Go back in time and imagine that you meet two medieval stonemasons hacking away at several boulders. You ask the first, “What are you doing?” and he answers, “I’m chipping some marble.” You then ask the second the same question, but he answers, “I’m building a cathedral.”
That’s the essence and power of purpose. It’s much bigger than self-interest. When deployed correctly, a powerful purpose can drive high performance and emotionally connect employees with their organization. On the other hand, it’s really hard to motivate employees about improving shareholder value or to rally the troops on increasing EBITDA.
Most non-profits get it. Being motivated by a mission that involves making the world a better place is highly motivating. Being part of something bigger than yourself is a powerful driver. Consider the mission statement of the New England Center for Children (NECC).
"To transform the lives of children with autism worldwide through education, research, and technology"
That’s a pretty uplifting statement. When employees arrive at work each day at NECC they see the mission statement posted at every entry portal. The work they do with autistic children is difficult, but their mission helps them put those efforts in a bigger, bolder, and more satisfying context. Their tasks are imbued with a higher purpose - making the world a better place. If they need to stay late, or go the extra mile, despite no extra pay, they do it in service of their mission.
But, some skeptics might say that NECC is a non-profit, an organization focused on achieving its mission, not on maximizing profit. They need a meaningful mission because they can’t pay as well as for-profit companies. It’s their job to do good work.
But compelling missions are not just for charitable organizations.
Consider Google’s mission. "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful"
Or Nike’s, "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world" (if you have a body you’re an athlete)
Both define a higher purpose, yet neither mentions money, although both companies are exceptionally profitable. For them profit is the outcome, not the goal in and of itself.
Of course all of these mission statements are just words: words that can be true or hypocritical, clichés or innovative phrases, aspirations or realities. But they are words that can express powerful ideas and drive behaviors. Words that can serve as dramatic rallying cries that attract and unite employees to fulfill their organization’s purpose.
When used proactively, organizational missions can elevate the collective ambition of the organization far beyond simply making more money. Improving shareholder value may have been the dominant purpose of business over the past 20 years, but it’s a dull and counterproductive rallying cry. What rational employee would ever want to spend unpaid extra hours at work just to help investors earn a few extra cents in quarterly earnings?
On the other hand, State Farm’s mission, "To help people manage the risks of everyday life, recover from the unexpected, and realize their dreams", is positively uplifting. No wonder they have such a high rate of employee retention. Helping their members realize their dreams is a significant form of intangible reward for employees that also helps deepen their engagement with State Farm.
A strong mission statement can serve as a well-lit beacon attracting prospective employees who emotionally connect with that purpose in today’s competition for talent.
It’s not shareholder value that can best drive the improvement of our organizations, it’s the powerful pull of smart purpose.
About Steve Stanton
Steve is the author of the recently published book, “Smart Work: Why Organizations Full of Intelligent People Do So Many Dumb Things and What You Can Do About It.” He is a pioneer of process innovation. For thirty years his work has been focused on improving the capability of organizations to transform themselves. Mr. Stanton is also the co-author, with Dr. Hammer, of “The Reengineering Revolution” (HarperBusiness) and the Harvard Business Review article “How Process Organizations Really Work.” Mr. Stanton holds an MBA from Harvard and a BA from the Berklee School of Music.
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