It’s hard enough to embed purpose into an organization in which everyone speaks the same language and shares a similar culture. But what if that’s not the case? How do business leaders build purpose into a multinational firm in which employees in different parts of the world might hold different understandings of purpose and fulfillment?
We’ve heard from a number of senior leaders who’ve faced just that challenge. As one executive of a global technology firm told us, one of the biggest challenges of pursuing purpose is that “it is not well understood across the organization, especially when you span multiple locations and cultures and languages.” (The word purpose does not translate to every language and culture, for example.)
It’s not just cross-cultural differences, however, that create these barriers to purpose. Physical distance is just as challenging. Some firms, for example, struggle to get a unifying purpose to take root in both a company’s headquarters and its regional offices. In some cases, employees working in proximity to leadership may have a strong connection to the company’s purpose, while those working remotely feel adrift. Other times, employees working on the ground and interacting with customers and local communities may experience the company’s purpose more tangibly than those in the center, who may be less inspired to bring purpose to life.
There’s no easy way to guarantee a successful cascade of purpose across cultures and perspectives, but two takeaways are clear. First, the direction of that cascade cannot be only top-down. In many cases, it needs to start from the bottom and cascade up throughout the firm. For example, we spoke with a number of representatives of a large telecommunications firm. When we asked its executives how the firm was living its purpose, we were met with silence as they struggled to give examples.
Its regional leaders, on the other hand – especially those in emerging markets who were closest to their communities – had so many stories to share that they were talking over each other. Their earnestness and enthusiasm were genuine and infectious. They gave example after example of how their business practices and commercial offerings had been adapted to fulfill the purpose and help advance human well-being for their employees and their customers. Purpose has to grow organically.
Second, companies that successfully live their purpose know that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to succeed. As we heard from a leader of a fast-growing global advisory firm, one way to address the challenge of integrating purpose is to focus on hiring people who share the same core values as the organization, regardless of where they are from or which office they will work in.
Such people, he believes, can be trusted to uphold the spirit of the organization’s purpose in their work, even if the specifics of how they understand and pursue that purpose vary from employee to employee, office to office, region to region. Committing to a core set of values while allowing employees the freedom to operate independently empowers them and involves them even more intimately in the firm’s purpose journey.
Building bridges across countries and cultures