Effective CEOs recognize that articulating a clear mission is an important part of their job. Yet, in my 20 years in Silicon Valley, including eight years of consulting with dozens of companies, I’ve sadly concluded that few CEOs do this really well. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to distill what’s needed for success in a complex technology-based business into a simple mission that can be understood throughout the organization. And few even know what they are missing.
Most companies have mission statements, many of which seem clear and concise, so why don’t more companies operate with clear missions in practice? Sometimes it’s because companies are living a lie and there is a mismatch between the culture and the mission. But usually it is because words alone don’t drive culture. The two most mission-driven organizations I’ve been part of didn’t have a written mission statement.
Mission clarity is a force multiplier
Most corporate leaders have a “day job” focused on meetings and managing people and have a “second job” – when time permits – to think strategically about the business. Being able to reverse these roles is a powerful advantage for actually running the business and attracting and retaining talent. If your company sells a complex product or solution, successfully defining your mission with clarity and simplicity is a force multiplier of almost priceless value. With clarity of mission, even the rank and file in the organization can operate with remarkable autonomy and minimal office politics.
The measure of a good corporate mission is one that can be explained by the receptionist to her brother-in-law at the family Thanksgiving dinner. This goes beyond canned elevator pitches to embrace why the organization exists, how it operates, and how each individual employee specifically fits into the mission. This last part highlights the limited value of overarching mission statements since what is important is that each employee understands their personal mission and how it integrates into the whole.
Clarity of mission in practice
In the mid-1990s I recruited and managed 60+ document imaging and workflow application vendors (ISVs) to support Cornerstone Imaging’s hardware-based image decompression and display capabilities. Our display hardware cost about three times the competition’s and provided no significant benefit in the absence of explicit support in the ISV’s application. Where we had hardware support, we had a powerful value proposition, so my role was central to the company’s success.
The value proposition was based on simple economics: (a) a higher quality monitor leads to less eye-strain and other time-sapping ergonomic problems, and (b) when considered over weeks, months, or years, even small improvements of a second or two per image for decompression and display add up to significant amounts of time – and time = money. There was no need to provide potential customers and partners with specific calculations because the concept was so simple and compelling. Our 3x price was matched by 3x market share.
The receptionist and the guys in the warehouse didn’t need to understand the math, because they understood the value proposition of better images displayed faster. Because we frequently did side-by-side comparisons with and without hardware support, they also understood the value of seeing is believing. We did a lot of seeding and trade show loaners — which were a logistical burden for sales, manufacturing, and the warehouse. Because they understood the value, they all put forth whatever effort was needed rather than grousing about dealing with ordering, shipping (and receiving back) hundreds of non-revenue units. No one gave them pep talks; they inherently understood how their actions supported the company mission, and when they needed to “turn it up to eleven.”
Understanding the mission has even greater impact in the middle of the organization. Up and down the organization chart, we simply knew what to do. Power politics were kept to a minimum and the occasional employee who didn’t accept this type of organization was pushed out by their peers rather than requiring management attention. At one point I essentially had no boss. I reported to the business unit GM, but he had bigger issues to deal with at the time. Consequently, I didn’t have a single one-on-one with him and we didn’t have a regular staff meeting. Yet, because there was complete clarity of mission, during this time I initiated and built an industry consortium, working autonomously with the other business unit and our CEO to assure we were in alignment.
A pithy mission statement is not enough
Creating and communicating clarity of mission requires both a top-down and a bottom-up perspective. A day-long executive retreat might deliver a concisely worded mission statement, but that is but the beginning of the journey, not the end. Clarity of mission requires much more than employees memorizing — or even internalizing — the company mission statement. It requires that each and every one of them understand what the mission means for them and what it directs them to do. A critical mass of people with clarity of mission becomes largely self-policing. A leader’s job is to develop and nurture this type of organization.
What could you or your organization accomplish if you could take the bulk of supervising and personnel issues off the table and turn your organization loose to turn it “up to eleven”?
Bruce La Fetra develops strategic marketing plans for software, technology and services clients. After more than 20 years as a consultant and practitioner, he launched La Fetra Consulting to elevate marketing into a strategic role by encouraging a service-oriented approach and building stronger ties between companies, customers and partners. He previously served as Business Strategist with Rubicon Consulting, Director of Industry Marketing for Docent (now SumTotal) and Director of Strategic Marketing & Business Development for Internet Commerce at First Data. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.