Zach’s Blog

Ditch the Mission Statement: 3 Ways to Create a Purpose-Oriented Team

It may be time to ditch the traditional mission statement.

In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Gospel According to Mac.” The film tells the story of the University of Colorado’s inspiring 1990 football National Championship run. While sports metaphors tend to be tired and overdone in motivational conference keynote speeches, this story is markedly different and offers all leaders, teams, and organizations transformational lessons on the power of purpose.

In the film, ESPN artfully captures the effects of the pulling, alluring force of a higher purpose on the forming of a high-functioning, emotionally-committed team.

A year before CU embarked on the run that would result in a national championship, their star quarterback, a young and vibrant 20-year old named Sal Aunese began showing up to practice in visible pain and distress – vomiting uncontrollably.  Noticing that something was clearly not right, the team checked their quarterback and leader into the hospital.

They could not imagine what they would soon hear.

The diagnosis: inoperable stomach cancer that had spread throughout Sal’s body. He had six months to live.

During the buildup to the 1989 season, Sal came to practices, and vowed to live to see every game.  When the season began, before each game the entire team would come to the sideline and point up to where Sal was sitting. Sadly, he passed away midway through the 1989 season.

His impact on this group of individuals, however, powerfully lived on.

Over time, as depicted brilliantly and vividly in the film, the team lost sight of “what” they were doing and created a shared, authentic “why” that would pull them through every “thing” that they did in the next two football seasons.

Faced with this shared, dramatic experience and sense of authentic purpose, the individuals on the team began fusing into one unit – oriented toward “playing for Sal.”

The result of this collective self-transcendence to a purpose outside of self was two consecutive trips to the Orange Bowl, with a win coming in 1990. More importantly, the team demonstrated harmonized energy, grit, resilience and a constant striving to deliver a purpose they all sought – no matter their position on the field.

While this is a tragic story, there are important and vivid lessons for anyone seeking to build a purpose-oriented organization.

Here are a few of them:

1. Ditch the traditional mission “statement.”

A purpose does not belong in a filing cabinet. It belongs in the hearts, minds, and souls of anyone doing anything for the organization. So, ditch the traditional mission statement – the one that shows up once a year on the pretty cover of the annual report.

What is your mission statement anyway? If you don’t know, you don’t care, and if you don’t care then don’t expect anyone else to – including your customers.

A purpose is the reason for existence – on the planet. It is not a simple well-worded statement.  As Simon Sinek says in Start with Why:

Why does your organization exist and why should anyone care?”

A higher organizational purpose is shared, compelling, global, and it pulls people out of isolation and orients everyone toward something that is outside the cramped confines of self and ego. It inspires self-transcendence.

A shared higher organizational purpose, much as CU’s football team created, is defined as a community and not from the board room in a tower.

The collective self-transcendence to a cause that makes a difference (and everything anyone does makes a difference – some just choose to ignore it) then becomes a calling. Research shows that when people have a sense of a calling at work, they are more satisfied, committed, and you guessed it – more productive.

For CU, “playing for Sal” was a purpose. The Orange Bowl was the result.

2. Create shared, dramatic experiences.

How do your people know when the higher organizational purpose has been delivered? How do they hear about it? Do they see it? Do they feel it? More importantly, do they experience it together?

The direct example of how your service or product truly changes, enhances, or enables a human’s life is the reinforcing feedback loop that then comes back and authentically motivates your people. That is why, in some sociological circles, a higher purpose is known as “invisible leadership.” It is the power of the cause, the purpose, that orients behavior.

Creating the spaces for dynamic storytelling, such as bringing in a customer or a person whose life has literally been made better to speak with your team can go a long way in creating a sense of unity oriented toward the organization’s higher purpose.

In the research on organizations, specifically nonprofits, that have cultures of service above self a common theme is that their employees have had some sort of shared experience of delivering the mission together. They experience an event, a news story, a blog, or a photograph that inspires them to act.

Every organization, no matter what you do, has these stories.

Tell them early and often – and better yet – bring in the people you have impacted.

3. Reward service above self.

I was meeting with an entrepreneur this morning who buys, revives, and sells fledgling small businesses. We were talking about what motivates employees and he stopped and said to me:

“Cash is the reward of last resort – the reward is always helping another person. Cash is only a result.”

This statement points to a contorted view that tangible, self-enhancing benefits are what motivate people. They may drive people for a short time, but if you’re looking for a constant striving, you are looking in the wrong place.

If you were to ask your employees, “Who in here would hold the door open for someone behind them?” I would venture to guess that nearly everyone in the room’s hand would go up (I have asked this in many workshops and this is always the case).

Capitalizing on peoples’ inherent desire to help can transform a culture.

Matt Tenney, in his book Serve to Be Great provides useful examples of the power of rewarding service above self.

One company Matt describes is Next Jump, a tech company that helps design internet-based rewards programs for businesses. The biggest event of the year at Next Jump is not the presentation of annual sales figures, but of the presentation of the Avengers Award – an award given to the person that peers nominate as being the most selfless.

Just taking a minute to watch the ceremony is an example of the culture that can be created when we reward self-transcendence. Oh, and they also do their employees’ laundry.

Do you desire to have more committed and selfless employees? Then, reward structures need to reward the right things that sustain commitment.

The result of building a purposeful team becomes what can be witnessed, in one example, by watching the formation of CU’s national championship team.

That team was gritty, resilient, striving, and only as a result, a champion. Your team can be too.

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