Building a Company Culture of Purpose
By: Christoph Lueneburger, author of A Culture of Purpose: How to Choose the Right People and Make the Right People Choose You (Jossey-Bass, 2014)
Today’s brightest, most creative minds newly entering the work force, more than those of any generation before them, take into account an organization’s values rather than just a hiring package’s monetary value.
They are looking, in short, for a culture of purpose, and companies with such a culture have an “unfair” advantage when it comes to getting and retaining top talent.
The culture of a company, at its core, is the set of beliefs and customs — the kinds of thinking and behaving — that characterizes its people. A company’s evolution from a culture to a culture of purpose starts with its leaders committing to a shared vision with impact beyond the company itself. And where culture and purpose come together, you’ll find the most vibrant, desired and successful companies of our time.
How do you build a culture of purpose? You build it by betting on bold leaders who can attract the best people, people who think differently.
Attracting such people requires the courage to be challenged by them and the discipline to consistently foster the three cultural attributes such people will seek in their professional lives:
1. Energy: the ability of the organization to self-start and maintain long-term momentum at a high level. It’s the mojo of your tribe. High energy cultures feel like a beehive: relentless and highly affiliative with a strong shared objective.
- What to look for: People have actionable aspirations, and act on them.
- How to look for it: “What is the most extraordinary thing this company has done since you joined? What’s next?”
- Red Flags: You will intuitively spot the greatest challenge to energy. It’s the paralysis of a debating society: as soon as alignment arises, new arguments are brought up. The culture tolerates too much complexity.
Trade-offs necessary to reach a decision are either not accepted outright or devolved through the corporate hierarchy. Deadlines are missed and things don’t get done, or they get done late and with too many compromises.
2. Resilience: the ability of the organization to remain cohesive and composed under persistent internal or external stress and to overcome resistance effectively. It’s the moxie to bounce back. Members of a resilient culture rely on mutual trust and respect to deal with conflict constructively and transparently. They take responsibility for their actions, even (and particularly) when things go wrong, trusting the team to support them.
- What to look for: People deal with conflict openly and constructively.
- How to look for it: “When have leaders of the company been candidly challenged by others? What causes conflict to simmer here?”
- Red Flags: The most common deterrent of resilience is a bureaucracy. This one is not always obvious on first glance. Bureaucratic cultures rely on highly regimented ways of working and limited channels of communication both internally and with the world outside.
As a result, the quantity and quality of information that reaches and is digested by the organization are greatly reduced. It is slow to respond to critical needs and to see change, and it rejects quick action or outside opinions about what needs to be done. As a result, such cultures are often preoccupied with internal processes.
3. Openness: the ability to proactively seek and adapt to new (and contradictory) information. Members of an open culture challenge themselves by seeking new information, best practices, and outside participants to question current thinking. Innovation jams and skip-level meetings, for example, are tools for open cultures.
- What to look for: The organization maximizes the ease of correcting mistakes rather than the difficulty of making them.
- How to look for it: “Are there witch hunts? Can you think about a time that a mistake was celebrated? How does this organization learn from mistakes? Can you give me a recent specific example and tell me about the mechanisms in place to accelerate learning?”
- Red Flags: The greatest challenge to openness is a tribal culture, which exacerbates low openness with a lack of balance.
Balance, as a cultural attribute, describes the degree to which organizations not only include a diversity of perspectives, skills, and styles but also express, recognize, and leverage the resulting differences. And the less a culture is balanced, the more openness will suffer. If companies could go stale, this would be how.
The silent fourth attribute implicit in the shared purpose of the culture itself is Alignment, borne out of inspiring a meaningful number of people to do the “right” things in pursuit of an inspirational ideal (rather than committing them to do things right in service of inwardly-centered metrics, like profitable growth or shareholder value).
Cultures of purpose are not theoretical constructs: you’ll know them by the passion and intent of their people, the trust among them, and their intolerance of cynicism. And once you have experienced one, you will not want trade down.
Christoph Lueneburger, author of A Culture of Purpose: How to Choose the Right People and Make the Right People Choose You (Jossey-Bass, 2014), founded the Sustainability Practice of Egon Zehnder in 2008 and built it into a market leader before being appointed leader of the firm’s global Private Equity Practice.
Christoph has served on the Wall Street Journal steering committee for ECO:nomics and hosts the Egon Zehnder Sustainability Dinners; guests include the CEOs and chairs of businesses and NGOs (such as Siemens, Weight Watchers, The Nature Conservancy, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, GE, and AIG). He advises clients ranging from across a broad spectrum of industries, ranging from consumer products to heavy mining on their sustainability and talent strategies.
Previously, he was a partner at 3Stone Advisors, leading the water investments of the firm. His work on sustainability and leadership has been published by People & Strategy, Harvard Business School and MIT's Sloan Management Review (as lead author together with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership). He is a fellow of the Aspen Institute. He holds an MBA from INSEAD and has lived and worked in the United States, Germany, and France.