A Primer on Creating a Purpose-Driven Culture

Finding meaning and purpose in what you do for a living is arguably a better way to live. Nurturing an organizational culture in which work has meaning and connects to a purpose (beyond making money) is arguably a better way to run a company. Why?


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According to Dan Pink’s research, meaning and purpose are critical to getting people to give their best effort and to accomplish extraordinary things. Furthermore, a recent study by NYU indicates that purpose-oriented workers are more likely to thrive than those who work mainly for status, pay, or an advancement because such individuals are more likely to stay engaged, perform, and to lead. Based on our own research, our next generation of leaders—Millennials—are more likely to report that “being inspired by their bosses” and understanding how their work contributes to the success of the business are especially important to them.

Yet, creating a purpose-driven organization is difficult. According to NYU’s research, fewer than 30% of the U.S. workforce is naturally oriented to see work as a means to derive meaning in their life. Thus, for most—that other 70%—finding a higher purpose in their work does not come naturally. Based on our extensive research on what it takes to be a Best Boss, only the best managers lead from a higher purpose.

Here are five recommendations for where businesses should focus their efforts on the journey to be a purpose-oriented organization.

  1. Start at the top. Senior management teams can be skeptical of the importance of purpose in an environment that, rightly so, places a great deal of emphasis on financial performance, growth, and market competition. That said, commitment from the top is critical in this journey. To help crystallize an inspirational vision, ask questions and really listen to what people have to say. Every organization has an inspiring purpose, if you stay open to finding it. Consider the work of mining raw materials for ferrochrome. This doesn’t sound like the most inspiring work, but an executive of the company who does this told me that his company was improving “the standard of living for people all over the world” because ferrochrome is used to make stainless steel. With that purpose in mind, it was easier to align people to the vision throughout his division.
  2. Make the distinction between purpose and mission. When we start asking people about their purpose, the first responses are generally describing a mission instead. Mission—what we do—is talked about far more often than purpose in an organization, so it is understandable that this is the first place people go. After all, accomplishing the mission is how we measure success. Purpose—why we do what we do—can be harder to articulate. As a rule of thumb, if your answer to the question “What is our purpose?” doesn’t inspire you, it’s not a good purpose statement.
  3. Encourage and equip frontline and middle-level managers to be purpose-oriented leaders.  These folks take their cues from the top, so role modeling is key in this regard. Based on our experience of evaluating more than 10,000 frontline leaders during the past decade, communicating an inspirational vision or purpose to others is perhaps the least-developed skill we’ve observed. The first thing managers can do is to spend time with their people talking about the why behind what they do and connecting it to the company’s purpose. Like many things, it takes practice to develop a well-crafted, simple, and inspiring purpose statement that enables others to tell their stories. Make a habit of asking people to discuss the organization’s purpose and reinforce this purpose frequently. Continuously talking about purpose will help inform the company’s statement.
  4. Get it right from the start: select leaders who connect people with their purpose.  Make a practice of emphasizing this behavior as a core capability when hiring and promoting associates and leaders. Consider including “Leading with Purpose” in your leader models and success profiles. Start with pivotal roles to organizational success and expand from there. Focus across the leadership life cycle, from first time leaders to the C-suite.
  5. Make it personal.  Beyond identifying a shared purpose, ask people to discuss what gives them personal meaning at work. The variety of responses may lead to inspiring insights and will make it easier for managers to connect with people in a way that really resonates with them. Along the way, you’re bound to learn something new about your colleagues and possibly about yourself.

Research tells us that connecting people to the organization’s purpose and that which gives them meaning in their life are highly relevant to establishing competitive advantage. Doing so creates a means by which leaders engage with and connect to their colleagues. Businesses would be well advised to make creating a purpose-driven culture as easy as possible.

Keith Goudy, Ph.D., is the managing partner at Vantage Leadership Consulting. Dr. Goudy has 20 years of consulting and leadership experience and has extensive experience with working with individual sand senior management teams to optimize their effectiveness and demonstrate strategic leadership.