Staying on Course: How to Protect Your Mission

As the machinery division officer on a nuclear submarine during the cold war, I had the challenging task of checking the boat for “rattles” before every deployment. This meant climbing down into every part of the hull structure with a rubber mallet and pounding on anything that could possibly move to make sure it was secure. The goal was to eliminate anything that could make noise.

I knew our boat had one mission, to remain undetected and be prepared to launch our missiles if needed. Inspecting the hull structure was simply part of that mission. In fact, everything we did on board revolved around the mission. Our training, our routines and even our footwear ensured we would remain quiet and ready. “Hide with pride” was the nickname we all used to describe our mission.

The military does a respectable job of focusing its people on the mission. This cannot be said for most companies and organizations. If you asked ten employees what the mission of their company is, you will likely get ten different answers. This is because most company leaders assume everyone knows the mission. The sad truth is that no one really knows what the mission is because leaders don’t talk about it. And when the mission is unknown or unclear, chaos reigns.

One of the biggest problems is “mission drift.” Over time, organizations routinely drift from their founding purpose. When a company or organization is young, its founding mission is usually very clear. The founders and early employees instinctively understand the mission and carry it out daily. But, as time goes on and new people are brought in, the mission becomes muted.

Peter Greer and Chris Horst discuss this in their book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. They say that “without careful attention…organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission.” Staying on course and protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and conscious effort.

Consider these five actions to keep focused and stay on track:

Start with why. Simon Sinek’s breakout bestseller, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, explains how some organizations are simply more innovative, influential and successful than others. The reason is that their leaders understand and communicate their “why” to their employees. These leaders realized that people aren’t truly motivated by a vision or a mission until they fully understand the motivation behind it. Figuring out your “why” is critical to motivating your team to stay on course.

Know your mission. You can’t expect to be a mission-focused organization if people don’t know the mission. Most leaders incorrectly assume everyone knows the mission. Don’t make this mistake. Communicate and repeat the mission statement every day in meetings and daily discussions. Develop a common language around the mission like we did in the Navy. Make it simple and easy to understand.

 Hire people who embody the mission. Mission-minded organizations know that it’s the people that carry out the mission. This is why hiring the right employees is so critical. Look for individuals who display characteristics and experience that will be essential in achieving the mission. Look for those that will fit the culture of the organization. Leaders should also work with new employees to set expectations early and to monitor their progress.

Make the hard decisions to protect the mission. The real test of a leader is making the hard decisions and staying true to the mission when faced with conflicting priorities. These typically involve employees, ownership, money, customers, suppliers or partners. A leader who protects the mission and makes the tough call to put the mission first will be respected by the team. They will know there is a deep commitment to the vision of the organization.

Measure what matters. What gets measured, gets done. The things you measure should reflect your organization’s mission and objectives. For example, if you want to be the fastest supplier in the industry, measure lead times. If you are trying to become a premier college-prep high school, measure the number of college scholarships awarded to seniors each year. The challenge is identifying the right things to measure. Metrics that matter to your mission aren’t always easy to identify or track. Still, push hard to find something that can be used as a gauge of your success.

Staying on course and protecting the mission is difficult, especially in the long term. Mission drift and conflicting priorities can derail the efforts of any organization. Finding your “why” and communicating your mission on a daily basis to employees will help solidify your focus. Keep your mission in mind when hiring, making decisions and measuring results. Don’t leave the success of your organization to chance.  Protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and deliberate effort.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda R. Gray/Released]

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