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How to set a ‘Mission above profit’ and why it’s vital

Mission Peak by Josh HawleyWe can all do a job. Whether for money or not, we can understand the tasks we need to do – by when and at what quality – and then do them. Some of us are more motivated to do a good job – for the sake of doing a good job – than others. Some work harder than others to get more accountability. Most of us have to take jobs as adults to live and pay for independent lives. Most retire. All die.

Depressing? Well, it’s always been the same way. Past the need to survive and the general motivation to do a good job, the ability to provide for a family normally provides a reason to do well, and this has spurred humans through our history to perform over the minimum effort.

You know as the leader of your business, whether you lead 1 person or 100,000, how hard it is to motivate your team. But you also know that this is your holy grail. Without motivation you absolutely get less than optimal performance from your people. Optimal performance is defined here as the best performance over the long term that you could possibly get from a set of individuals.

You’re no different. You’re running your business. Whether you’re selling widgets, or the sexiest thing in the world, you’re passionately invested in it – as leader, regardless of the size of your equity stake. However, even this doesn’t unlock your peak performance over the long term. Why?

Ultimately it’s because most humans need meaning and purpose. Whether it’s you or your team, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘what is our purpose on this planet?’ are questions which are part of the human condition. They’re central to why setting a ‘mission above profit’ is vital for your long-term success. You need to put profit as the second most important factor in your organisation and create a primary ‘Why’ for your organisation that transcends time, you and your teams. The aim is to give your organisation a reason for being which exists independently of you and the existing people in your company.

This then becomes something that provides meaning and purpose. It enables you all to stand shoulder to shoulder and face forwards to something far superior to money or market position. With an active  mission above profit in place your direction is always clear. Even though you may have to take strategic u-turns, tactical detours and occasionally change vehicles, you all know where you’re going. It may take you to lead people there in the best way possible, but they have a vague sense of direction without you.

So, what does a mission above profit look like and how do you set one?

A mission above profit is simply a clear direction which is set and that guides corporate activities over time. It is a constant reminder of why the business exists, why it was founded and what it believes in. At first this is a founder’s mission, and now is shared by the generations of employees that follow.

Great missions above profit may have some, but not necessarily all, of the key attributes:

  1. They aim to right a wrong – whether that’s a ‘big’ society problem or a ‘small’ current wrong in business. The wrong can be implicit in what would change if the mission was achieved or explicitly stated. A good example is The Dow Chemical Company, ‘To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology.’
  2. The competitive advantage (the way of winning against competitors) or ways of profiting from the mission above profit are fairly clear to work out. Normally by a process of questioning what would happen if the mission was achieved, do the profit implications become clear. Zappo’s is a good example where they are both implicit (online service leader=competitive advantage) and explicit, ‘Our goal is to position Zappos as the online service leader. If we can get customers to associate the Zappos brand with the absolute best service, then we can expand into other product categories beyond shoes.’
  3. They inspire by being aspirational and the ‘why?’ of the mission above profit may be implicit or explicit. HR services business, Kenexa, has, ‘Talent has no limits. We optimize human potential, increase happiness, and maximize the engagement of people by providing superior solutions for understanding, acquiring, developing and retaining talent’. ‘Solutions’ and ‘engagement’ may be words that start to cause corporate buzzword shut down, but human potential and happiness provide cut-through.
  4. They are actionable. Using Sinek’s Why, How and What, a good mission above profit gives the how and the what. So effectively it answers where are we going and why, how are we going to get there and what is the exact vehicle for our journey?. A good example is the mission of The Walt Disney Company ‘to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.’

Things to be clear on:

  1. A mission above profit is not a tag line. It needn’t even be shared externally. Google’s – ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ is relatively hidden away on
  2. They don’t ever have to be achievable. They are a clear direction that guide corporate activities over time. It doesn’t matter that they’re so big they can’t be achieved. In a sense the harder they are to even come close to achieving, the harder you’ll have to fight to achieve them. Coca-Cola’s is a great example, ‘Our mission enduring. It declares our purpose as a company and serves as the standard against which we weigh our actions and decisions: To refresh the world… To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…To create value and make a difference.’
  3. Wordsmith to death. Clunky, spiky and different can work a hell of a lot better than sanitised corporate wordsmithed b*llocks. Add ‘superior shareholder value’ at your vanilla peril. do a good job of making something matter of fact avoid blandness by its direct honesty and the use of an unusual word: ‘We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.’

Use 3 simple steps to set your own:

  1. Ask ‘why?’ – Why did we create the business? Why do people join us? Why do customers use us vs. our competitiors? Why do we exist? Why would the world be a lesser place if our business failed? – the mission may be faint, but ask these questions widely, record the answers diligently (keep asking ‘why?’ for every response until you can go no further) and then stand back and look for patterns.
  2. Start again – try an experiment. Take your best people people away for the day and set them yourselves the following task: you’re going to start again. Close the existing business and rebuild a brilliant new business build around a mission above profit. Knowing all you know about your markets, customers, products, services and core competencies, what do you create? What is the mission above profit of this new business. When you’ve got it, ask yourselves what’s stopping you having this for your existing business?
  3. Run with it and test – because you don’t have to emblazon it across your homepage, integrate it into your corporate logo or make press announcements, when you’ve got the rough outline of something try it for size. Include it in conversations with new customers, analysts or your mum and dad (who never knew what you really did for a living anyway.) Find what works for you, what more easily rolls off the tongue and what gets people sufficiently inspired to talk to you about it.

Never forget that ultimately a mission above profit is because most humans need meaning and purpose. Whether it’s you, your team, your customers or your shareholders,  ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘what is our purpose on this planet?’ are questions which are part of the human condition.

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About Si Conroy

Family man, founder/CEO, investor & CrossFitting ultra runner. Businesses apply cognitive science to goal setting & goal achievement for leaders. Love life.

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