The best leaders, not just tech leaders, are mission oriented. They understand the idea of their calling to be focused on something bigger than themselves. They seek to both inspire and accomplish a goal which encourages and excites the organization. The mission they define is tangible, audacious, and time bound. It brings with it a series of objectives that range from the core of the business to the platform of the IT infrastructure. To be a mission oriented tech leader is to truly set a course for success.
A technology executive I recently worked with defined his missions as follows:
“We will build software that enables our company to disrupt our traditional market, laying the way to bring the best complementary companies together into one service experience. While doing this, we’ll enable the productivity and infrastructure of the organization with a secure, commoditized, productivity experience. Finally, we’ll unlock the competitive advantage that lives in our organizational data for new revenue production and operational savings.”
The definition of a mission allows the team to understand where they are going. The mission needs to be understandable, relevant, and directional. The mission needs to inspire your team and the organization that it can be better than it is now. To inspire the change that is necessary for the organization to achieve its goals.
In my family we like to take adventures. The best adventures have an awesome destination. A waterfall, cool wildlife, rocks to climb on, pools of icy water to slide into, steep slopes to ski down, whatever. I like to take the kids on canoe trips to the nearby river. If I just piled them into the canoe, didn’t tell them where we were going, and just said “paddle”, they wouldn’t be very motivated. My goal is to make it awesome… talk about the great adventure, the wildlife, the exploration, the experience… the WHY. The goal is to help them to enjoy and push themselves to do something hard, but something that will pay off. When we get in the canoe and leave the shore, we are in it together. They can sometimes self-select on or off before we leave, but once we’ve left, they are in for the whole trip. This doesn’t mean the kids don’t get demotivated during the trip… sometimes we need to reinforce with encouragement, nourishment, or a break. That’s ok, but what keeps them going is the WHY behind the trip. There is a magical spot where you can push a person… after the trip is complete and you ask “how was it?”… the answer you want is “hard, but awesome“. That’s what we’re looking for. Things that are easy in life are rarely worth-while. The awesome usually takes work and persistence.
Creating a Mission with Relevance
The best missions are based on “why”. You’ve heard this before. The leaders that are successful are those that attach the why to something relevant to their business. Does your mission create new revenue, drive operational savings, improve customer retention, or employee engagement. Understand that your “what” must be tied to the “why”, but the “why” must be tied to something that matters. If your “why” isn’t relevant and impactful, you will be unsuccessful.
There was a time when the IT organization fulfilled a function so abstracted from the core business that it was just a scary cost center that people knew they needed but didn’t want to mess with. The reality of today is that technology is the language of business and speaking it with the diction of business progress is critical. The mission of the technology organization is to enable the organization’s mission… they are connected. The best leaders know this and continue to push their organization up the value curve into the outcomes the business receives true benefit from.
The best missions are uniquely bold. They require a bit of a leap of faith and challenge us to do something more than just an incremental move. We know that in disruption, for instance, the hardest thing to do is to disrupt ourselves. The best leaders are willing to propose a mission that requires looking at the business from a different vantage point. They have the courage to offer a perspective that is positive and challenging at the same time.
A client I was working with had a problem. They ran a professional services service that had been successful for years but they knew they were struggling to scale. The proposal was to move the professional services into a product… a software as a service platform that the company’s customers would use. For a professional services company this was a challenging notion because it threatened the existing business approach. They had to look at their existing client base and be willing to sell them something different and hope the new service provided an excellent outcome similar or better to the current service. The mission required investment, had a mid-term ROI, and had risk of customer turnover to new competitors offering the same professional service. Ranks of professionals turned up to say it was a bad idea, that they should stick with what works, that they shouldn’t risk the potential of failure. In the end the SaaS platform was developed and the return was 10x what they could produce with professional services alone. The professional services team turned into partners of the software vs. just delivering the knowledge independently.
Making a Choice to Lead on Mission
The choice to lead on mission is a choice to lead “on purpose”. So often we just let life “happen to us” instead of make purposeful choices. Life doesn’t just happen to us, we are called to be active participants in life and to make active choices. The person who leads from mission is doing just that, both for themselves and giving their team the opportunity to “self select” into the mission as well.
I’m an amateur triathlete and listen to a podcast called “Crushing Iron“. Coach Robbie was making a point in a podcast called “how not to suck at swimming” that we need to be purposeful in our swimming. In triathlons you are swimming with 100s or 1000s of your “closest friends” and its pretty easy to get pushed around. Combine that with the waves, distance, and other challenges and swimming in a lazy, coasting manner isn’t going to get you far. To be successful at triathlon open water swimming an athlete needs to be purposeful. Similarly as leaders if we fail to be purposeful our team and our goal will get pushed around and shift with the opinions, resistance, or timeline. The leader of mission sets a goal and despite challenges and setbacks is successful at making the goal, with the team intact.
Be a leader of mission and you will be a leader that inspires.