Four Keys to Building a Purpose-Driven Culture

Peter Drucker was wrong when he said the only goal of a business is profit. Profit is absolutely essential to success, but it’s only an outcome driven by a broader vision. Communicating a clear mission and purpose is one of the most important things a CEO can do to ensure lasting success.

Most organizations adopt a mission statement. It’s announced with great fanfare, hung in the breakroom, and quickly forgotten. If a mission isn’t lived and purpose isn’t reinforced, employees feel unfocused and directionless, unable to see the bigger picture. People want to feel like their organization and their day-to-day work makes a difference.

Mission statements only tell what organizations do, but purpose-driven cultures show why they do it. With purpose, employees have meaning and connection. Employees don’t need specific direction for every action because they understand their role on the team and are motivated to deliver real value to the organization.

“To Sell is Human” author Daniel Pink got it right when he said leaders only get their people’s best efforts if they’re connected to purpose and meaning. It brings clarity to what an organization does, the impact it has and where the business is headed. That can be a big differentiator, and it can also drive innovation.

Just look at Nike. Internally, Nike talks about bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete. When Nike defined its purpose, they asked, “Who’s an athlete?” Nike decided an “athlete” is not just someone with world-class physical talent — it’s anyone who engages in sports. That clarity has led to inspiration, promoted innovation and sustained the company’s place in the Fortune 100. Employees around the world know the project they work on will help one of those athletes.

Leaders who want to build a purpose driven-culture should think about four key principles: authenticity, gradual change, repetition, and alignment with values.

  1. Go for authenticity – When you sit down to describe your organization’s purpose, be authentic. Companies often exaggerate or try to differentiate themselves in disingenuous ways. For example, if a toothpick manufacturing company states its purpose is “to save lives,” stakeholders will immediately spot that insincerity. An authentic purpose feels collective and aspirational. It respects people. It tells them who an organization is, and it gives them a chance to decide if they want to be part of it. Employees are free agents and can leave an organization at any time. But if they are engaged behind a purpose, it drives excitement and makes them want to stay.
  2. Establish purpose gradually – Often, organizations try to drive change too quickly through a traditional change management process. Leaders have, and need, the flexibility that time brings. You can’t just have one meeting, put your purpose up on a wall and expect overnight change. Employees at every level have to see the organization consistently making decisions in support of its purpose. When you lead by example again and again, employees believe it. The executive team has to consistently demonstrate its alignment with the purpose, and that also takes a while. If senior leaders aren’t on-board, why should employees be? CEOs build purpose-driven cultures in years, not weeks.
  3. Repeat the purpose often – Purpose isn’t an organization’s secret code. Broadcast your purpose through every channel at every opportunity. Whether it’s a supplier, partner, member or coworker, everyone should know what an organization’s purpose is. It’s not a marketing gimmick. It’s not something that only applies to certain situations. The purpose is why an organization exists. Reinforce it time and again to make it stick.
  4. Align it with core values – A purpose-driven culture must align with organizational values. If values and purpose are at odds, employees feel the same as if they have no purpose at all. When every team member understands why an organization is in business, it enables organizations to take better approaches to growth and partnerships. For example, approaching a supplier not with demands or budget cuts, but with an attitude of: “This is our purpose, and this is what we’re trying to accomplish. Can you help us get there?”

Author and motivational speaker Earl Nightingale said, “You become what you think about.” This is true for organizations too, and organizations that think about their purpose become it. Everyone stays focused on getting the organization there. Executives make the right decisions. Employees treat customers well because they know their actions make a difference. The best talent wants to work there. Ultimately, that all leads to growth and profit.


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