As part of my work with scale-up companies, a critical component of the process I follow during an on-site visit is having interviews and discussions with a variety of people. I have these discussions with everyone at the company, not just the CEO and CTO with whom I most often closely work. People who are lower on the organizational chart often know more than the executive team about what is actually going on in the company. In most cases, they know a great deal more. They have a front-line view, on the ground, every day.
When I’m engaged by a client, there is only a very limited time to unearth the realities of the current state of the organization’s functions so that we can begin making improvements as quickly as possible. As one client put it, “Adam is like an emergency room doctor and world-class athletic coach during his engagements.” When a company knows there’s a problem that needs fixing, it’s crucial to get to the root of it quickly.
In order to be effective in a limited time, it’s critical to talk with the front-line people. These folks are usually the best way for me to take the pulse of the organization, and especially to see how far removed the understanding of the executive team is from the realities experienced by the broader group. The bigger the gap between the understanding of the executives and the realities in the teams, the bigger the challenge of developing unity of purpose. Without unity of purpose, there is no strategic progress.
Here are the three main questions I ask in my discussions in order to assess the severity of this gap. Since I’m an external advisor, I can be forgiven for not knowing these things, and people genuinely try to give me honest and helpful answers.
- What is the company mission?
- How is your team contributing to the mission?
- How does the work you’re doing today contribute to the mission?
As shocking as it might sound, it’s very common for me to talk with people at a company who are not able to answer any of these questions. At best, they often try to answer the first question with some platitude they’ve heard from HR or the CEO at the last all-hands meeting. Even when people do provide answers, they are rarely consistent from one person to another. This demonstrates a remarkable lack of alignment and unity of purpose among people supposedly working together towards a common goal.
If you, as a leader, want people in the organization to make progress towards objectives in a way that makes them feel valued and increase their loyalty and effectiveness, then you must ensure that you are creating an environment where the answers to those three questions are clear, concise, and consistent across your organization.
If you yourself do not know the answers to those three questions, it’s high time that you pause and reflect on how well your superiors have communicated things to you. Moreover, if you don’t know answers to questions like how your work supports the overall copmany goals then you should consider that you likely haven’t taken the initiative and personal responsibility necessary to ask your superiors what you’re supposed to do and why it’s important. If you yourself don’t have this information, you should question why anyone else down the organizational chain should have the answers that you do not. These are useful questions to pose both to yourself and your team.
If you haven’t read my article on Command and Control, you may benefit from taking a little detour to do that. I’ll build upon some of those concepts here.
Messaging and communication
Before we talk about the three questions specifically, we have to talk about how to frame and communicate missions at various levels. Thankfully, this work has already been done for us over hundreds of years, most recently and notably in the form of auftragstaktik. From the Command and Control article:
Literally “mission tactics”, auftragstaktik is a system for providing direction and vision for achieving objectives. It was originally developed and applied with great success in the Prussian military, an organization renowned for its efficiency, innovativeness, and adaptability. It is such an effective approach that it is still in use today, although in the US and UK it’s now called mission command instead.
Modern startups which reach a scale beyond which a couple of co-founders can manage are always striving for autonomy, innovation, and progress among their teams, and auftragstaktik is a great way to go about that.
The general idea is that instead of telling people what to do, you communicate the goal you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. You also communicate the minimal set of constraints that their solution must follow. Then you leave them, as a team, to tell you how they plan to achieve the objective. That’s mission command, in a nutshell.
With this perspective on communication when it comes to planning objectives, let’s consider the implications of the three questions and their importance to the broader company mission.
What is the company mission?
In order to feel any ownership of their work, people in your organization require a fundamental understanding of the essential reasons for the existence of your company. While that might sound rather philosophical, it’s the right frame of mind to occupy if you’ve never precisely formulated your company’s mission before.
Your company has no inherent right to survive and thrive. What sort of concrete contribution is it going to make in order to justify its own continued existence?
If you can come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, then there’s a decent chance that answer is your company’s mission. You must formulate this mission statement clearly and concisely. Everyone in your organization should be able to understand it and commit it to memory. The longer and more confusing it is, the harder it will be for people to remember.
