Article: Higher Purpose, Higher Culture: Learnings from KPMG


Higher Purpose, Higher Culture: Learnings from KPMG

An ongoing culture building campaign at KPMG India is a unique study in its approach and scale
Higher Purpose, Higher Culture: Learnings from KPMG

If the employees can connect with the organization through a common purpose, then the chances of engaging and retaining them increases by several folds


In the recruitment process, the candidates now answer a question, whats your individual purpose and what is driving you towards it? In writing


For businesses today, ‘Purpose’ drives engagement. 

It is not a secret that in a world impaired by economic, social and political fluctuations and uncertainties, purpose-driven organizations are more likely to sustain, scale and become successful. And it is important for organizations to define and percolate this ‘purpose’ to its workforce and inspire its employees towards being a part of a purpose-driven culture – a purpose that makes work meaningful and produces a positive social impact on the community.  

Once such organization that epitomizes this thinking and practice is KPMG. KPMG launched its global campaign ‘Higher Purpose’ that was aimed at reframing the meaning of ‘work’ and giving a sense of empowerment to its employees. While integrity in work and the desire to positively impact communities was already enshrined in its Global Code of Conduct, KPMG decided to involve its employees more closely by helping them mine and connect their own purpose with the work that they do in the firm – something that was beyond paychecks.

For a firm as big as KPMG to try and build a culture such that its 165,000 plus employees would adopt was no less than a herculean undertaking at the execution level. This is a snapshot of the KPMG India’s case, which illuminates how People leaders in different countries partner firms are delivering the goal of creating a sustainable firm-wide cultural ecosystem that genuinely inspires employees to contribute towards a larger purpose. The ‘Higher Purpose’ campaign has been yielding signs of positive developments with their engagement scores rising and attrition rates plummeting globally. Along the way, KPMG is realizing that this could also be a big differentiator for them in the market. 

A 'Higher Purpose'

An increasingly unpredictable economic environment triggered the timing for the launch of this campaign put together by a huge team of executives at KPMG International and shared with all partners in a global meet. For KPMG, employees are brand differentiators. The idea behind Higher Purpose was to keep employees motivated by reframing the meaning of their work in light of the KPMG values of a strong work ethic aimed towards helping communities and harnessing motivation towards delivering good results. “Inspiring Confidence, Empowering Change” were the four words chosen to articulate the Higher Purpose as KPMG wanted its employees to think of themselves as change-makers, over and above being just executing professionals. “We wanted to create a pool that would bind the firm and its people together, make our clients want to work for us and serve as that forum on which people could find their anchor in an ever changing world,” says Richard Rekhy, CEO, KPMG India. 

Partner firms all over the world revisited their roots to reconnect with the values of Founders Klynveld, Peat, Marwick and Goerdler, who built KPMG on inclusive, trusted relationships and achieved positive, sustainable change in the world around them. While the purpose statement remained the same globally, KPMG partner firms had complete flexibility to choose the most effective way to launch the campaign. KPMG India is the second largest of the global partner firms with an average workforce age of 27-28. The HR team at KPMG India faced the question of executing this Higher Purpose in a manner that did not make it a mere tagline or an initiative that employees forget about. When the goal was to make people ‘feel’ than ‘behave’ differently, it had to involve the employees first.

Clarity on the value

In order to undertake a culture building initiative, the stakeholder organization has to be clear about what they are trying to drive and build. And the launching team needs to have the conviction to answer confidently, “Why are we doing this and why is this important?”. “From an HR perspective, a culture building exercise such as this subsumes any other initiative”, says Shalini Pillay, Head of People, Performance and Culture at KPMG India. “HR leaders review compensation cycles, tweak salaries and bonuses, and constantly implement new policies. But the effect of that usually tends to be short because within a few months, close competitors will match that or some employees will still get better deals elsewhere” she explains. However, if the employees can connect with the organization through a common purpose, then the chances of engaging and retaining them increases by many folds. 

Making it relatable 

The other piece of culture building is that the ideas and values have to be relatable for the individuals. With initial concerns and skepticism around the Higher Purpose initiative, regarding it becoming just another esoteric blend of vision, mission and values that organizations try to impart to the employees, “we needed the individuals to internalize the idea and think about purpose from their context,” stated Shalini. Thus, employees at KPMG were asked the question: “What brings you to work every morning?” This open-ended question meant to get the individuals thinking that since they had opted to spend at least a part of their careers with KPMG, that decision was hopefully taking them a step closer to their larger purpose. The purpose was ultimately just a terminology for the aim that motivated employees to invest their capacities, which did not have to be limited to the objectives of compensation, recognition or the technical capabilities that they were acquiring at work. 

