Samantha Ste Marie • 2023-09-18
Building a successful organization requires a compelling mission and a team of individuals who align with that mission both in belief and action. When everyone is united in purpose, great things can happen, making a positive impact on the world.
When you have a compelling mission and are surrounded by capable people who truly align with the cause both in what they believe and how they behave, great things are far more likely to happen.
Some people join organizations looking for personal opportunity to show their stuff, to make money, and to grow personally. These are motivations that are focused on self, but let’s not judge too harshly. It’s a valid phase of life’s journey for most of us. In his book The Second Mountain (2019), It’s what David Brooks refers to as the first mountain. It’s the egocentric ‘me’ mountain. Many people find a second mountain, often after some period of struggle and despair, which is that new place where they find real fulfillment and joy by directing their efforts at some larger cause. As Brooks says, people conquer the first mountain, and the second mountain conquers them.
Many not-for-profit organizations, those seeking to change the world for the better, have a natural advantage in this respect, especially if many of the participants in their organization are volunteers. The team’s mission is very likely a big part of why they volunteered in the first place. Many participants are climbing their ‘Second Mountain’.
I’ll use a very different environment to illustrate what goes wrong when people are not aligned around the mission. I’ve spent most of my career in the world of tech companies and have worked full time and in consulting mode for over 2 dozen organizations. Especially in startups, people launch companies for very different reasons. Some start with a big idea in mind and have the patience to work at it for their entire life. Other founders, whether they admit it or not, are working towards the ‘exit’ from the organization’s birth. This is not to imply they’re bad people or even not doing great and powerful work. The key point though is that if someone is building a company to be acquired in 3-5 years, decisions must align towards quicker wins. Initiatives that bear fruit or show visible promise quickly are the only ones worth undertaking. This is not limited to released products and revenue. Key patents, partnerships, ‘design wins’ where noteworthy players embrace your offering, all fit but efforts, programs, and people that do not show reward in these timelines simply do not fit.
Regardless of the organization type, real clarity of purpose, key stakeholders, and success criteria (casually ‘what does good look like’) are massive aligning forces. To illustrate once again, the opposite of this… There is a famous video called ‘The Road to Abilene’. In the video two Texas couples journey to Abilene one hot summer afternoon only to realize after returning that none of them actually wanted to go, but thought the others did, so all went along with the plan. This demonstrates the importance of transparent conversations about mission or purpose, and plans that support that mission.
In the 1990’s I led a manufacturing organization where I was not a deep expert in the technology and products we were making. What I discovered soon after taking over the team was that people knew very well how to do their jobs, but sometimes didn’t understand why they were doing them! I was able to work with my direct leadership team to create a ‘how and why’ cascade that if you moved in one direction answered ‘why’ and in the other direction answered ‘how’. Months later I found this one-page image posted on cubicle walls because it helped them understand how it all fits together.
This lack of understanding why is a widespread organizational malaise. Author Simon Sinek addressed this very well in his book Start With Why (2009) and again in 2019 when he wrote The Infinite Game. A key concept in the Infinite Game is that we don’t win or lose at the really important things. How do you win in a marriage? For many of you with large noble or moral causes, you will probably have a similar outlook. You strive to make things markedly better, but how do you truly ‘win’ at helping an animal species, or helping to reduce human suffering.
Even if the ultimate purpose is clear, the next few layers deeper in a why / how cascade is where misalignments may show up. One of the ways to guard against this and avoid misunderstandings of Abilene proportions is to carefully examine who the key stakeholders are in what you do, what they expect from the organization, and more precisely what level of performance will satisfy them.
Stakeholders are those that have some interest in or benefit somehow from the work you do. Let’s use the example of an organization that’s working to help improve conditions for a given animal species. Who are the stakeholders? The most obvious is that animal species but there are more. Members of your organization, be they employed or volunteers are stakeholders. Even if they’re not participating for financial reasons, social and collaborative motivations are likely part of what keeps them coming back. How meetings are run, how interactive the community is… these are examples of things that will define success for that stakeholder group.
In profit-motivated companies, there is almost always a powerful stakeholder trio - Customers, Team Members, and Investors. Sometimes there are channel partners or other stakeholder groups as well, but those 3 are always present. Being explicit about investors as stakeholders is distasteful to some. It has recently occurred to me that the principle belief that companies exist to make profits (yes, I finished my EMBA in 1994) may be a challenging fit for those that are playing The Infinite Game.
Even companies with a truly long term focus need to reward investors eventually, but the more grand a company’s purpose, the more inappropriate mention of investors may be to the team. Back to those startups. Those looking for a quick exit are all about the investors. Those looking to change the world are not.
Assembling the right team is paramount to success in whatever you pursue.
Steven Covey once said, “Character is what we are; competence is what we can do. The reality is that character and competence drive everything else in the organization.” Character covers things like integrity, humility, and empathy while competence deals more with tangible skills acquired through training, learning, and experience. Experience has taught me that compromising too substantially on the competence side is also problematic, but I will always respect character as the imperative. Because character is more difficult to interview for, there are two principles I’ve found useful. First, trust your network and backchannel references to determine character before adding a team member, and second, act quickly if and when you make a mistake.
Volunteer organizations present slightly less freedom for a leader in assembling the team, but having been in key roles in a few such organizations I know that it is possible to influence who stays, who leaves, who joins. It just might take a little longer.
But are those team members aligned to your mission? Character and competence are foundational but motivation will be dramatically higher if team members feel a visceral connection to the mission. This brings us back to understanding our ‘why’. For any of us, if we are devoted to the mission of the organization we’re in, we’ll be less concerned with the hours we contribute, direct compensation, and other factors that David Brooks would connect with the ‘First Mountain’. When our minds and our hearts both connect with the mission, we’ll give it our all.
Assuming you have the right team members and they’re devoted to the mission, the next focus may be cultural values and norms. How people interact, how they communicate, how hard they work, do they care about each other as people… these are all questions to reflect on. Values and norms aren’t things decided in a 2-hour meeting. They are the things that surface visibly as being true of the team. Leaders can influence heavily by what they demonstrate, but not through an edict.
Values and norms can change as team composition changes but overall they stand the test of time, even in the face of changing conditions, and changing priorities. A metaphor that has always been attractive to me on the topic of changing priorities is that of pendulums. Sometimes when the pendulum sits at a certain position in its arc, nudging it to the opposite side (an altered priority) is good for the organization and its stakeholders. But when reflecting on values and norms, they seem more like the things that sit at the axle, being less wavering than priorities.
But how will you know when you have a clear mission, the right team members, aligned values, and norms? You will know partly because the team will feel and sound appropriate. Conversations will be about the greater mission, and you will feel the devotion that I’m referencing. In small enough organizations, simple observation might be sufficient but a tool that I was exposed to by one of the CEOs I reported to, was that of ‘partial sentences’ and it’s something I’ve used several times. The idea is to have the team complete sentences such as ‘Our organization is successful when_____’ or ‘I am fulfilled by my role through____’. Transparent sharing of others’ perspectives on these foundational topics can be truly enlightening.
When you have a clear and compelling mission and build an appropriate team around it, the world can indeed be made a better place, and team members will thrive in that very pursuit.
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