Culture and Purpose Drive Talent Decisions

Written by Mark Breslin

“Maybe the problem is not that Millennials don’t value meaningful work.  Maybe they just define it differently than other generations.” – Kelly Pledger Weeks in Harvard Business Review

“Our research has shows that Millennials who found ‘special meaning’ in their work were six times more likely to plan to stay at their workplaces.” – Fortune Magazine

It’s not them, it’s you

More than two million people quit their jobs last year, a number that is up 35 per cent from five years ago.  One in three people polled say they are right now considering leaving their existing position, representing one-third of your workforce today.  Over 90 per cent of Millennials expect to stay in their positions for less than three to four years.

If the construction industry has a head, it is only in the last several years that this head has popped out of a very dark place.  In years past, leaders in this business – which my family has worked in for four generations – didn’t care about culture; they cared about production.  They didn’t care about ‘culture’ when ‘authority’ is what got the job done.  They didn’t worry about staff retention because the general idea was that ‘If you can’t do it, I’ll just find someone who can.’

But today, the evolution of culture’s importance in the construction industry is well-underway in a most profound manner.  And what is driving it is a simple formula that states: “In today’s market, talent will flow to where it is valued most.”

You may have noticed that I did not say, “Talent will flow where it is paid the most.”  Money is certainly a mandatory component of the workplace relationship but, and I hate to break the news, if you have an employee leave your company, it’s ultimately most likely YOUR FAULT.

Culture and Purpose

Here’s why.  Based on virtually each and every study conducted on the issue (and the younger the employee, the more accurate these numbers appear to be), people work at an organization – and stay there – because of two major drivers.  Here they are in order:

  1. Culture:  What is the prevailing culture around employment?  This constitutes elements such as, how much effort does the company and my boss make to emphasize my value; how much feedback do I get on my performance; How interested is my organization in developing my talent and career; does my company and supervisor display the commitment, ethics, transparency, and work ethic that make me want to emulate them; do they display trust and loyalty; and can I do my best work and be my best self in the environment?

Creating this kind of culture takes work.  It means being open to change – driving change – and accepting that you have to meet people where they are, and not where you are.  Or, you can try to keep them by paying them more money until they eventually leave anyway.

  1. Purpose: A sense of purpose is now often cited as the number one priority for young talent, particularly as it relates to retaining that talent.  Purpose sounds like this: do I understand the real mission of the company and how I fit in; does the work I do matter?  And how do I know that; are the plans and direction of our organization communicated to me effectively; am I given the freedom and autonomy to create the best outcomes; and am I listened to?

The Purpose of today versus the Purpose of yesterday?  As part of the Baby Boomer generation, my purpose was pretty damn simple, “WORK HARD AND GET AHEAD.”  Now people want and expect more and, most importantly, if they can’t get it from you, then they will look for it from somebody else.

Choose your talent, protect your business culture

Of all the things I do as a CEO – with hundreds of member companies and dozens of staff – two interrelated roles make all the difference.  One is my role as Talent Picker, while the other is to act as the Culture Creator/Protector.   With the amount of attention I pay to talent selection, the reputation of my employees is one of being A-rated players.  Not every role, every year, all the time but, on balance for a small business, I hire for culture and fit – and not skills.  If I want a superstar, then I have to know first they will thrive within the culture.  It is no mistake that a good number of our ‘alumni’ have gone on to become CEOs, SVPs, and other top jobs around the nation.  We get ‘em, we grow ‘em, and then they jump out of the nest with our full encouragement.  But in order to enable them to thrive, the culture is the platform for talent development and retention.
You may note that I wrote not only ‘Culture Creator’ but also ‘Protector.’ 

That is because it’s not enough to simply set up the workplace culture and expect it to thrive and support the best behaviors, growth, and outcomes.  You need to protect your culture because it will always be tested.  People will bring habits from previous employment and ‘fill in the blanks’ if you don’t have a firm framework and, because of this, they will often be outside the lines.  Senior management owns culture and it must always protect it with everything they have.  That’s it.

So in a hot talent market – or within an industry of unlimited upward mobility – these are the two starting places for your strategy, Culture and Purpose.  The next time that someone comes to you and says they received ‘a better offer,’ put aside the money issue and ask yourself if you have put enough effort into these key leadership priorities.  Culture and purpose are the anchors, money is often the excuse and what they don’t want to tell you is that you failed. 

Try not to get pissed off at them until you have truly engaged in some leadership self-reflection.  It will be worth the time and effort, not just for the now, but in your business and market strategy over the long-term.

Culture and Purpose Drive Talent Decisions

About this Author

Mark Breslin is an author, speaker, CEO, and influencer inspiring change for workplace success across all levels of business.  Mark has improved leadership, accountability, innovation, and engagement for organizations and individuals. He has spoken to more than 400,000 people and published hundreds of thousands of books on leadership and workplace culture.  See his work at

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