Mission is keyJack, the CEO of a technical services firm, and I both volunteer at the same non-profit. Several months ago, with optimism about the economy and a cup of coffee in his hand,  Jack described big plans and goals for the next few years.

I knew Jack didn’t currently have the organization to reach his goals, so asked him to describe his ideal organization. Our prior conversation about the non-profit influenced him as he outlined an organization with a single-minded focus spanning functional roles that expanded by attracting passionate people who work harder and more autonomously.

From his own experience, Jack cited The Nature Conservancy, Save the Children, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation as examples of mission-focused organizations. Notably, all his examples came from the non-profit world, not the corporate realm.

So, what can non-profits teach us about improving our own, for-profit organizations? Quite a lot.

If You Can’t Write It Down, You Can’t Act On It

This article about “Faux Trust” got me thinking about my conversation with Jack. Just as many firms and professionals that talk the talk, but undermine themselves by not fully walking the walk of trust, most executives I meet are confident their firm’s mission is more obvious than it actually is. I’m not talking about lofty mission statements, but a very practical view of why their firm represents the best option for their customers. In my view, an effective positioning statement captures a firm’s mission.

Virtually every professional firm executive I meet insists their firm is as clearly and effectively positioned as its market allows. (No, I don’t know what that means.) However, when I push them to put it in writing, much stumbling ensues, and many end up saying that highly specific positioning isn’t that important. The smarter ones recognize they’ve entered a box canyon and attempt to reverse course by re-framing their mission in business terms such as growth, profits, return on equity and customer satisfaction. None of these is a mission, or at least not one that helps you in the market. Neither are generic statements about customer value (see Dunder Mifflin’s mission statement linked above).

The conventional wisdom of books and MBA programs and their focus on growth and profits gradually subsumes the sense of mission that existed in the firm’s earliest days. The loss of mission focus hurts sales and marketing, but the toll taken in recruiting is almost insidious in its impact. Yes, they recognize the importance of bringing on the right people, but they’ve lost the most effective tool for attracting the very people they most need to hire. Further erosion ensues.

Lacking A Framework, Not Desire

The lack of a mission-focus isn’t because firm leaders like Jack don’t see the benefits. What stopped Jack was he lacked a framework to understand and then communicate the firm’s mission and positioning. Cliche-ridden mission statements didn’t appeal to him. Managing to mission focused objectives–at best–only works as long as the incentives are in place. By contrast, a real mission is culture-based, creating a self-reinforcing environment that grows stronger over time.

Strategic Marketing 3.0: A Framework for Capturing the Passion of Non-Profits in a For-Profit Firm

This type of mission-focused organization does exist in the corporate world, and where it does, you find especially successful firms. It’s hard to scale culture, so I find more small and medium-sized examples than multi-nationals. Such firms are easier–and more fun–to manage, do a superior job in recruiting and retaining people, are highly respected and admired by their peers, and of course, outperform their competitors.

I firmly believe any successful firm can express what they do in terms of a mission, and out-compete competitors in the process. Pat Lencioni, in The Advantage, offers a route tied to the very root of your firm. Relatively healthy firms have an easier, and nearly as effective, alternative: leverage a comprehensive Strategic Marketing Plan to instill a marketing culture. The framework for doing this is Strategic Marketing 3.0.

Strategic Marketing 3.0 focuses your entire organization on the unique customer value that causes your best customers to select your firm over other options. More of a mindset than a change in organizational design, Marketing takes on a horizontal role to give your positioning and mission voice and provide a lodestar to all parts of your firm. Just as The Nature Conservancy focuses on preserving wilderness areas, Jack’s firm helps clients make investment decisions based on accurate modeling of low-income consumer behavior. Jack says his algorithms are the best, but what really sets his firm apart is how they understand investment risk mitigation for their clients. They sell a report, but offer far more. It’s changed the way nearly everyone at his firm views what they do.

Next Steps

A mission focus combined with Strategic Marketing 3.0 provides a powerful recruiting tool for attracting not only potential employees, but also potential customers. Would your competitors stand a chance if your organization was even more focused on customer value, could push decisions down, and staffed with extremely loyal employees passionate about finding better ways to serve your customers?

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