Date posted: 21/12/2017 8 min read

Creating a sense of purpose in the workplace

A new book shows how to change work culture in two years using a four-step campaign to find purpose.

In Brief

  • Why Purpose Matters and How It Can Transform Your Organisation maps out a four-step strategy.
  • A focus on financial targets fails to engage staff and clients and misses our human need for purpose and meaningful work.
  • The CEO must sponsor the journey.

By Nicholas Barnett & Dr Rodney Howard.

We commonly see organisations bereft of purpose, or those whose efforts at embedding purpose have withered or died.

In the absence of purpose, organisations almost inevitably become focused on metrics expressed as financial targets or growth objectives. This is often communicated as a desire to ‘maximise earnings and grow shareholder value’. While this model can drive strong short-term results, it misses our human need for purpose and our desire to engage in meaningful work. It fails to optimise employee and customer engagement and in our view is limited and unsustainable.

Four critical ingredients to success

In our experience, four ingredients are critical for a successful purpose journey.

1. A genuine desire to make a difference

Purpose is borne of a desire to make a contribution to something greater than self. It is rooted in our quest to find something worthy to serve that is meaningful and fulfilling. It is an articulation of our collective intent to contribute and improve the lot of humanity and includes the genuine desire to improve the working lives of employees.

2. Your CEO must sponsor the journey

Only your CEO has the authority, credibility and influence to sponsor purpose in an organisation. It is essential that your CEO is fully invested in purpose and committed to leading through every stage of the journey.

3. An inclusive and participative process

A “top-down” project, in which purpose is delivered Moses-like from the mountain, almost inevitably fails, as employees feel as though it is being done “to” them rather than “with” them. Ideally opportunities will be created for all employees to actively participate in such a way that they feel it is done “by” them and that they jointly own the purpose.

4. A genuine and sustained leadership commitment

Purpose is not a short-term fix, nor is it something that can be delivered within a tight time frame. It requires a genuine and sustained leadership commitment for it to be meaningfully embedded within your culture and become your new way of organisational life.

Our four-stage framework for becoming a purpose-led organisation

Stage 1: Commit

Stage 2: Discover

Stage 3: Engage

Stage 4: Embed

Commit for two years

In our view, this is where the real work begins. It is now time to meaningfully embed purpose in every fibre of your organisation: from decision making to marketing; recruitment to team meetings; and branding to name tags.

We recommend adopting an initial two-year time frame in order to successfully infuse purpose within your organisation. It takes a long time for purpose to become deeply ingrained within the collective psyche to the extent that it informs culture and behaviour. Two years ensures that people do not expect to gain benefits overnight.

Related: Transformation with a purpose

Having a goal beyond making a profit can be a more sustainable and powerful employee motivator.

Test of leadership, unity and capability

Your leaders are the most important role models and advocates of your organisational purpose. Their words, actions and symbolism need to be aligned and they need to be “true believers” of your purpose. Without their active engagement, purpose will surely die.  

Ultimately, your CEO is responsible for the successful cultural transformation that is at the heart of embedding purpose. We have watched some leaders do this with incredible success; others have paid lip service to the exercise and unfortunately only served to chalk up another failed corporate change initiative, demonstrated through poor role modelling and their own lack of commitment.

Energise your project team

More than ever, you need your project team to maintain energy and enthusiasm through the journey. They will play an important role over the next two years. Ensure they are clear about their role, time commitments, and reporting lines. Be careful not to overwhelm them, as this risks a negative impact on delivery and traction. Ideally, the project team will be sponsored by a senior People and Culture or business leader. The team will be responsible for managing, coordinating and implementing all activities that bring your purpose to life.

Develop long-term campaigns

Long-term campaigns that engage employees in the process of embedding purpose will boost traction immeasurably. There could be a number of different campaigns, in different areas of your organisation including recruitment; branding; reward and recognition programs; ‘go to market’ strategies for new customer segments. Your project teams need to be encouraged to be creative and think big.

Be prepared to change your strategic priorities

Your vision and values may need to be reconsidered in light of your purpose; so too might your organisational structure, systems and processes. Your brand, website and marketing collateral are other areas to be assessed.

It may be that some areas of your business are no longer aligned with your purpose and will need to be wound down or divested. Some customer segments may be less relevant than in the past, while defining your purpose will most likely open up new customer opportunities.

Related: Philosophy the key to good business

Looking for an innovation injection and a business boost? Philosophy can be transformational.

Adapt your recruitment and induction activities

Embedding purpose within the heart of your recruitment and induction activities firmly plants it at the gateway of your organisation. Some potential recruits who don’t feel a connection with your purpose may be discouraged from joining your organisation. They are probably better off serving a different organisation. On the flipside, you will employ candidates attracted to the contribution you make through your purpose-led activities. They will be a better cultural fit.

Reconsider your KPIs 

Most of us get wedded to our existing KPIs and other measures of success. Having a new purpose means you now have a higher order priority.

Some organisations have taken the bold step of doing away with their previous incentive systems that were aligned to growing revenue and replacing them with KPIs aligned to their new purpose. These organisations have chosen to use the power of human creativity and fulfilment to drive their economic engine, rather than prescriptive incentives based on achieving sales and other profit targets.

Other organisations have de-emphasised financial numbers in their weekly and monthly communications with staff, preferring to focus on the extent to which their purpose is being embedded and brought to life.

Engage customers and external stakeholders

Most organisations we have worked with are pleasantly surprised at the positive response they receive from customers and associates when discussing business transformation. Just like your employees, your external stakeholders are similarly yearning for purpose. We recommend you give careful thought as to the best way to engage clients, customers and external stakeholders in your purpose journey. There are important branding, marketing and messaging considerations to consider.

Edited extract from Why Purpose Matters: and How it Can Transform Your Organisation (Major Street Publishing $34.95) by Nicholas Barnett & Dr Rodney Howard. Visit

Nicholas S Barnett is a director, business leader and strategist. He is CEO of Insync Surveys and author of 7 Business Habits That Drive High Performance (Major Street Publishing).