There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they’re individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves.
A mission describes where we are going – the destination. We can only lead successfully if we can tell people where we are going and why, and what it will mean for the lives of every employee.
To inspire everyone a mission must be inspirational and practical. IKEA’s mission is a great example: “At IKEA our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”
Google’s original mission statement is another great example “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The statement is easy to understand: and it’s practical and inspiring.
If the reason to existence is only to survive and pay dividends to shareholders, there is no compelling reason for people to work for you; and from a customer’s perspective, there is no compelling reason to buy from you.
When I first took on the challenge of CEO in my current job, I was very excited about what my team and I could do (and all the business opportunities that lay before us) as we were tasked with the responsibility of bringing a successful local IT conglomerate into the international market.
But as the months wore on, I realized that we had no clear mission. Most people had some idea of what our business was about, but it was very general and nothing inspirational. In the end, it felt like we were just selling everything IT to everyone.
This couldn’t go on if we wanted to make an impact in the market. Inspired by the Hedgehog concept (from the book From Good to Great by Jim Collins), we set out to find what we can do better than anyone else based on the principles that organizations should only do what they 1) can be great at, 2) can make money at, and 3) have a passion for doing.
Through the many sessions and discussions, we realized that there was a gap in the market where, as a company, we could actually offer something meaningful and make a real difference to people’s lives.
Very briefly, identification is a serious issue in many developing countries because people are victimized due to a lack of it, and national governance can be greatly improved with a firm grasp in managing it. In relation to our line of business, we observed that there are many identity management solution providers in the market but most focus on parts of the solution. Few, if any, can claim to be a total solution provider.
So now, we have a clear mission to “improve the lives of 1 billion people in developing countries by transforming and creating value for the government.” And we also know specifically how we are going to do it. We are not looking to save the world but we do know that within the sphere of government identity management, we can provide real value by developing innovative solutions to transform the way governments work to improve the lives of citizen.
The best part about all this is that this business is not new to us. We have been part of one of the most successful government transformations ever in Malaysia. We just needed to cut away the baggage and distractions that came with time, focus on what we can be best at, fueled by the fact that we make a difference.
The Chief Meaning Officer
Jack Welch uses the term ‘Chief Meaning Officer’ in his book The Real Life MBA. According to Jack Welch, that term should explain the main role of every manager in an organization. As he explains it:
“it’s not just the top person who needs to be a Chief Meaning Officer. No matter what the size of company, it’s every manager’s job, right down to the team leader level, to create context and purpose.
Steve Jobs was an incredible ‘Chief Meaning Officer’. He could connect with people in both an emotional and intellectual way. Remember the introduction of the iPod: “so, this amazing little device holds 1000 songs and it goes right into my pocket”? Steve Jobs changed the way the world communicates, interacts and entertains.
There was also the famous incident about how Steve Jobs challenged then-Pepsi president John Sculley: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?”. He was a master of dreaming big and he encouraged others to do the same.
What motivates individuals is highly subjective and situational. There is no answer that will work across the board. However, there is one thing that makes most of us motivated. The cause itself.
So, to answer the question, what Apple, Google and IKEA have in common is that they all attach a meaning to their business; and that meaning is clearly communicated to all. People in the company (and even those not in the company) all know where they are going and why.
If you are a leader, you should talk about your cause every day and in every conversation. If your leadership is founded on shared ideas and values, you have the true power to lead.
Or if you relate to my experience of not knowing exactly where your business is heading, then it may be time to re-visit the drawing board with your team. Re-visit what you’ve done, find the core of your business and the mission will slowly crystalize. This process is applicable to all organizations, and I can assure that things can only get better after going through it.
Idea: By first creating ‘meaning’, we can transform the way we lead people in order to boost productivity, employee engagement, customer satisfaction and ultimately value to shareholders.