Creating a purpose-driven culture
If you pay attention to news, surveys, and articles about entrepreneurship, you might have noticed an increasing number of stories about the success of purpose-driven companies. Companies with a clear and defined mission often have an edge on the competition when it comes to attracting and retaining loyal employees and customers. As a result, data suggests that they may grow more rapidly and become more successful than other companies.
Matt Thieleman, the founder of Golden Bristle, helps founders, leaders, and teams draw connections between their purpose and their day-to-day work. Both at Golden Bristle (which he founded in 2015) and in his prior work as a brand and communications strategist, he’s spent a lot of time studying what makes a purpose-driven culture, and he’s distilled the process into five simple steps.
First things first
Matt likes to start a discussion about culture and purpose with a couple of definitions. Both these words are used widely, but they’re abstract concepts. Unless you specifically define what you mean when you say “culture” or “purpose,” Matt says, the conversation can get very fuzzy very quickly.
Culture is the rules or standards or norms. The expectations we have, the language we use, the energy we bring to a particular group of people or an environment. Sometimes culture is explicit—we tell each other, “This is how we do things here.” More often, culture is implicit. We have to use our social awareness to understand how things work, and we make it up as we go along.
Matt says that in his experience, companies often don’t talk about culture explicitly. Instead, he says “We show up to work and think ‘Okay, we all care about making the same thing or achieving the same goals, so therefore I’m going to assume everyone has the same values as me.” This is dangerous because culture is created and guided by each person who participates in it. If you don’t have a shared understanding of what the culture should be, you probably won’t be able to create the culture you want.
Now that we’ve covered culture, let’s talk about purpose. Matt defines purpose like this:
Purpose is why we do what we do. Our purpose is bigger than a single contributor. It’s bigger than your team. It’s usually bigger than your company. It’s … the change you seek to make in the world.
Why worry about purpose and culture?
Running a business takes a lot of work, and founders often find they need to prioritize because they don’t have the time or resources to do everything at once. If that’s the case for you and your business, you might be asking “Why should I prioritize purpose and culture? What makes it important?”
There are a couple of answers to this question, Matt says. If you have employees (or you’re planning to hire them in the future), culture is key because it helps people develop a deeper understanding of the company’s work and strategy.
I believe that people are more inspired when they have a purpose that’s bigger than themselves. They do better work. They treat each other better. They treat customers better. They tell their friends about their work, They have a different energy. When we have a purpose that’s big—sometimes audacious—people want to join in.
Even if you don’t have employees, however, culture and purpose matter. Many business leaders agree that purpose-driven companies are usually more successful than their counterparts. Matt believes that this is partly because mission-driven founders are more committed and tenacious.
Startup founder life is hard. Every day, you have to get up and do work that you might not want to do. I have found, over and over again, for myself and my clients—when we have that North Star—that bigger purpose, it’s just an energy feeder. It’s a way to take the next step even when we don’t want to.
Five steps to creating a purpose-driven culture
Now that Matt’s covered what purpose is and why it matters, let’s dive into his five steps for creating a purpose-driven culture.
Step one: know your purpose and define it
This step seems like an obvious one, but Matt says it’s very often overlooked. “We can sometimes step over our purpose because it’s difficult to articulate. It can be hard to put into words. But we can’t afford to do that.”
Becoming a founder and a leader means learning how to share your purpose and your vision. There’s no escaping that—you’re going to need to get clients, or employees, or investors, or co-founders who share your purpose. And before you can start finding these people, you have to figure out exactly what your purpose is—and then put it into words that other people can understand.
Matt says that this step is a process, and you don’t have to get it perfectly right the first time. “I think action creates clarity. So, if you have an idea, work towards it. Maybe you’ll find out that it isn’t the exact right idea, but it’ll help you get closer. You can course-correct.” As you move through the next steps, you’ll be able to refine and build upon your purpose.
Step two: Create values and agreements to live by
Once you’ve defined your purpose, you can start creating a culture around them by defining your values and finding ways to incorporate these values into your day-to-day work. Matt has a couple of tips for avoiding common pitfalls with this step.
When you pick values, make sure you pick things you care about—not things that you think “should” be your values. The word “should” just shows up all over the place, and I think it’s the death of a lot of good potential companies.
It’s also very important that these values are tangible things—not just words that can be very loosely defined. I often say, ‘Every company’s value is innovation,’ and I’m joking … but what the hell does that even mean? Innovation means something completely different to Google, compared to a healthcare company, compared to an auto mechanic. Companies that are very high-tech and very low-tech can each be innovative in very different ways.
For example, a tangible way to express a value like “learning” is to offer employees (and yourself!) a budget for professional development and dedicated time to study new skills. Practicing these values every day will help them stay front-of-mind and present.
Values should be reinforced. Leadership should practice them, and employees should be recognized and rewarded for practicing your values. Bake your values into everything: hiring, employee reviews, your customer service, your marketing—literally everything.
This step, Matt says “will probably be scary, because you’re doing things differently than everyone else and it will drive some people away.” It’s worth it, however, because it will attract and inspire the people who share your values.
Step three: Check yourself
At this point, you’ve defined your purpose and picked tangible values. Now, it’s time to start living by them.
I’ve seen companies with great potential, and great employees that have died because their leadership didn’t continue their growth or didn’t have integrity with their values. That’s a shame—my heart breaks every time it happens—because it doesn’t have to be like that.
To prevent this from happening, remember to check in regularly and make sure your values are still consistently present in everything you do.
Step four: Re-evaluate and don’t be afraid to adjust
As part of your regular check-ins, Matt says it’s important to be honest about what’s working and what isn’t. If something isn’t working, find a way to fix it.
Ask yourself “This thing that we’re living by … is it actually important? How can we do it better?” Ask those questions, and be open and ready for feedback. Be willing to adjust your course. Hopefully, your purpose doesn’t change much because that’s why you exist, but the ways to get there can change a lot. You know, almost every startup story has a pivot.
Be willing to say “Wait no, that didn’t fit.” Be willing to say “We messed up. We weren’t right. We didn’t have it right the first time, but let’s try to be better.”
Step five: consider getting an outside perspective
Matt says that it’s often helpful to get an objective outside perspective.
Marketers often say “You can’t see your own label from inside the bottle.” Sometimes we lose perspective when we’re in the middle of what we’re doing. It can save a ton of time, a ton of heartbreak, and a ton of energy to find someone who is objective and has outside expertise.
Despite being a coach himself, Matt regularly works with outside coaches to get perspective on different aspects of his company. They’ve helped him better understand his vision, strengths, and opportunities—and, in doing so, have been a critical part of his success.
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