Workday Customer Roundtable: The Role of ‘Purpose’ in Corporate Culture

Some of the most powerful conversations take place when great leaders from different companies come together to discuss business issues that face all of us. While at Workday Rising this year, we had the honor of hosting a discussion about the practices and processes necessary to maintain a great corporate culture.

Participants included two Workday customers—Nancy Vitale, senior vice president of human resources at Genentech, and Dean Carter, vice president of shared services at Patagonia—as well as Ashley Goldsmith, chief people officer at Workday. The conversation covered a lot of ground, but one of the highlights was when Chinwe Onyeagoro, president of Great Place to Work, asked how each executive instills purpose at their companies, and how they continue to scale that purpose as their companies grow. The exchange made for a thoughtful discussion on the many ways you can inspire and excite employees to do their best work.

Onyeagoro: We’ve done a lot of research at Great Place to Work about what it’s going to take to achieve a high performing workplace in the future, and one of the biggest things that came up was purpose. What gets folks out of bed every morning at your organizations?

Ashley Goldsmith
Ashley Goldsmith

Goldsmith: I think purpose is a really important connection point. Millennials have been given credit for being the ones to speak up about needing a purpose-driven connection to their work, but I think it’s a pretty fundamental human need to feel like what you do matters.

At Workday, we get excited about changing the way people work. And when you think about how much of our lives involve our work, knowing that our applications make a positive impact on millions of workers is very motivating and rewarding. You’re not just a cog in one giant machine. Every piece matters.


“When you state your purpose and really live it, then your employees are the ones that are going to hold you to it the most, especially when you do it well.”
—Dean Carter, vice president of shared services at Patagonia

Dean Carter - Patagonia
Dean Carter

Carter: While the culture at Patagonia hasn’t changed a lot from when Yvon Chouinard founded our company, our business has evolved over the years from just building outdoor equipment to much more. From the beginning, we have been more of a purpose disguised as a company. Our mission statement is very clear “Build the best product, do no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” In many ways, there’s a bit of a paradox in our purpose… sometimes the best technical products do significant harm to the planet, but to be an inspiring business, you have to grow. These paradoxes of harm, quality, and growth are deeply concerning to some of our employees. But for most, they are an inspiring challenge—they show that business can do good and do well simultaneously, and even a small tribe of surfers and climbers in Ventura, CA can help save the planet. When you state your purpose and really live it, then your employees are the ones that are going to hold you to it the most, especially when you do it well.

Nancy Vitale - Genentech
Nancy Vitale

Vitale: As a biotechnology company, Genentech has a noble purpose and an important mission, which is one of our key assets in terms of motivating and inspiring employees to do their best work. But honestly, these days you need even more in order to attract and retain the best talent. As I think about all of the competitors in our space, what really differentiates us is culture, which is why we’re focused on it each and every day. We’re not perfect—we have room for improvement—but by paying attention to the employee experience, we can differentiate ourselves in our competitive industry.


Onyeagoro: I think everyone has the aspiration to create a great experience at work. But one of the things we found is that it’s actually harder to sustain a great experience than it is to create one, particularly given the changes that are happening in the marketplace. What do you look for to ensure your culture is strong and vibrant? And when something is off, how do you get in front of it to address it?

Goldsmith: Workday has grown significantly—we’ve been doubling every couple of years for the last several—and we have a really strong culture. Staying on top of the quality of our culture and being intentional is really important, particularly in times of growing pains. We’ve had to reflect on what our values mean to us, especially as we hire more people managers, who we believe are the key to employee success. In fact, after seeing a couple of warning signs last year, we flew every people manager in our company to the Bay Area for a two-day meeting. It wasn’t a meeting about business objectives—the entire offsite was dedicated to understanding what it means to lead at Workday, what living our culture looks like, and what kind of experience we want our employees to have.

“None of us are immune to culture challenges, so we have to be vigilant about staying on top of nurturing and evolving the culture we desire.”
—Nancy Vitale, senior vice president of human resources at Genentech

Vitale: The word I’d probably use is leadership vigilance. In my 11 years at Genentech I can point to a couple of distinct times where there were signs that the culture might be under threat. During these times, we scanned all of our existing data sources, our annual engagement survey, the Great Place to Work survey, and employee comments on our company intranet site. We held conversations with employees and leaders and culled through all of that data to really understand what the employee experience was like.

We found some gaps that we brought to the executive committee, thinking it would be a quick conversation. It turned out to be a two-year conversation. One of the things we uncovered was that our 41-year history of being patient-centered, science-driven, and people-focused remained a fundamental strength of our culture. There was evidence, however, that some employees felt like we were becoming slower and more risk averse as we grew. In order to solve this, we had to call that out and align our efforts to reinforce this crack in our foundation. None of us are immune to culture challenges, so we have to be vigilant about staying on top of nurturing and evolving the culture we desire.

Carter: We have an annual culture survey where we specifically ask employees how they feel about our culture. But I want to encourage us all to think about how we collect data on culture in new ways. I think there will be a time when we’ll be able to collect data on email, other conversations, and social networks, and not have to rely solely on an annual survey. Like, “Hey, how are you feeling about the culture today at 1:26 p.m.?” I think we need to do more to meet employees in the work stream rather than pulling them away to do long surveys and pulses.

A member of the Board of Directors at Sears had a great saying about data: “One of the worst decisions we ever made was made by gut, and one of the worst decisions we ever made was made by data.” I think the right answer is a combination of those two things. Sometimes the best thing you can do to know what’s going on in your culture is to go have dinner with your employees and get away from your computer. Listening to both the human element and technology is how we should all aim to make decisions about culture.