The purpose-driven organization: It starts and ends with your culture

No matter how well you’ve aligned your organization to a purpose, if your effort does not resonate as internally authentic — you will not be successful.

What does it mean to be a purpose-driven organization? I want to help answer that question, but from a specific viewpoint—what it means to your culture, the importance of living your own company values and how that translates to your employees.

But first, let me tell you a story. Not long ago, my friend Leticia worked for an organization that prized itself on being purpose driven. It had a strong brand values statement with a higher purpose and well-articulated core values (including diversity, equity and inclusion) that seamlessly tied to its products and brand communications. But there was something missing. The treatment of its own employees was wholly disconnected from its external brand. 

Leaders were aloof at best and manipulative at worst. Bad behavior was ignored, and sometimes even rewarded. Yelling, bullying and various forms of harassment went unchecked and fear-based thinking ruled the day. The company hired for diversity, but after discovering the work environment, most people did not stay long. Yes, it had positioned itself as a purpose-driven organization—but on the inside, away from the public eye, the culture was toxic.

Eventually, an internal culture laden with negativity, low morale, constant stress and high turnover inevitably seeped into external awareness (through word of mouth and portals like Glassdoor). Ultimately, the organization’s reputation was tarnished. It lost the talent it needed to be an innovative leader and went into decline. Dedicated to the higher ideals of the organization, Leticia held on longer than most, but she eventually moved on. And much like leaving a bad relationship, she discovered that it didn’t have to be that way.

If this story sounds familiar, you are not alone. Many organizations have touted their stance on being a purpose-driven organization without giving due consideration to the heart of the organization—it’s culture and people.  

Why is culture so important to being purpose-driven?

According to research from Deloitte, “Purpose-oriented companies have higher productivity and growth rates, along with a more satisfied workforce who stay longer with them.” The research shows that “such companies report 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of workforce retention than their competitors.” But there is an important caveat: a purpose-driven organization starts and ends with your culture. In other words, no matter how well you’ve aligned your organization to a specific purpose, if your effort does not resonate as internally authentic—your story will not translate to life inside your company, and ultimately, you will not be successful. 

You’re only as “good” as stakeholders believe you are—as your culture behaves. No matter what you tell the world, your employees’ behavior will speak louder. To create belief in your organization, you need a purpose-driven culture.

Gallup research

In a purpose-driven culture, the behavior of the employees embodies the organizational purpose and core values. They don’t just recite those values, they are reflected in their choices, their decisions, how they treat each other and how they interact at every touchpoint.  

If you’re wondering if you have a purpose-driven culture, experts at Gallup suggest you contemplate the degree to which your organization aligns with 12 statements, including these five that stood out to me.

  1. The purpose of our company makes every employee feel their job is important.
  2. Our employees believe leadership is fully aligned on brand and culture priorities.
  3. Our employees are held accountable for living our purpose and values.
  4. Our purpose and culture attract the best talent in the industry.
  5. Our purpose and values are priority inputs in every leader’s decision-making.

So, if for instance, your values claim a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, then each of these must be reflected in your culture. Your company will be clearly diverse (including your leadership ranks), your employees will feel that they are treated equitably (with regard to salary and advancement) and they will say they feel included and have a sense of belonging. In essence, your core brand values will be reflected in the make-up of your organization and in the behavior and opinions of your employees. 

Over time, with a purpose-driven culture, you’ll notice greater collaboration, higher levels of innovation and performance and greater success with recruitment and retention.

To be clear, if your efforts to be a purpose-driven organization lack cultural integration, you may be able to fake it for a while, but not for long. Employees and customers will eventually catch on and once they do, there’s no stopping the bad reputation that will follow.

Part two of this article series will discuss the five ways you can build a purpose-driven culture.