When purpose is not enough: Why you need a healthy, values-based culture to bring your organisation’s purpose to life


Finding your true purpose in life is a wonderful thing. But as any purposeful leader will tell you, that ‘light bulb moment’ – the moment when you realise what you’re here on the earth to do – is just the beginning of the journey.  To make real change happen in your life, you need to cultivate good habits, tend to your relationships and adopt the right mental attitude in different situations. Only then can you truly start to embody your purpose.

The same is true for organisations. A clear sense of ‘purpose beyond profit’ can transform a company’s fortunes. But without a healthy and aligned culture, a company’s purpose will be nothing more than seeds on rocky ground.

To create real transformation where you work, you need to choose the right values, cultivate the right behaviours and build the culture that supports and embodies your organisational purpose. Investing in culture is just as important as investing in purpose: in fact, the two go hand in hand.

A purpose statement is just the start

Nailing your purpose is a huge step for any organisation. A well-considered, well-articulated purpose statement can act as a “North Star” for everyone involved in the company.

While your North Star will point you in the right direction, however, it won’t get you there on its own. Nor can organisational purpose be ‘achieved’ by a handful of senior leaders.

To create a living, breathing purpose in your company, you need to develop a culture in which every employee is committed to the shared goal and is empowered to put the company’s purpose into practice.

Letting people commit to your purpose

What is it that drives some employees to truly commit to the organisations they work for? In our experience, it goes beyond simply believing in the organisation’s purpose. You also need alignment between what the employee values and what the organisation collectively values.

When we talk about investing in culture, we mean spending time considering which values and behaviours will help your organisation fulfil its purpose. To put it in Simon Sinek’s terms, once you’ve “started with the why”, you then have to figure out “how”.

This means going beyond the generic, ‘permission to play’ values such as ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ and figuring out what truly makes your company tick.

Are you, like cartographers Ordnance Survey, “adventurous, incisive, restless and true”? Do you and your employees prize disruption, individual initiative and a “move fast and break things” attitude? Or are patience, rigour and consensus building more important?

Clarifying the choice

Working on your culture means creating a shared understanding of what is collectively valued and which behaviours are expected as result. This gives employees a clear choice: do my own personal values allow me to commit to the shared values of the organisation? Can I buy into both the purpose and the culture that supports it?

Many people who have worked for ethical and compassionate businesses (or indeed, for charities or government) will recognise this dilemma: believing passionately in an organisation’s mission but finding it difficult to cope with the culture. This could be because the culture is broken and dysfunctional, or might simply be that it doesn’t match your personal values.

Recognising that purpose and mission is only one part of the equation can help purpose-led organisations attend to fixing dysfunctional cultures – and can also help individuals make better informed decisions about where to work.

A shared culture allows people to co-create a lived purpose

Once employees are committed to the purpose and culture, the organisation’s shared set of values and agreed behaviours will give them a secure platform and a common language for putting purpose into practice.

For purpose to stick, it needs to be something that every employee can grab with both hands and make their own, no matter what their competences and responsibilities are. This is the beauty of purpose: it can unlock the creative and problem-solving potential of every employee.

To prevent everyone from pulling in different directions, however, there has to be a common set of expectations binding the team together. Your culture is the ‘glue’ that creates the trust necessary for people to be able to act autonomously in support of the shared goal.

Culture is a differentiator

Remember, other organisations may well have the same purpose as you. It is your values and culture that will differentiate you in the minds of employees, partners and customers.

At The House, our purpose is to make business a force for good. Happily, this purpose is shared by many of our friends in the purposeful business movement.

This does mean, however, that we have had to take a long look at ourselves – as individuals and as a collective – to determine how we can live our purpose in a way that is true to our values as a consultancy.

This isn’t easy and we don’t always get it right. Maintaining a healthy, values-led culture is hard work. But identifying your values always gives you a safe harbour to come back to when day-to-day things start to go sideways. Our values create a space for ‘safe conflict’: where we can challenge each other and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Purpose and culture are two different things, requiring different sets of skills and tools to nurture and build. But they are also intimately linked.

It’s difficult to build a healthy set of values and behaviours that make up culture without an underlying shared purpose, and it is impossible to bring purpose to life within an organisation without a healthy and aligned culture. Only by investing properly in both can you unleash the full potential of your organisation and its people.

Graham Massey is Business Head of The House, a purpose-driven business, culture and brand consultancy. To find out more, please visit www.thehouse.co.uk