Words Matter. Ken Goldstein, on the importance of mission statements.
One of the themes I explore in my forthcoming debut novel, This is Rage, is the notion of motivation. This is a subject I hold dear, and one I focus on a great deal in the executive coaching workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli.
If all a mission statement is meant to do is fill a half page in your human resources handbook, it is probably not worth the time to write it down. One of my former teachers and board members used to say he had a vision of all the great mission statements in the world collected in a single volume, and there could be no possible better bedtime sleeping remedy than trying to force oneself through those pages with one’s eyelids open. Again I agree, if a mission is just a string of words—Buzzword Bingo without a juicy prize—it will not motivate, but let’s consider a few potential examples of applying a personal leadership mission in attempting to inspire a team.
Here are three choices I offer participants in the workshop, all of which we’ve heard in some variation, from the absurdly failing to the boldly aspirational:
To make this department much more efficient and profitable!
To overcome market forces and prevail over our competition!
To provide my team with the support and resources they need, to the very best of my ability, to collaborate and do the very best work of their careers.
My response to Choice 1:
Not gonna inspire, management by fear is so not cool.
My response to Choice 2:
You’re starting to get my attention, through an occasional yawn.
My response to Choice 3:
I’d build you a log cabin in the arctic if you asked me.
Call me an optimist; people like to be inspired. It’s not a sleight of hand. Real leadership means rallying people around a cause, to subordinate their own personal quirks to the shared agenda adopted. The leader’s job is to create the environment for sharing.
Is it the business leader’s job to make her or his department more efficient and profitable? Do we really need to ask? It goes without saying, so don’t seek glory in the obvious. Is it the business leader’s job to respond to market forces and win market share from the competition? Once more I ask, where’s the question? Any answer to this presupposes a complete lack of faith in the common sense of why we are employed by our company and not another. Is it the business leader’s job to rally, help, support, test, and muster the collective wisdom of those assembled to form a team and work together? That should be just as obvious, but try saying it aloud and look at the surprised gazing around you. That’s what people want to hear. Uttering the manifesto is the first step toward building trust and accomplishing the impossible. True, it’s just the first step, and trust is easily shattered when actions upend words. Yet it’s an important step, and it does fire up hearts and minds much in advance of a spreadsheet.
It also connotes vulnerability—to the very best of my ability—which again is all in fact you can ever do. Not proclaiming more makes you human, perhaps a form of life other people are more willing to follow. Be honest, not only about what you can do, but in admitting that you are not de facto possessive of superpowers. Try it out, it just might give you superpowers.
In my novel, a few clever and powerful people are trying to make a whole lot of money. That is not a bad thing, until they forget that how you make the money is the difference between taking along a deserving set of others and leaving almost all of them behind. Most of the people in the story just want to do their jobs, to find a way to love their jobs, to shake off the demoralization that has come from the illogical separation between task and income. When a job is a paycheck, you don’t need a mission statement or real leadership, you just keep your head low and get through the day. When a job is about something more, it’s still a paycheck—we all need a paycheck—but the purpose of the work is a much more substantial driver, creating better outcomes and better paydays. Improved business comes from more engaged employees, and getting those employees engaged is a soft skill that in the hands of a master can conquer most obstacles. That’s when work is fun, when we believe in something, when we believe in the leaders and their values and their rallying cries and we choose to be a part of innovation’s path.
The promise of the start-up is to build something new with heartfelt values at its core, and in closely held companies at modest scale it is much easier for founders to maintain the kind of personal mission and creative culture that reflects this entrepreneurial DNA. When an exceptional start-up enters a period of hyper growth, hands on sustenance of idealized culture becomes considerably more difficult. Should the start-up go public, it too easily can take on the shape and form of the goliaths it sought not to be, and then the challenge of maintaining a mission grounded in shared values is often put on trial. The disconnect between what was innocently envisioned and what inertia morphs can be terribly upsetting to the grasping loyals, who hold their idealism in longing, hoping at length for the pledge to retake honest meaning.
Still it is important to remember than the personal leadership mission can endure. Indeed it might be less than a grand corporate mission statement, but I believe conviction is almost always within a business leader’s reach at all levels of an organization. Committing to a personal leadership mission is a choice—a brave choice with its own risk—and while rare, a good one in the spirit of Choice 3 has a decent shot at creating significantly more employee engagement and long-term value than the other two slug lines. It’s all a matter of executive style, setting a tone for the broadest possible positive, tangible outcomes.
It is too easy to check out, and once people check out, try getting them to check back in. As my story compounds, an awful lot of people check out — because they don’t feel valued, because they don’t feel inspired, because they see what they do each day as separate and divorced from the actual process that creates income for the business and value for the shareholders. Tie those pieces back together and real innovation comes a good deal more naturally.
Leadership is not so much a word as a behavior, a walking example of what it means to be intertwined with the enterprise. It does begin with words, words that are grounded, words that do something. Choose those words carefully, lead by example, motivate by inclusion, dole out support without reservation.
You want to keep things humming, making it a little less comfortable and a little more complicated—for yourself, not those you guide. In the book, I take you to the extremes of this world view, heroic and cowardly and all that binds the spectrum. The words did not come easily to me, but I committed myself to resilience and found them over time. You can, too.
Originally published on Corporate Intelligence Radio
photo: Victor1558 / flickr