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How purpose impacts culture in your business

drawing of team members
Positive team culture is highly valued by employees

The centrepiece of our work at GrowthCatalyst is the alignment of organisation purpose and its ways of working. Inevitably this leads us into a discussion with business owners and leaders about their organisation’s culture.

The word culture is regularly used as an unexplainable catch-all descriptor of working environments. However, when harnessed, culture can be a significant source of value creation and competitive advantage.

Given that, we wanted to conduct a deeper dive into what culture is and how it can be “curated” to good effect in helping an organisation deliver on its purpose.

For this post, we sought the views of a friend of GrowthCatalyst, James Rutherford, of Rutherford Human Resources.

Purpose and culture defined

The obvious starting point for this discussion is to define “purpose” and "culture".

Purpose is the core, non-financial reason your business exists…its outward-looking client/customer-focused objective. Purpose inspires your vision, guides strategy and provides the framework for day-to-day decision-making in your business.

Culture is a concept that many find difficult to get their arms around, but the definition offered by James is elegant in its simplicity.

"Culture", he says, "is the way things are done around here".

Thought of in that way, we can see that culture reflects the values that are either explicitly or implicitly important in a business and the behaviours of the people in it – that is, those that should be aligned to its purpose.

The connection is clear

Picture of chain link
While sometimes not explicit, the link between purpose and culture is strong

Those two definitions make the connection between purpose and culture easy to see. James agrees and believes there's inevitably a link between culture and the stated purpose of the business but that this connection "may not be explicit."

He provides this explanation..."an organisation with a highly customer-focused purpose will - subconsciously or deliberately - work in ways that align to that purpose. However, given that purpose statements are often very's more likely that employees will draw a line from purpose to strategy and then to culture."

"The more overt attributes of the culture (should) align more to the actions required to achieve the stated strategy."

Our core belief here at GrowthCatalyst is that purpose is a crucial driver of culture in a business. We take from James’s comments that businesses with a clear purpose guiding their everyday operation and a strategy aligned to that purpose are more likely to enjoy a strong (and aligned) culture.

Culture can be managed

Sometimes there’s a disconnect, which presents a challenge: if culture can be difficult to define, it’s often seen as even more challenging to change.

Indeed, some will argue that culture "just happens", and if it’s misaligned with your stated purpose, there’s not an awful lot you can do about it.

James begs to differ. He believes that culture can – and indeed should - be deliberately ‘managed’ to match an organisation’s purpose and strategy.

He also agrees that this isn’t without its challenges. "Cultural change is difficult because of what culture is," says James. By definition, it involves broad change across a business that should "impact multiple aspects of the organisation in a coordinated and aligned way. You then need to generate change in the behaviour of multiple people."

Cartoon about culture change
This approach to culture change probably won't work...

As we said…it’s a challenge.

And it’s the dynamics of the workplace that will dictate the degree of difficulty in achieving that change, based on:

  • The propensity of employees to change.

  • Whether there is a sense of a real need to change.

  • The commitment of leadership to stay committed to the change effort – including making changes to their own working styles.

  • How much the leadership of the business is prepared to invest in dollars, time and energy.

  • The complexity and scale of the business.

  • Its age - older businesses tend to be harder to shift culturally.

If you think cultural change sounds incredibly difficult and like a lot of hard work, you'd be is. But it's entirely possible with the right tools and approach to change management.

Additionally, remember that efforts to change culture are more effective when underpinned by a powerful business purpose. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that if your business isn’t clear on its purpose, shifting culture is next to impossible. Certainly, any attempt to do so will lack direction.

Picture of sign saying if you're reading this it's time for change
Enough said...

Because culture can be so nebulous, measurement might feel like another piece of the puzzle that's overly challenging. However (while the detail is outside of the scope of this post) James reports “measuring your current culture and its alignment to your purpose and strategy can be done relatively easily and cost-effectively”.

With all that in mind and recognising the challenge involved, where do you start in the quest to change an organisation’s culture? James cites three key cultural drivers that are very much open to influence and directly under the control of leaders. Those drivers are:

  • Values and behaviours displayed by those in positions of influence - these values and behaviours, says James, "will likely be mirrored through the organisation and so drive consistency, including how decisions are made, views of customers and competitors, for example". This is not only about owners and leaders. Most businesses have employees at many levels of seniority who “influence” those around them. The challenge for leaders is knowing who those employees are and ensuring that influence is “used for good, not evil”. Once more, this is where a strong and embedded business purpose is a potent cultural force.

  • Systems and processes - which, by steering actions in certain ways for specific ends, are a powerful guide of "how things are done around here" (that is, culture);

  • Symbols and stories - according to James, "these are things that in and of themselves don't have a direct impact, but which reflect the culture. For example, pretty much every organisation will have "hero stories" which are told long after the event and which guide the behaviour of others to act in similar ways."

Again, it's not difficult to see how a clear purpose can guide strategic and operational discussions and decisions on these activities.

That sounds all well and good, but where do you start and how do you know if you are making progress? As with most things in working life, we need to be clear on our starting point and continually assess the impact of the investments/changes we are making.

Given that culture can be so nebulous, it might feel like measurement is another piece of the puzzle that's overly challenging. However (while the detail is outside of the scope of this post) James reports “measuring your current culture and its alignment to your purpose and strategy can be done relatively easily and cost-effectively”.

He does however caution that “there is a need for leaders to spend some time in clearly understanding and defining the culture that will best support their purpose before starting to measure and create change”.

Every business has its unique culture, even if not pursued consciously.

The question most owners and leaders need to ask today is whether the existing culture aligns with and supports the achievement of the organisation’s purpose. If the answer to that is "it doesn't", then some serious change management needs to happen, with purpose as its principal driver.

Culture can be changed, and it takes effort. However, without that effort, there’s a fair chance that you'll end up with a culture you don't want, which doesn’t serve you in the best way it can.

Can you describe your business culture?

Is it really what you want it to be?

Is it purpose-driven and helping execute strategy?

GrowthCatalyst can help you answer these questions and more.

We invite you to contact us to arrange a conversation, face-to-face or virtual.

Alternatively, you can book a time for an initial discussion here.

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