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Building a Purpose-Culture

Why Some Companies Have It and Other’s Don’t

Most leaders got the memo: building a purpose-culture isn’t only good business – it’s necessary to attract younger talent and thrive in the future. Businesses are the most powerful institution in our world. They’re ideally positioned – maybe even carry the social responsibility – to help us reach many of the Sustainable Development Goals: from improving our climate and social equality to promoting health and well-being, to preserving life below water and on land.

While many companies attempt to create a more purpose-driven culture, most of them fail. McKinsey Quarterly states that a playbook for building a purpose-culture is only just emerging.

Man standing in hilly landscape


After working with organizations from one to 150,000 people on five continents, here are my ten fundamental elements for making a purpose-culture work.

1. A purpose-culture needs more than a purpose

To make a purpose-culture stick, it requires both a purpose and a strong, values-driven culture. Consider Uber Founder, Travis Kalanick, who destructed the success of reaching his purpose with his own misconduct as a CEO.

Think of Purpose as the “game you’re playing”, and the Culture as the “rules of the game”. It’s impossible to play a game without an agreement around the rules. A strong culture ensures that the company stays on track with its purpose and doesn’t cut corners when ego gets involved or the going gets rough.

To make a purpose-culture stick, it requires both a purpose and a strong, values-driven culture.

2. Reach for the stars

If you want to access the emotional power of purpose, you must create a “higher purpose” – a purpose that reaches beyond the benefit of your organization. A higher purpose must first-and foremost serve society, the community, or the environment.

Patagonia’s purpose statement includes “…to use business to solve the environmental crisis”. Even the toughest business decisions are driven by this purpose, such as their choice to move all of their cotton products to organic cotton at a time where organic cotton wasn’t available in quantities that Patagonia needed. When your employees or customers sense that your purpose is created in an attempt to improve your business results, it becomes inauthentic. The purpose won’t stick.

Trees illuminated at night

3. Avoid purpose-washing

Building a purpose-culture is quickly becoming a trend. Many of the leaders we speak with aspire to build a purpose-culture without knowing the commitment that’s required. If you choose to build a purpose-culture, you must go all the way. Establishing a purpose-driven business only to attract talent, drive business results, or continue business-as-usual can easily backfire, yielding the company’s leadership less trustworthy, harming reputation, and lowering employee engagement.

As you establish an authentic purpose-culture, your business results cannot take precedence over your purpose, anymore. If they do, your stakeholders will feel that you’re just using your purpose to drive results, and they’ll disengage. This implies that ultimately you must become a social impact business: an organization whose primary purpose is to make a social impact. By now, you probably get a sense why so few companies are able to succeed with building a purpose-culture.

Building a Purpose-Culture means to travel the road less traveled. Are you willing to go all the way?

4. Involve everyone

To make a purpose-culture stick, a company needs buy-in from across the organization. Involve everyone, especially when building the culture. If people aren’t involved, they don’t take ownership. Create the rules of the game together with your team and use them as guideposts to keep everyone on track in pursuit of your purpose.

5. Change your consciousness – not your business

In a business world that has for decades, if not centuries, been driven by financial results, the notion that a social impact business can ultimately yield the same or better results is a stretch for many. Building a purpose-culture is not a process change – it requires a fundamental change in consciousness. A purpose-driven culture cannot be authentic and sustainable with the traditional, profit- and goals-driven mindset.

Ask yourself honestly: are you managing towards Profits or People?

Building a purpose-culture is not a process change – it requires a fundamental change in consciousness.

6. A successful purpose culture starts with you

Since building a purpose-driven culture requires a different mindset for running an organization, it starts with you. To succeed in building a purpose-driven business, you have to graduate from being a manager – someone who effectively handles people and circumstances – to being a leader – someone who’s able to lead the way, even in adverse circumstances.

A leader has to first become clear about her own purpose and values, and whether she’s willing to take a stand for it in challenging situations. Get ready, yourself, before asking others to step up.

7. From puddles to oceans

Especially in larger organizations, establishing a purpose-driven culture is tricky. Many top leaders aren’t ready to make the necessary change, because they’ve succeeded in a traditional paradigm. For many, it’s too risky to change. To ingrain a purpose-culture in a larger organization, build puddles of purpose-cultures across the organization. As these puddles grow and ultimately merge, they become a larger, more powerful body of influence. Eventually, the system can tip.

Connect early adopters to reach the tipping point.

Man balancing on rock at sunset

8. Let your goals serve your purpose

Traditional businesses run on goals. Usually set from the top, they’re enacted by managers and monitored by controlling divisions. This structure cannot coexist with a purpose-driven culture: a mandate to increase sales by 20%, for example, while at the same time pursuing a higher purpose, requires managers and employees to make a choice. If an organization leads with goals, the purpose-driven culture usually moves to the backburner. To keep the power of setting goals at your disposal, make them subordinate to your purpose. Define goals that serve your purpose.

9. Connect your people with the impact

To boost your purpose-culture, let your people experience first-hand the impact they’re making in the world. If your purpose is to have a positive impact on the environment, offer your employees an opportunity to get engaged on the ground. If your purpose is to improve the health and well-being of people, let them connect with the individuals your company has impacted.

To boost your purpose-culture, let your people experience first-hand the impact they’re making in the world.

This doesn’t only make your company’s purpose more tangible; it provides your employees with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that they wouldn’t get by sitting in the office.

10. You don’t have a choice

After reading the above, your enthusiasm for building a purpose-driven business might be dampened, possibly extinguished. If that’s the case, be thankful. If you indeed choose to build a purpose-driven culture, you want to be ready to go all the way. We don’t recommend for anyone to stumble into initiating such a profound transformation in their organization. So, before pulling the trigger, make a conscious choice to be all-in. Know what’s in front of you.

But stay vigilant: with more than 80% of the younger workforce (and consumers) looking to work with more purpose, the choice not to build a purpose-driven culture might not be at any leaders’ disposal for much longer.

Wondering how a purpose-driven culture looks like in the real world? Explore Buurtzorg, the 11,000-people strong nursing care provider in The Netherlands. Rather than giving shots and changing bandages in the most effective way, like many traditional providers do (some pre- determine the amount of time for specific tasks: 21 seconds for an injection – 50 seconds for measuring blood pressure), former nurse Jos de Blok set up Buurtzorg with the purpose “to help people live meaningful, autonomous lives”. Everything at Buurtzorg is done to fulfill this purpose, driven by three main cultural principles: humanity above bureaucracy; simplicity above complexity; practical above hypothetical.

One way this shows up is in Buurtzorg’s self-managing org structure (Teal Organization) that places as much decision-making as possible into small teams, including hiring, firing, scheduling, and compensation. As a result, Buurtzorg only has approximately 50 people in management, compared with about 750 for regular businesses of the same size. The performance results of this purpose-driven organization are eye opening: 30% higher client satisfaction, 50% less staff turnover, 67% less overhead, and 33% less staff absenteeism. Get inspired and learn more in this video.

Peter Matthies is a former software entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and founder of the Conscious Business Institute (CBI). CBI provides a structured, measurable, and scalable way for organizations to become more inspiring, purpose-driven, and life-giving. CBI programs have been used by over 35,000 professionals in organizations from 1-150.000 people, including Starbucks, ... Read more

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