“As words go, sustainability is about as evocative as elevator Muzak. Both vague and ubiquitous, the term has been so overused that it means everything and nothing.” These are not the words of some old-school business chief, a follower of the doctrine that companies have no business doing anything other than creating value for their shareholders. No, they appear in the introduction to a new book by Christoph Lueneburger, founder of the sustainability practice at Egon Zehnder, the executive search and talent management consultancy. The book is called A Culture of Purpose and Lueneburger is convinced that sustainability is at the heart of building such cultures.
Significantly, while – at least until the financial crisis changed priorities – most business leaders claimed that sustainability in the sense of climate change and associated issues was the greatest challenge facing them – Lueneburger himself asserts that “the most important challenge for a twenty-first century leader” is building a culture of purpose. “Cultures of purpose power winning organizations. And although leaders are right to track innovation, differentiation, and profitability, it is in cultures of purpose that any of these last,” he explains.
Lueneburger says the book and the convictions it contains were born in the work his team at Egon Zehnder has done on more than 600 sustainability assignments around the world. Put simply, his conclusion is that a culture of purpose can be built by embracing sustainability as a commercial theme. This in itself is something of a challenge to the usual approach, which implies that paying attention to sustainability involves some sort of trade-off between profitability and “doing the right thing”. Leuneburger takes a more basic view of sustainability, seeing it as meaning that an organization will be around for a while.
This is not to say that he offers leaders an easy way out. Not all cultures or purposes meet his criteria. In his view, cultures of purpose are created from three sets of building blocks: competencies, traits and cultural attributes.
Competencies, he says, are “quantifiable characteristics of a person that differentiate performance in a specific role”. In short, they predict who is good at a particular job. Competencies can be developed over time and one of the jobs of a leader is to ensure that both they themselves and those around them take advantage of opportunities to learn and enhance competencies. The competencies that differentiate leaders in a culture of purpose are change leadership, influencing, results delivery, commercial drive and strategic orientation.
Traits, on the other hand, are innate personality aspects that describe the ability of a particular person to grow and to handle greater responsibilities. As such, they are predictors for future development and success. Although they cannot be learned like competencies, they can be assessed and fostered. Those essential to a culture of purpose are engagement, determination, insight and curiosity.
Linking the two are cultural attributes, says Lueneburger. Unlike competencies and traits, cultural attributes do not apply to individuals but describe the behaviour of the organization as a whole. “Much as great players don’t automatically make for a winning team (and some teams have become great without star talent), people with the right competencies and traits don’t spontaneously coalesce into a culture of purpose,” he says. It is the leader’s job to create the environment in which the competencies and traits can work to create the culture of purpose. This means influencing the culture as a whole, affecting how people relate to each other and collectively work to achieve what would not be possible on their own. The cultural attributes that are key in this context are energy, resilience and openness.
Lueneburger stresses that – because cultures are made up of people – the building blocks are not static and distinct. They depend upon and influence each other. In particular, leadership competencies are enabled by individual traits. But there is also a close link between those traits and cultural attributes. Indeed, it is “the symbiosis between top talent and cultures of purpose” that Lueneburger believes leads to the smartest and most creative people being drawn to places that reflect their values. As someone who is in the recruitment and assessment industry, he is convinced that attracting top talent is a key battleground for companies and so crucial for their sustainability.
The book provides much helpful advice for leaders prepared to embark on the tough road to building a culture of purpose – in particular, there are detailed guides on what and how to look for the various competencies, traits and attributes. But, above all, it stresses that creating a culture of purpose should not be confused with developing an organizational type, where similarly-minded people reinforce each other’s views and prejudices and close their minds to other approaches. That is likely to lead to the opposite of sustainability.
On the other hand, Lueneburger is encouraged that the competition to attract the best people is already changing behaviours. For example, he believes that companies with especially wide pay differentials between senior executives and those on the shop floor are finding recruitment of top talent “disproportionately challenging”. And we have seen how the desire to be competitive has led many organizations to become more flexible about how and where work is done.
“In the twenty-first century,” says Lueneburger, “businesses fueled by cultures of purpose will not only be profitable and among the best investments but also act as unmatched forces for good. Great leaders will be measured by their ability to marry purpose to profit.”