commercial ventures, quite serendipitously, a neurosurgeon called Dr. M. Nachiappan offered me financial support. At the time, I was in my late twenties and partnering with him was a real god-send, for a novice businessperson like me.

He was an affable man, who was a hugely successful as a surgeon. To be honest, he had no real need to join my business, at least from monetary stand-point. Perhaps he liked my idea, or perhaps he just felt compelled to help a young guy like me start on my entrepreneurial journey.

In any case, I was truly grateful for his involvement.

Ironically the business did not last the test of time. Two years after it began, it ran into trouble, and I had to shut it down. And, after we had unraveled the ensuing commercial debts of the business, I was extremely disappointed, and a tad embarrassed.

It was at this point that Dr. Nachi gave me some advice, which has stuck with me till today.

He asked me to really reflect on what I thought I was good at, and to think deeply about what skills I had. He then told me that if I wanted to be successful, I ought to think about what I would be willing to do even I didn’t get paid a single cent.

The answers to Dr. Nachi’s questions helped me figure out what truly resonated with me.

For the manager who asked me the question, I asked him to also think about specifics, instead of just conjuring up vague ideas of what he wanted in his life.

Determining a goal can be quite easy. You covet certain things. So, you quickly establish them as goals in your life. But how successful you are at achieving these goals is determined largely by your purpose-drive.

If your purpose is unclear, you will not reach our goals.

For example, I like going to Penang. My folks live there, some of my oldest friends are there, and arguably it’s the food capital of Malaysia. So from time to time, going to Penang is my goal. But it is my purpose that determines how quickly I get there.

If I am going up for a leisurely weekend, I usually drive there, making pit-stops along the way for food, or to visit friends along the way. However, if I am going to Penang for a meeting with a client, or a training programme, my choice is always to jump on an airplane, and get there as quickly as I can. My purpose governs my mode of travel.

Similarly, when you consider what your professional purpose is, don’t confuse your goals with your purpose. The goal is your destination. But it’s your purpose that determines how you travel there.

If like the manager who asked me for help, you are having difficulties in working out what your professional purpose is, perhaps you should ask yourself these questions.

What empowers you; what resonates with you; and can you differentiate between your goals and your purpose?

If you can answer these questions honestly, I know you will be well on your way to determining your professional purpose.

Shankar R. Santhiram is managing consultant and executive leadership coach at EQTD Consulting. He is also the author of the national bestseller “So, You Want To Get Promoted?”