(Photo-illustration by Orbon Alija/iStock by Getty Images)

When Casey Wahl founded his startup Attuned, software that measures intrinsic motivation among employees, he didn’t have a set statement of purpose to share with his own hires. “I just thought that our values are there–we never actually wrote them down,” he remembered. But that was a problem. “People were not fully aligned because the values were not clearly stated, and we could not have the expected behaviors that we want within the organization. People were going in different directions.”

To get his workers on the same page, he asked the team “what do you think we are?” and compared the responses of employees and the executive-leadership team. After reaching a consensus that shaped a company mission statement, he made it official by putting it in writing.

Wahl was one of five organization leaders who gathered to speak about the importance of establishing a company purpose, what it takes to align behind one, and how it can evolve through crises like Covid-19. Representing a variety of corporate types and sizes, the executives spoke on a panel moderated by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman as part of From Day One's February conference on creating a culture of purpose.

When it comes to crafting a corporate purpose, the panelists agreed on a few major points. To start with, leaders should be in open communication with employees during the whole process. Idit Aronsohn, head of corporate responsibility, inclusion and well-being at the IT company Amdocs, outlined a process her company launched a year ago to invite all 26,000 employees “to participate in crafting our purpose through active participation through different workshops, all the way to voting on the main ideas.” She added, “I think this is one of the reasons why people are connecting to this purpose–they were part of crafting it.”

Authentic communication is key. Karsten Vagner, the VP of people at Maven Clinic, compared it to storytelling. “So much of women’s health is still so stigmatized,” he said of the company’s goal to improve health care for women and families. “Being authentic to our purpose internally and externally comes down to storytelling, telling our member’s stories internally so our employees recognize the stakes of this work, but also externally and not being afraid to call out the real struggles people deal with.”

Speaking on corporate purpose, top row from left: Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Charu Esper of NASA, and Graham McLaughlin of Optum. Bottow row, from left: Idit Aronsoh of Amdocs, Karsten Vagner of Maven, and Casey Wahl of Attuned (Image by From Day One)

Employee engagement needs to come from “transformational leadership at the top,” said Graham McLaughlin, vice president of social responsibility at health-care company Optum. Effective leaders will match the resulting mission statement with both internal and external change: “You can have rhetoric, but if the way you think about compensation doesn’t change, or the way you lift individuals up and hire in an inclusive way doesn’t change,” you won’t get there, he said. “It’s about actions that have to line up to the rhetoric.”

Statements of purpose are hardly set in stone. A case in point is NASA, explained Charu Esper, the space agency’s deputy for culture and workforce for digital transformation. “Our mission is evolving and has always evolved,” she said. NASA now has more partnerships with private sector companies like SpaceX, and is increasingly involved in climate, satellite and weather-pattern work.

“The transformation of the last two years has very much accelerated with digital transformation and future of work,” she said. The Covid-19 pandemic even further accelerated that process; the agency embraced a listening tour to solicit employee feedback, held a culture hackathon, and quickly aligned around a shared sense of purpose. “We’re moving toward the betterment of this world through science and technology,” as Esper put it.

When a statement of purpose is in place, and a company is honestly and effectively engaging its employees around shared values, the panelists suggest that it opens doors to new possibilities. At Amdocs, the company found success in allowing its employees to dedicate volunteer hours to causes they personally care about, as opposed to causes picked by the company. Vagner, of Maven Clinic, spoke to the importance of rewarding employees who live up to company values.

“How do you add that ‘oomph’?” Vagner asked. “You have a perfectly crafted sentence or two [of company purpose]. How do you live it? Are you adding it to your hiring, your performance management, your recognition and rewards? All of those pieces matter.” Later in the conversation he suggested that companies actively craft employee policies, like robust benefits packages, that speak to its purpose and values.

Esper stressed the payoff of “psychological safety” that a shared value set can often bring. “If you feel safe, and you feel your leaders are authentic and vulnerable, you’re prone to taking risks and steps towards innovation,” she said. McLaughlin, at Optum, also emphasized the importance of risk-taking: internally, for employees, and externally, for companies living up to their value sets. “Still, you have to ask, where are we credible?” he posited. “Your authenticity of purpose needs to be aligned not on doing the hot thing at the moment, but doing something where you can make the most difference.”

In a year of social hardship on different levels, panelists suggested the experiences could be poured back into the company’s purpose. “There’s the ‘man in the hole’ story concept … when you’re falling and all kinds of bad things happen and then you start pulling yourself up and are in a much better place,” Wahl said. “If you can bring out that ‘man in the hole’ story and put it into the purpose, you’ll get a deeper excitement.”

As a purpose forms and evolves, a company should continually rally around it. “To have such aligned purpose, such clarity, and expectations of what everyone is doing leading up to it–it’s incredibly important,” McLaughlin said. “The interesting thing about purpose is that it’s all of the above.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.