Richard Rekhy Richard Rekhy, CEO, KPMG India

A full-fledged organization-wide story contest titled “Do you live your purpose at KPMG?” was launched, which built momentum around the campaign. The stories could be about any person, event or incident that inspired employees.  This contest served as a trigger to get people to take a step back from regular work and think about what their individual purpose was. The HR team also found other ways to prompt employees, such as by having senior leaders like CEO Richard Rekhy talk about how they were living their purpose, which was fascinating and inspiring for the younger employees, who formed the bulk of KPMG workforce in India. These talks were captured in a TED talk style video capsules for future references. There were also informal sessions with office simulations of a camp-fire setup to get people to casually share their personal stories. “Normally people don’t get into personal and emotional aspects at work, but we wanted to encourage them to feel more comfortable sharing those sides,” says Shalini. Motivating employees to live their purpose entailed providing them with an environment where they felt secure and confident sharing their real selves.

Thus, along the way, employees started to know about the unknown achievements of many of their colleagues and the struggles that others had to overcome in personal and professional lives. An immensely popular poster contest got the employees to write one powerful line answering the question, “What’s your purpose?” Walls were set up in visible locations within the workplace where these posters were displayed and changed periodically. Parallely, there were weekly stories that were sent out about an engaging project, assignment or a solution that KPMG was working on. Because of the firm’s large size, it served as the first opportunity for many employees to find out about breadth of interesting projects that teams were working on in the nook and cranny of KPMG India’s several offices. Finding out about KPMG’s role in the policy formation and implementation of large contemporary government initiatives like Swachh Bharat, Make in India and Startup India got many youngsters excited and eager to contribute to such causes. 

Purpose-driven employees want to do meaningful work. Once employees started to think about their own purpose, the HR team began to connect that with KPMG’s purpose as an organization. The firm’s purpose was introduced with the help of project stories that showed the real contributions that KPMG had been making on significant issues – whether to an individual, a corporate or the government or a region. These stories embodied the idea of inspiring confidence and empowering change by showcasing KPMG India’s role in large and small projects such as in reconstruction of a school after a natural disaster or in empowering a teenager to achieve her aspirations. “We wanted to send out the message that if they have a purpose that they are focused on, we wanted to help them get there in every way,” says Shalini. Thus, the employees’ individual personal stories began to run in parallel with the client and community impact stories that enabled them to see the connections between the two.

The KPMG story wall

The KPMG story wall

Walk the talk 

Making your day better Shalini Pillay, Head of People, Performance
and Culture, KPMG India

Culture is little about what is said, and very much about what is done. There has to be conviction and confidence that the organization is doing what it is doing because people embrace the values of a culture only when they can feel the difference those elements are making in their work. “After Higher Purpose, we have put purpose into everything. If we are working on a government project which is going to change the lives of people, we are going to say that we are there helping change the lives of X number of people. Or if we are working with a client who is going to do something different and unique, we are saying that we are involved in that activity or helping the client reach that goal,” says Richard. The leaders especially need to reflect such aspired values in their functions to provide confidence to others. Speaking about her own role in HR at KPMG India, Shalini Pillay explains, “I need to ask myself if I am creating enough confidence in my employees to make them feel that we are running a fair, meritocratic process and taking the necessary learning and development steps to get them ready to drive the change that they wish to drive.” Higher Purpose has to be a sustained initiative if it has to define KPMG’s DNA and spirit in the long run as a true purpose-led organization. 

Sustaining the purpose

Sustaining the purpose

As long as there is a progressive improvement in the engagement scores and attrition numbers, Shalini feels that these progressive developments could be indirectly attributed to this campaign, along with various other policy improvements. Sustaining such an initiative consistently is the most important thing. “I would not be honest to myself if I believe change will take place overnight. We are growing rapidly and run a reasonably high attrition rate of 20 percent. So there have to be constant refreshers all the time,” she says. While the first 6 months qualified as a super success, it is important to keep planning how this would be sustained and the only way to do that is to embed a sense of purpose in every aspect of the work life. 

Purpose driven

On average, 10-15 people join KPMG India every day. Therefore, the greatest challenge for a firm that big is to constantly communicate and reinstate it to all its people. KPMG is therefore constantly looking to weave elements of the campaign into everything in order to induct and remind new employee batches of this purpose. For example, the winning collection from a photo contest from 2015 that asked employees to capture an image that inspired them was used to design the 2016 KPMG yearly calendar.

Most importantly, attracting purpose-driven talent who could identify with KPMG’s strong values was important as this could go a long way in inspiring confidence in clients, reducing attrition and building a culture of high performance. In the recruitment process, the candidates now answer the question, “What’s your individual purpose and what is driving you towards it?” The reason for asking this is to ensure that people are joining KPMG for the right reasons, after understanding what the firm is about and giving a thought to whether it would be meaningful for them to be a part of this journey. The HR continually sends new triggers to encourage people to share their experiences, which in turn enables others to get inspired and keep reconnecting with their motivation. Most recently, Women’s Day in March was an occasion from the senior women employees to share their experiences with their younger counterparts, how the several years they had spent at KPMG has brought them closer to their purpose.

‘Inspire confidence, empower change’ is a way of life at KPMG which allows the firm to invest in the individual purposes of the employees and also encourages the sharing process and openness that allows people to be motivated and inspired. 

Read full story

Topics: Culture, Employee Engagement, #HR Ready

Did you find this story helpful?