If people don’t know what the company mission is, then by definition they can’t know the top-level goal to which their efforts are tied. Also, a company mission based on a lame business metric like increase shareholder value will never inspire your teams. I’ve said it on numerous occasions but it’s worth repeating: nobody gets out of bed in the morning, when they’re exhausted, to go to work and increase shareholder value. Nobody.
If you can communicate the company’s mission in a clear and concise way, people can keep it in mind at all times. That leaves no ambiguity about why the company mission is important, and you’ll be well on your way to having a high-performing team.
How is your team contributing to the mission?
Once a strong company mission exists, it’s time to figure out how each of the subordinate units and teams within the company are going to mutually support each other in order to make progress towards accomplishing the mission.
If the teams themselves don’t have a clear understanding of the objectives to achieve in support of the mission, then the employees on the teams will not have a clear understanding of their importance and their role in the overall mission, either.
I have seen some rare cases of a team leader who comes up with their own mission for the team in companies that have a weak or non-existent overall mission. While this is a well-intentioned effort to keep the people on their team engaged and productive, it’s a shortsighted solution. Eventually, team members realize that their goals seem meaningless within the broader organization. This leads them to optimize their personal growth in their current role, not with the desire to contribute to the organization, but to seek meaning and promotion elsewhere. Forming a team-level mission in the absence of a company-level one is a stopgap measure, and is really only effective if the team leader uses it to secure some time so that they can work with their direct supervisor(s) on better crafting the overall company mission.
Without a team-level mission, employees will not feel that their personal efforts and investment are tied to the betterment of the broader organization. As mentioned earlier, the choice of how to this team-level mission is allocated to individuals on the team in collaboration with their team lead. This gives the team more ownership over their roles and creates investment in the mission.
How does the work you’re doing today contribute to the company mission?
This is where the rubber really meets the road, so to speak. This question encompasses many important concepts when it comes to the level of engagement your team members feel. Does the work you are doing today actually matter? Why? If you disappeared right now and didn’t do your job, would anybody notice? What is your existential purpose in this organization? Why should you invest your limited energy and time in this group? If people can’t really answer these questions with conviction, then their days at the company are numbered. People need to understand very clearly how they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
If someone is doing work and they don’t know why they’re doing it, not only will they probably not do a very good job, but they also don’t have the context needed in order to consider doing things in a different, possibly better, way. Your employees encounter hundreds of tiny little decisions and obstacles every day. If they are to operate autonomously and find their way around those obstacles without constantly requiring guidance from superiors, then they must have the context they need in order to exercise good judgment. If you never give them that context, they never have the opportunity. This is a direct cause of a common complaint I hear from managers that their employees “do not show initiative.” It’s hard to show initiative when it isn’t really clear what is to be done.
As a leader, it’s absolutely critical that the front-line people understand how their literal daily work influences and contributes to the broader mission.
The people who often provide the best perspective on the realities of an organization are the people actually on the ground, doing the work. In the case of technology companies I often advise, that usually means the developers. Working with systems and writing code on a daily basis gives this group the most valuable perspectives on many issues.
It’s true that executives and leaders at various levels are great sources of information when it comes to interpersonal relationships and team dynamics. However, if I have to find out why systems are unstable, or aren’t performing well enough, or features aren’t shipping fast enough, or one of many other commonly-reported ailments of a growth-stage startup, then it’s imperative for me to talk with people who are knee-deep in the code. Furthermore, it’s imperative to be able to understand, on a deep technical level, what kind of work they’re doing. This aids both in being able to recommend improvements, and in being able to detect when people might be lying, exaggerating, or making excuses to cover up a lack of superior performance. Without these important conversations, getting to the root of an issue is much more difficult and time consuming.
Ask yourself what the company mission is. Ask yourself what your team’s mission is and how it supports the company mission. Ask yourself how your work today supports both missions. If you are able to answer those questions, you are well on your way to being honest about whether or not you know what you’re doing as a leader.
Likewise, if you ask your team those three questions and discover that they can’t answer them, then you as a leader have some work to do on communication and how you explain and prioritize work.
These three questions are arguably my most important tool in rapidly understanding the workings of an organization, determining the level and severity of gaps in understanding between leadership and front-line team members, and formulating a plan to close those gaps.
Communicate with your people often. Ask questions of your superiors often. Always make sure you and every person you are leading knows the answer to these three questions. They are vital to your organization’s success.