How to build authentic purpose from the inside out

CEO buy-in, transparency and hard conversations are required to build a culture of purpose.

L-R: WPP's Jacqui Canney and C+C cofounder Julie Colehour
L-R: WPP's Jacqui Canney and C+C cofounder Julie Colehour

CHICAGO: As Edelman, Ogilvy, Wayfair and other companies have learned, employees have been at the forefront of insisting that companies live up to their ideals. Even aside from crises and protests, without employee buy-in, corporate efforts around purpose may be seen as inauthentic.

At PRWeek’s PRDecoded conference in Chicago on Thursday, three global HR and communications leaders from some of the world's top brands discussed best practices for creating a culture that supports purpose. Here are four takeaways from their talk.

1. A healthy corporate culture should not and will not be static.

"People need to realize that culture will not stay the same as business grows," said Julie Colehour, cofounder and partner of C+C. "Culture is the outcome of how a business is growing and is run. You can’t force culture and you can’t fix a culture. And if you have a culture problem you need to look at how the business is run and organized. If you ever get to the point where you have to form a culture committee you know you have a problem."

2. You have to account for generational differences.

"I think what we’ve seen is that employees who are younger in their careers have different expectations than employees had in the past," said Colehour. "I think HR is not necessarily up to speed with those employees in ensuring we are creating environments that match up to their expectations. How we adapt to that is very important."

3. Executive buy-in to the importance of culture and connected issues like diversity and inclusion is mandatory.

"As communicators, we spend all this time creating amazing campaigns that take credit, but [my organization] wasn’t a PR campaign at all, it was CEOs leaning into a moment, looking at what employees are asking for and creating something special," said Idalia Hill communications leader for CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. 

4. Sometimes that means hard, but valuable, conversations. 

"At a recent gathering of CEOs, one of the discussions was around the notion of unconscious bias. It’s one of those things you confront that leads to some interesting dialogue," said Hill. "It was interesting hearing what the CEOs said but also the HR and diversity leaders. Some are learning along with employees how to have these conversations and tough dialogues."

This story was updated on October 19 to correct the attribution of bullet point No. 1. 

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