Cultural Transformation and Meaningful Work: Nurturing a Purpose-Driven Workplace

BY Matthew Koehler | December 18, 2023

It’s no secret that happy employees are more productive. 12% more productive than their less-happy colleagues, according to a study cited in Fast Company. They also tend to be more loyal over time. But how do leaders create and foster a work culture that breeds happiness and purpose?

“The intent to leave or stay in a job is only one of the things that people are questioning as part of the larger human story we are living,” said Caitlin Duffy, a research director in Gartner’s HR practice. “You could call it the ‘Great Reflection.’ It’s critical to deliver value and purpose.”

In a From Day One conference in Los Angeles, industry leaders gathered to discuss how to create a space for happy workers, in a conversation moderated by LA Times reporter Faith Pinho.

Maintaining Purpose Amid Internal Strife

Nicole Husband, VP of people and culture at Warner Bros. Discovery, has had some experience with internal strife. To manage their work culture, especially during difficult times, they follow five guiding principles: act as one team, create what’s next, empower storytelling, champion inclusion, and dream it, own it. They’re focused on “putting these principles in front of people to the point where they can’t stand it anymore."

Additionally, the organization has done a lot of work around acknowledging challenges and change, and providing education on how to lead through it. “Part of that is drawing employees back to why we are actually here,” Husband said.

Amy Baker, vice president and people officer of corporate functions at Activision Blizzard, says in her six prior years at Netflix, they saw unprecedented change. In a short time, the company went from around 10 people to 800.

“You have some people saying, ‘I feel like we’re growing so fast.’ It’s your work as a leader to be helping these people acclimate to the change that they’re going through by coming into this company,” Baker said. Activision Blizzard just weathered a huge work culture shift over the past year after Microsoft acquired the gaming company. Baker says you have to be super clear about what’s happening next. “You have to operate in that spectrum. I call it like the HR skeleton key, you have to be able to open any door with people,” Baker added.

The panelists discussed the topic “Cultural Transformation and Meaningful Work: Nurturing a Purpose-Driven Workplace” at From Day One's recent LA conference. 

Both Baker and Husband alluded to the fact that they work with extremely dedicated and passionate people. With that passion in mind, Pinho pointed to the individual purpose people bring to the job, a purpose that might not always align with the company’s.

“Organizations can be very self-absorbed and selfish. It’s all about their purpose, not about your purpose. But the more you engage in the conversation about what’s important to you, you will find that alignment. The more that organization is going to pour into you, the more that relationship is built,” said Jerrold Coakley, the SVP and chief human resources officer at Stater Bros. Markets.

Coakley says it’s about sharing a joint story between the employee and employer that builds a relationship and uncovers what the two can accomplish together. “Normally the misalignment happens when we’re so concentrated on performance. And that’s not what people really care about. We have all these systems in place, and all these consultants make so much money off of us, because they tell us it’s all about performance. No, it’s really about development. People want to know that their leader is helping them get to their personal greatness. So as a leader, if you concentrate on development more than performance, you get the gift of their performance back.”

For Octavius Black, co-founder and CEO of MindGym, the purpose value is something attainable by every worker, no matter where they are.

“In my experience, everyone wants to feel that they’ve done something that matters. So the question is, how can you help people find the thing they care about come to life at work. And it’s up to our leaders, our managers, and us as HR professionals, to ignite that passion that people have for something and bring it to the workplace,” Black said.

Sometimes too much purpose is a bad thing that can lead to burnout. “How can you ensure a healthy work life balance while still driving that mission forward?” Pinho asked.

“This whole idea of a healthy work life balance, I just don’t think it exists yet. You are seeking, seeking, seeking–constantly trying to get there,” Husband said. Yet despite her skepticism, she says there are leadership strategies that can mitigate burnout, other than putting the onus on the employee to figure it out on their own. For leaders, they can make sure they are properly staffed, one. And two, leveraging resources to support staff during reorganization, is key.

According to Black, company initiatives that try to change the outside behavior of employees, through meditation, yoga, a corporate gym membership, counseling, really only help the workers who intend to engage in those behaviors anyway. He says in studies they’ve done there was no change between the people who’ve been through the programs versus those who had not.

A Larger Sense of Purpose for the Community

“The trend lines now, with early career professionals and the young people coming in now, the data I’ve seen, both anecdotal and otherwise, shows they want to know that you’re doing something good for the world,” said Matt Stone, senior solutions consultant at Attuned.

To do this, Stone says companies have to be clear on what their culture is and how that can translate to the wider community. “It could be days off to volunteer, or it could be if your company does a particular service, getting creative about where they could help.”

Coakley parses the difference between words, actions, and where your values are. “Words matter. So, you have to say the words and then follow the words with your actions. Go back and look at your values. If they sound aspirational, they are not values. Rewrite them. Your values are the minimum expectations that you’ll tolerate within your organization,” Coakley said.

“So when you come to work with us, you can expect this. That’s going to push your organization forward, investing in those communities and letting your people see it.”

Matthew Koheler is a freelance journalist and licensed real estate agent based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Greater Greater Washington, The Washington Post, The Southwester, and Walking Cinema, among others.


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