Mission driven companies do it better. They execute better. They scale faster. They grow quicker.
In my first company, we were anything but mission driven. And this caused us huge problems.
If you had asked 5 people in the company, “What does your company do, exactly?” you would have gotten five very different answers. Each employee, each founder had their own idea of what the company was about:
- “We’re a machine learning company.”
- “We’re a cloud labor company.”
- “We’re a transcription company.”
And on and on.
Ok, you’re wondering, so what?
Practically speaking, this meant that I, as a the CEO, had to micromanage the team if I wanted the company to build the product and customer experience I had envisioned. This is bad. I had failed as a leader in a big way. People didn’t know the why, so I had to constantly decide on and explain the what. This sucked. “Why don’t they get it!?!” I would wonder, frustrated.
Ultimately, the fault was my own.
Think about it from the employee’s perspective. They show up, join the company, poke around the product, listen to the founder talk about their big dreams of riches and world domination, yet each founder’s dream is unique or in conflict somehow with the others. And so what is the employee to do but come up with her own interpretation, her own vision of what matters and what is important. And then use that to make decisions––decisions that invariably affect the product and the customer experience.
The more employees you have, the bigger the problem gets.
Things got exponentially worse when I was raising money. Some CEOs can still manage the company’s day-to-day while fundraising. I was not such a CEO. Fundraising consumed me. It forced me to delegate. And that resulted in things going off the rails.
When fundraising was finally done, I returned to a company focused on a different vision than the one in my head––one more focused on solving hard technical problems than customer problems. At the time, I blamed the team. Now I blame myself.
Later, when I ventured off the island that was my own company, I experienced the privilege of meeting some truly great companies. One thing I noticed of all the great companies was that everyone in company was on the same page. Everyone knew what the mission was and everyone used the same language to describe it.
This alignment was an extraordinary management tool. Because everyone was on the same page, mission and outcome wise, management didn’t have to micromanage people. And because they didn’t have to micromanage people, they could focus on bigger things. They could delegate to people in the lowest levels of the organization and know that the employees decisions would reflect the management team’s intent. They could build a flat hierarchy that retained the best people longer.
Awesome. And such powerful leverage.
Being mission driven doesn’t mean being progressive, enlightened or humane. Being mission driven simply means that everyone in the understands the organizational end game and actively uses this understanding guide their day-to-day decision making.
Being mission driven means that everyone in the organization knows not just the ephemeral what, but the unchanging why. Being mission driven means that everyone understands and is focused on the problem you’re trying to solve, not the current instantiation of the solution.
The CEOs of mission driven companies operate with more leverage than their counterparts. Instead of a swarm of men dedicated to doing their bidding and executing their commands, they have a hivemind of humans working together in parallel to solve a single well-defined problem. That’s leverage! And in the long run, that’s what wins.
Update: My friend Vijay Sundaram of Found (acquired by Hightail) made a comment via email that I think is worth sharing:
Great write up man, I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately to a huge portion of the venture and entrepreneur population this is “fluff” but nothing you’ll say will make them get it. Couple additional thoughts come to mind re: the underlying problem:
- Failure to instill “mission mindset” in employees – sometimes it’s a an issue of founders not operating with a mission in mind, sometimes it’s an issue of founders communicating that mission well, and sometimes it’s an issue of the employees that’ve been hired not being willing or capable of internalizing that mission
- Even with a “mission mindset” among employees, it doesn’t always translate into action (or the right action) – founders have to instill the mission mindset AND THEN have to demonstrate how to translate it into operating principles and decisions by example and consistency. This is where founder-managers are so crucial, because they do this day in day out by their wiring and why companies can flail despite an excellently articulated vision and mission (by a founder who doesn’t know how or do the hard work to translate to execution).