by Gael O’Brien

What is it about purpose that makes an organization dynamic, inspiring and overflowing with what is possible?

Purpose has many names. Some organizations have elevated “mission” beyond the tactical to make it synonymous with purpose. Others let “vision” carry that mantle of meaning. No matter the terminology, purpose is a driver of engagement and motivation which is what makes it so important.

Of all the nuances of definition, I like best the simplicity of ad man Roy Spence’s description of purpose as “a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.” When, for example, a hospital’s purpose is “to save lives” and everyone from administration to custodial services to world-renown surgeons internalize and own that message in how they do their jobs daily, each contributing to the whole.

While there has been no shortage of research and books about the importance of having a corporate purpose, and its potential for transformative impact, the challenge is finding the words to give it form, sustained actions to give it life, and the right people to take the organization to its next level. Last year, a Deloitte study, “Culture of purpose: A business imperative,”   found that two-thirds of employees and executives surveyed agreed that business wasn’t doing enough to “instill in their culture a sense of purpose aimed at meaningful impact.”

Deloitte’s research provides a reason why a company benefits by going the extra mile to instill a powerful purpose in their culture. Of those surveyed who believed their company had a strong sense of purpose, 90 percent said their company performed well over the last year, had a strong financial history (91 percent), a distinct brand (91 percent), clearly defined values (89 percent) and strong satisfaction experienced by customers (94 percent) and employees (79 percent).

How do organizations make this happen? Christoph Lueneburger‘s  A Culture of Purpose (April 2014) argues that sustainability is “a way of doing business that builds cultures of purpose.” Providing examples of how nearly a dozen companies (including Owens Corning,  Bloomberg, PUMA and Unilever) transformed their organizations, Lueneburger’s book is a primer on the competencies, traits and cultural attributes that fuel successful sustainability programs and cultures of purpose.

Two examples: Owens Corning and Bloomberg.

Frank O’Brien-Bernini,  vice president and chief sustainability officer at Owens Corning headed up research and development before his CEO asked him to create the sustainability role. The company was then under bankruptcy protection and O’Brien-Bernini believed that the goals of “green” sustainability and business sustainability entwined.

Selecting a diverse team from throughout the organization, he led a change leadership initiative that focused on framing sustainability to maximize the “handprint” – what could be done through products to positively impact the world — as an aspiration that inspired collaboration and engagement, rather than relying on reducing their “footprint.”  His process affected the organization at every level and “created a change that no longer relies on a leader because it is part of the culture.”

As a result of sustainability efforts at Bloomberg, 87 percent of employees surveyed see sustainability as essential to Bloomberg’s culture. Led by Curtis Revenel, sustainability combines achieving environmental goals with growing Bloomberg’s brand in the sustainability arena (through products and services for investors, acquiring New Energy Finance and launching a sustainability website). When a leader connects sustainability to commercial goals, says Lueneburger, the results can be game-changing innovation: “Commercial drive, in a culture of purpose, is about identifying and moving toward business opportunities that are themselves sustainable.”

Lueneburger, who founded the sustainability practice at executive search firm Egon Zehnder, points out that a culture of purpose is also about attracting and promoting or hiring the people who have the traits (engagement, determination, insight and curiosity) to help build it. For the right people to want to sign on, he says, certain cultural attributes need to be present like high energy, resilience and openness. These attributes, he reminds us, foster trust, respect, and support, as well as encourage critical thinking, debate ongoing dialogue and transparency. Ultimately for Lueneburger, “cultures of purpose power winning organizations.”

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning  identified the critical human need to be motivated by a purpose bigger than oneself. In a speech more than 40 years ago, he referenced a statement by German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe that also has applicability to companies: “If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of what he can be.”

A culture of purpose ignites the talents, aspirations and sense of service of the men and women within the organization who, by how they work together and the impact that results, have the potential to lead a company to become what it is capable of becoming.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.


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