A version of this article was first published on Troy Media.
I often find inspiration for my column from something I have read or heard. This month’s column was inspired by a podcast with Tobi Lütke, co-founder and CEO of Shopify. If you haven’t heard, Shopify has been on a tear lately, overtaking even RBC to become Canada’s most valuable company. As a very small shareholder, I could not be happier for their success. And it is hard to listen to Mr. Lütke speak without wishing him the very best as he pursues the mission he is so passionate about - “make commerce better for everyone, so businesses can focus on what they do best: building and selling their products.” Tobi, like so many founders, is a mission-driven leader. Listening to him reminds me how important a clear and compelling mission is, particularly during times of crisis.
What is an organization’s mission?
We often refer to an organization’s mission as its ‘True North’. Vision articulates the ‘what’ - our ambitions and what we hope to achieve in the future. Strategy articulates the ‘how’ - how we will get there. Mission is our ‘why’ - our ultimate purpose and very reason for being. It is the answer to organization’s existential question “why do we exist?”
Why is your mission is so important today?
We are all living in a state of disruption. For some organizations, this situation is proving to be fuel on a fire, creating new opportunities and accelerating growth. For others, it has resulted in sudden and significant contraction and financial hardship. Even organizations who are ‘steady state’ are dealing with the challenges and complexities of having to do things differently. As we come to terms with adapting to an uncertain future, most organizations will need to at least review, if not re-vamp, their strategies. Many will need to reality-test their vision and time horizon. Your mission may be the only thing you have left to cling to. When the future is hazy, it is difficult to put a stake in the ground around what you can achieve and exactly how you will get there. But you can be clear on who you are and what fundamental need you exist to fulfill. You should be able to still see your North Star.
How can you leverage your mission during times of uncertainty?
While most organizations have a mission statement, not every organization is ‘mission driven’. For some, mission takes a back seat to the excitement of vision or the tangibility of strategy. When you work for a mission-driven organization or leader, you know it - there is something in the air. One of my client organizations happens to be in the middle of defining their mission and values, work they started before the pandemic hit. Rarely do I have the opportunity to see a group of people so enthusiastically engaged in a ‘side project’. Mission helps give meaning to the work we do.
Regardless of how central mission has been to you in the past, there are two key opportunities to use your mission in a positive and productive way during these uncertain times.
1. Your mission can be the central pillar for your communication strategy. A mission, by its very nature, serves to inspire and motivate. You can draw on it to rally, reassure and motivate your stakeholders. In a time where question marks dominate the landscape, reminding people ‘why we are here’ can be a powerful message.
2. Your mission can be a key filter for decision-making. Every organization is having to make critical decisions about what to do now, and how to prioritize resources. These decisions need to be made in real time without a lot of forward-looking data or historical benchmarks to rely on. It can be paralyzing. Your mission can serve as a firm foundation and a filter you use to evaluate key decisions. Are your decisions keeping you true to your purpose, or are they taking you off course? Encouraging everyone to look at what they are doing through a mission lens can help your entire organization make decisions and act with more confidence and clarity.
In this time of volatility and uncertainty, holding firmly to our fundamental purpose, the need our organization exists to fulfill in the market or in society, can help to calm and ground us. It might also remind us why we joined this cause in the first place, and inspire us to persevere.