- Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland
"Those people that find higher purpose to business than earning money are the ones making all the damn money." - Greg Glassman, Founder and CEO of CrossFit
Mission statements were not part of MBA dogma when I was an student in the 90s. Instead, Wharton taught about the overarching purpose of creating shareholder value. We debated the perils of straying from the primacy of wealth-creation. I was left wondering why the legendary Dilbert Mission Statement Generator (sadly no longer online) didn’t just repeatedly spit out the one-size-fits-all mission, “Make Money.”
However, I've found purpose to be one of my absolute favorites in the leadership toolkit. Used wisely, it creates shareholder value and provides some benefit to society.
You might think of mission as the ball. Share price or market share or another more traditional method of
- Decisions - At M5 Networks our mission was to provide phone systems and applications with an experience that businesses love. This mission guided our two most value-creating moves. Buying a competitor in Chicago was an easy decision because Josh Robbins, the founder, was also on a mission to create an amazing customer experience. His key channel partner, CDW, seamlessly became our partner because they were after the same thing. Similarly, ShoreTel's acquisition of M5 was based on mission-synergy. ShoreTel was founded to win its market with an exceptionally easy experience for SMBs. What exactly the companies did, cloud vs. premise delivery for example, mattered less than mission in the long-run. This is part of the reason that deal was the the highest-multiple transaction in the hosted VoIP space.
- Engagement - Inside M5, our purpose got a lot of air time. We kept our quest for “an experience businesses loved” front and center many ways. Client love letters would charge up the place and service failures took the wind out of our sails. Customer satisfaction drove the team better than any compensation scheme I ever tried.
- Recruiting - When the mission is clear, you can identify candidates who are already living it. When the leader of eight years left, WIBO.org might have failed. Fortunately, Jill Johnson was running a Newark-based organization pursuing an identical mission. WIBO couldn’t afford Jill and Jill had a day job, but, thanks to a shared mission, everyone found a way to make it work and she came to run WIBO.
- Marketing - Jim Stengel’s “Grow” is a nice meditation on how customers chose brands that reflect what they believe about themselves. Putting our primary quest front and center in marketing resonated with prospects and customers. It was all over our website, and central to our sales pitch. As a result, our customers were often outright rooting for us.
This is not my idea. As a new CEO looking for answers, I was practically bullied into thinking this way by legions of business gurus, like Jim Collins, Verne Harnish, Pat Lencioni, Jack Daly, all of whom practically shout this from podiums. It seemed like every speaker at a learning event for entrepreneurs talked about mission.
So why don’t more leaders harness the power of purpose? It is hard to do. An anthem for me, "Passive understanding is easy, active practice, not so much."
When I met Simon Sinek (before his TED talk and book, "Start with Why"), we decided to work together because he was excited by our opportunity to build a leader in a big, vulnerable industry. Simon’s process was instructive. It is difficult to create a purpose or impose one on an existing organization. You have to discover it. Simon took hours of biographical information from founders and other key leaders. He pointed us towards the commonalities, and helped us find words. Like Michelangelo s sculptures, the statue was always there, you just need to chop off some extra marble to set it free.
This very process is at the heart of why working with purpose is so hard. It has to authentically permeate all your stakeholders to matter. Here are some of the challenges I found:
- Investors - None of my VC's talked about mission. When we became public as part of ShoreTel, the Board and investors seemed even less interested. Leaders need a lot of confidence to stay on mission in the face of constant investor pressures. I remind everyone that mission can help create value.
- Leadership - It starts with the CEO and founders, but as the company grows, "Mommy and Daddy" have to believe the same thing. Luckily in our case, my co-founders were on the same page. As Phil Kim said (in his characteristic cut-the-crap way), we were “techies who do customer service well.” As we scaled, I failed many times to hire leaders that truly put the mission front and center. Egos and silos increasingly eroded our unified mission. It's a mistake I hope never to make again.
- Measurement - It is difficult to work with what you can’t see. That is why my CFO was likely to side with investors in the “who cares” camp. Because our mission was around customers experience, we used Net Promoter Scores (NPS) scores to measure how we did against mission, and that worked well for us. Unless you can make it tangible, some people won't get on board, so you need to figure out how to measure against the mission.
- Hypocrisy - Mission is powerful, but it is a weapon that cuts both ways. If you aren’t authentic (imagine a CEO trying to lead a customer experience mission who rarely talks to customers ... ), you will get eaten alive by staff, and the market. If you are going to lead a mission, you need to go big or go home. This means talking about it all the time. Engineers are a particularly tough crowd for this soft stuff, and true-believer engineers are the most dangerous. They killed and ate several of my hires.
- Wealth Creation - maybe the purest, Berkshire Hathaway
- Industry - Harley Davidson evangelizing motorcycling
- Community - Go Brooklyn!
- Employees - Zappos was first and foremost about culture
- Greater Cause - Southwest democratizing air travel
I love mission-driven companies. They are a minority, but growing as leaders figure out how to do this well. Some missions are big. Google is famously still on its 100-year mission to organize the world's information. Some missions are small. Sarah Endline’s Sweetriot is a nice example. Some missions are personal. Bre Pettis' revolutionary 3D printing company, MakerBot, is anchored in his personal mission of enabling creative people. I'm thinking Bre is strong enough to keep this story going even after his recent sale to Stratasys, but we'll see.
True alignment around a clear, worthwhile purpose is one of the ingredients I’ll cook with in my next venture. I'm resolved to work harder to ensure mission-alignment as we add investors and leaders. It is much easier to do as a start-up, but if the fundamental purpose is there, and it is close to my heart, maybe I can work with an existing organization. Mission is an ingredient that can help make a delicious company.
(I just found another CEO who wrote pretty much the same blog. There are many out there! Check out David Hieatt. And here's a link to a piece about a company that's only organizational principle is mission, more or less.)