Do you have Purpose, or just a Great Culture?

What is culture? And how is it related to purpose? The Innovative leader and purpose-champion Jessica Nordlander drew from her personal experience to root out the differences, and how both are important to run a healthy business.

We hear a lot about corporate culture. Look at any tech job posting and culture will inevitably be right near the top in telling you why you should apply. Culture has become an industry within the industry, with entire company divisions established solely to nurture and enhance it.

But what is this thing called culture?

Many of the world’s poster child tech firms have seemingly prioritized their idea of culture above almost everything else, rolling out ever more lavish benefits to keep their people engaged and energized and to make the very real demands of work-life just a little bit easier to handle. The media have fixated on the ever more lavish perks as they’ve moved from medical and dental insurance to unlimited vacation, catered meals, gym memberships, mindfulness, massages, pets, ping pong, and slides – the list is long … and fun.

The trouble is, what often stands for culture is actually more like comfort. And there’s a critically important difference between the two.

It is relatively easy to build a comfort-powered culture when things are going well. Investing in employees’ wellbeing and sense of belonging is completely logical in a venture-fueled, fast-growth organization with abundant resources. It means those on the outside want in and those on the inside want to stay put.

But what happens when things turn?

Since the pandemic struck, a glut of companies that had only ever experienced the heady uptick of growth have had to confront their very first setbacks. By mid July 2020, startups in the Bay area and Silicon Valley had shed more than 25,500 jobs. Companies that had experienced year-upon-year of blue sky growth very suddenly had to pull their head out of the Covid-19 clouds. With a 50% drop in business, Uber shed more than 3,500 staff in early May and then a further 3,000 a couple of weeks later. Scooter company Bird and travel bookings site TripAdvisor fired employees en masse, along with numerous others.

Most of these cultures had never been tested alongside the brutal reality of mass layoffs and the cold, hard light of disappearing perks and salaries. In a world where companies, suddenly, can no longer promise that only underperformers will be fired, that salary increases will keep coming as will attractive opportunities to advance up the ranks, an organization’s culture can be incredibly hard to maintain.

When the good times stop rolling, it’s a company’s purpose as opposed to its culture, that has the potential to continue driving it forward. Your company can contract to the bone, have spending dry up, entire teams forced to vacate their desks, and even the leader deploying the executive parachute; but a company only really dies when it loses its line on the horizon and its central reason for existence.

Purpose in practice

A few years ago I took the role of chief digital officer at STS Education, a 60-year-old Swedish household consumer brand with a global footprint. STS had operated the majority of its lifetime before the internet but digital disruption brought massive challenges that required significant layoffs and restructuring. New business models needed to be developed as well as new approaches to things like learning and development, and technology adoption. At the time, resources were extremely limited because of the prolonged period of declining revenues. I found myself at a company with literally no perks, where we had to lay off some extremely talented people. The ones who were left were being asked to work harder than ever to pivot the company into a new reality.

The fascinating thing was that it was probably one of the least challenging change management journeys I have ever embarked on because the people at STS so strongly wanted the company to survive and flourish once again. STS had purpose and its people believed in it.

STS was founded in 1958—which was still postwar Europe. At the time, the world, and especially Europe, was tired of war after decades of conflict. Developing ideas about how to avoid more global bloodshed was critical. From that came the notion that the best way to avoid conflict might be to have young people experience other cultures and learn foreign languages at an early age. This became a business model and spread from neutral Sweden to the rest of the world. Even in 2017 we had German language students travel to the USA on scholarships that were put into place in the 1960s to drive exchange between the two former antagonists.

This belief that STS was helping to deter global conflict was central to the staff. The purpose or mission-driven characteristics of the company were there to ground us, even when we had to make very difficult decisions. The purpose stayed intact, even when the growth, the perks and the opportunities for promotions became non-existent.

Building Culture Through Purpose

For companies that have experienced a major setback, the question of purpose will almost inevitably come into sharper focus. Living with the ‘rock-and-a-hard-place’ demands of laying off 50% of a workforce can leave long-term scars. When part of the package for workers is being part of a family, if that family has been irreparably damaged, those who are left will inevitably look for a clear reason to stay.

Ask most doctors, nurses, teachers or aid workers what drives them and it is unlikely they will cite the perks. The unwavering purpose of the organizations they belong to naturally informs and establishes strong beliefs and focus.

Building a purpose-driven company isn’t necessarily easy, but the alternative isn’t easy either. We are now in a time where in order to build foundational strength that can sustain them through good and bad times, organizations need to build themselves around something beyond what they had labelled great culture. If they don’t, the thread that binds teams together risks breaking apart when they’re forced to walk any kind of hard yards.

I started my career at the media monitoring company Meltwater. Media monitoring isn’t sexy and, in itself, doesn’t come with an obvious worthy mission. The company was bootstrapped those years and therefore not among the fraternity of startups buoyed by mountains – or at least hills – of VC cash. The technical infrastructure at the time was modest (read: our computers were old) as were the employee perks, yet the CEO Jørn Lyseggen was able to create a team that believed strongly in what they were doing and why they were doing it. We had purpose. How?

With a strong belief that talent exists everywhere but resources don’t, in the early days of Meltwater Jørn created a mission: he formed MEST, an Africa-wide, technology entrepreneur training program. MEST provides internal seed funding and a network of hubs that offer incubation for technology startups in Africa. It was, and still is, a core element of the company, which recently went public on the Oslo stock exchange. The act of supporting the next wave of African tech leaders was somehow innately intertwined with the act of helping customers track their media coverage, and it created a sense of drive and purpose that went beyond ‘a job’ for the majority of the staff. It informed a strong internal culture that would be almost impossible to buy in comfortable perks.

I like to use the analogy that running a company without purpose is similar to swimming naked in the ocean. When the tide’s in and the water is warm, nobody pays attention. As the tide begins to flow out, everything gets exposed.

To become a purpose-driven company takes an investment of time, resources and passion. In my experience, they are the very best investments a company can make and ones that will pay themselves back ten-fold if or when the tide begins to turn.

Not all purpose needs to be solely altruistic, but whatever your purpose, it does need to connect with people and inspire them in a way that they instinctively want to hold the course even in the middle of a storm. No gym membership or office slide is ever going to buy you that.

Jessica Nordlander

Chief Operating Officer, Thoughtexchange

Jessica Nordlander is a technology executive with an MSc in Applied IT, an XGoogler and was recently named the Most Innovative Leader in one of the most innovative countries in the world (her native Sweden).