Best of TLNT 2017: Why Your Organization’s Purpose is Important to Your Culture

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Jan 20, 2017
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 26 of 2017. You can find the complete list here.


Purpose. It’s a trending topic for businesses today. A quick Google search of the phrase “company + purpose” produces a whopping 700 million results. Harvard Business Review has published more than two dozen articles on the subject last year alone.

And leaders across the country – and the world – are paying attention; working to figure out what role purpose should play in their organizations and in their cultures, because this topic is becoming increasingly near and dear to their employees’ and customers’ hearts.

To work, being purpose-driven must be a way of life. It must be central to your culture and embedded into how you run your company – not a strategic initiative or a flavor-of-the-month campaign crowned by a nice purpose statement that can be marketed. When purpose doesn’t have a true connection to a brand, it will be transparent to employees and customers alike.

Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow tells us that belongingness is part of one of the major needs that motivate human behavior. And when people feel connected to their organization’s purpose, when they feel they belong, work becomes more than just a methodical, financial-based transaction. It becomes a place where they can go on an adventure and have a sense of belonging, meaningfully contributing and investing their true selves to accomplish things they never could on their own.

Sometimes the purpose of a brand can feel a bit nebulous, but if an organization is living its purpose in its culture and actions, customers will see it, feel it and believe it.

Above and beyond

As an example, a few years ago I was on a business trip in rural Connecticut. One morning, I went to my rental car and found it was not working. I had about a 20 minute drive and my meeting with a new client was starting in 30 minutes. I went to the front desk’s general manager (this was pre-Uber, obviously) and after making some calls, I was told that the closest taxi was 30 minutes away and the hotel shuttle was already out. Seeing my desperation, the general manager made the very unconventional move of calling the competitor hotel across the street to ask if its shuttle was available and if they would be willing to help out. Certainly, this was not in her job description and likely even broke some rule in the rule book. Luckily, the competitor’s shuttle was available and I made it to the meeting after all.

Needless to say my view of that GM, that hotel and the brand overall went up significantly.

What defines this particular hotel chain is how they are able to activate their strategic ambitions through their culture. Team members focus on the little things that make a big difference, that create stories worth sharing by guests. And they are given significant leeway to leverage their own strengths and creativity to make that happen. I happened to be the beneficiary of that philosophy that day, but it is also what had made this particular brand an industry leader for many years in its category.

Purpose matters

Today’s workforce and shoppers are made up of people who are more in tune with what the companies they buy from and work at stand for. They want to know the reasons why they are doing something – beyond that it bolsters the bottom line. Companies that can articulate this, integrate it into its culture, be authentic about it, and help people connect to it will benefit from attracting the best workers, the most loyal customers and sustained success.

This isn’t just speculation. Employees are paying attention to what companies are saying and doing. If given a choice, they’re going to want the job with the company that aligns with their values.

Millennials expect a social component

Take this blog from famed investor Mark Cuban. In it, he explores the whole idea of socio-capitalism, essentially saying that socio-capitalism is capitalism to millennials: “…[they] don’t want to just make a profit, they want to make a profit and share their success with those less fortunate.” Think Tom’s Shoes one-for-one program and Warby Parker’s similar disruption of the eyewear space.

Shoppers care, too. Customers want their hard-earned money to go to brands that do something good for the world or that do things “the right way.” According to a Trendera study from October 2014, 50% of people said that social/ethical responsibility was the most important consideration when making a purchase. That increases to a staggering 75% for the 25-to-34-year-old female demographic (who coincidentally have a lot of spending power).

Cuban goes on to say that 20-something consumers actually expect a social component from companies with whom they do business. And it’s arguable that this expectation goes well beyond just millennials, making the discussion of purpose so critically important.

So if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing or articulate it to customers and employees, then it’s time to figure things out — or prepare for resignation letters and customer drop-off.

Perfecting your purpose

Leaders need to realize the importance of taking people on a meaningful journey. Purpose is the goal of that journey. When people feel connected to purpose, well then, that’s where authentic engagement comes from! Yet, many leaders miss the mark by leading with marketing-speak rather than plain English. Often this is because they doubt their purpose is valiant enough and overcompensate with exaggerations and elaborations.

When President Kennedy stated, “This nation should commit itself to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade,” he made the purpose of the NASA program so direct and clear that this single idea motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.

Interestingly enough, the modern version of the space story now rests with Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and Tesla. He has created an equally ambitious yet simple statement for his space engineering company, SpaceX, by declaring its purpose is to make life multi-planetary. And everything the company does from sea launches and landings to building re-usable rockets is in service of that larger goal of eventually inhabiting the planet Mars.

Unfortunately in business, most people are not as eloquent or skilled at “straight talk.” Leaders tend to string catch phrases together, creating a disconnect from what they really intend to say.

Consider what authors Chip and Dan Heath stated in their book, Made to Stick. They theorized that if JFK had been a CEO getting the benefit of current day management consultants, he would have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” Is this as compelling as what JFK actually said? Not by a long shot.

Your organization’s purpose impacts the WHY, HOW and WHAT you do. Your culture is your way of activating and authentically living it. If you don’t know your purpose, or if it’s not fully baked, you can probably skate — for a while. But rest assured, eventually the competition will soar past you because they will be more in tune where demographic, customer and market forces are moving.

So, what’s holding you back? Invest the time now and you can be at the forefront of your industry – leading with heart. I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.