Great leaders are mission-minded. They are also great communicators. They understand the importance of clear, concise, and continuous communications with their teams. These leaders know how critical it is to get everyone rowing in the same direction. They appreciate the significance of getting people to recognize and carry out the organization’s mission.
So, why do most leaders forget to talk about their mission? Why are most mission statements ignored?
The problem is that most mission statements are typically long, complicated, and boring. They are written by committees and end up sitting in binders on dusty shelves or in cheap frames in the company’s lobby. Few have ever read them and even fewer can recite them. They’re completely irrelevant to the day-to-day operation of the business.
Mission-minded leaders know that when everyone knows the mission, there is cadence. When no one knows the mission, there is chaos.
But what if there was a better way? What if there was a simple method to embed the organization’s mission in everyday discussions? What if there was an easy way to get everyone on the same page?
This can be done and it’s easier than you think. Let me give you an example.
An Unforgettable Mission Statement
More than 20 years ago, my wife was a first-year teacher working at a small public school in Georgia. She had an amazing principal who was leading that school. The school had a mission to maximize the instruction time for each student. He wanted teachers to teach and not conduct other school business. He found a simple way to communicate his mission and it took just four words. In every meeting and interaction with his teachers, he simply said, “get up and teach.”
If teachers found themselves grading homework or working on lesson plans when the students were in the classroom, he wanted his words to remind them of what to do. He wanted them to put down their pens, get up out of their chairs, and teach students. Four simple words, “get up and teach,” was all he needed to communicate the mission.
What’s interesting is that all these years later, my wife still has those words echoing in her ears. Anytime she sits down in the classroom and she’s doing something other than teaching, her former leader’s words come to her. If she’s grading a paper or doing some administrative work, she hears his words, “get up and teach,” so she does. She puts down her pen, gets up, and she teaches because she knows that’s really what she’s there to do. These four simple words have stood the test of time. A mission statement she will never forget.
A Mission to be Different
This is something I have adopted in my business.
I run a manufacturing company called Peak Demand Inc. which I co-founded in 2016. We started this company because we believed that customers were tired of the existing suppliers in the industry. Lead times were long, prices were high, customer support was poor, and the buying process was complex. We wanted to change that. This was our mission.
We chose four simple words to communicate that mission. I remind employees daily that we are a “different kind of supplier.” Our mission is to provide something to the market that they can’t get from the other guys.
For example, other suppliers take 4-6 weeks to ship their product, we do it in 24 hours. Other suppliers have complex buying processes but you can order our products online and pay with a credit card if needed. If anything goes wrong in the field, the other guys make it hard to get it resolved. We have people on the phone 24 hours a day with the goal of getting the problem fixed as quickly as possible.
We’re different. We’re customer-driven, friendly, and we make things easy. When an issue comes up with a customer, I want my words echoing in the ears of my employees. When they start thinking like a big company, I want my words to remind them. I want them to choose a solution that would be different from the rest of the industry. I want them to be a “different kind of supplier.” It’s a quick and simple way to remind everyone of what the mission of our company is.
Internalizing the Mission
Great leaders are mission-minded. They are also great communicators. To be more effective as a leader, you need to communicate your mission daily. To do this, all you need is a simple, easy-to-remember way, to remind your employees of what’s important. Think about my wife, more than 20 years later, she is still reminded of those four simple words, get up and teach.” She’s still following them today even though she’s no longer part of that leader’s organization.
Great leaders are mission-minded.
Make your mission statement so simple and so effective that when your employees hear it, they get it. They internalize it. It becomes part of who they are. If you do that, you’re going to build a mission-driven organization and be a much more effective leader.
Can you communicate your mission in just four words? Will your team remember it 20 years from now? Mission-minded leaders answer yes to both these questions.
I had a chance to sit down with Air Force veteran and author, Mitchell Boling, to talk about his new book, Leadership: A View from the Middle. This is a great book that I had a chance to read an advanced copy of and I absolutely loved it. Mitchell sees leadership the same way I do and his book provides a refreshing perspective on the topic. Mitchell gives powerful advice and insight on how to lead where you are based on his experiences in the military. I loved this book and our discussion so please enjoy!
[Jon] Tell me a little about your military experience.
[Mitchell] I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1983 as an Integrated Avionics, Communication, Navigation, and Penetration Aids Systems Specialist for F-16 Aircraft. Wow, what a mouthful! I had enlisted to learn electronics, and when they told me my new career title while in a classroom in basic training, every head turned. I thought, “Oh man, what did I just get myself into?” It turned out to be an exciting career, and I worked the F-16 aircraft exclusively for the next twenty-five years. I’ve been all over the world, having been stationed in Germany, Korea (twice), South Carolina, Nevada (twice) and Arizona.
[Jon] What leadership roles did you serve in during your time in the Air Force? How many people did you lead?
[Mitchell] Once I became a qualified avionics maintainer and supervisor, I would go out on jobs with trainees and lead them through the task (E-5). The natural progression on the flight line would be expediter, who controlled the activities of twelve to twenty aircraft maintainers as they performed maintenance (E-6). Next, I became a flight chief, who is the leader of forty to eighty people—their manager (E-7). I was a formal training instructor in F-16 avionics, and later became a lead production superintendent, who is responsible for all maintenance performed on as many as twenty-eight aircraft with well over one hundred people. Finally, I became the Wing Avionics Manager (E-8) in the largest fighter wing and maintenance group in the U.S. Air Force. My role there influenced over four hundred avionics maintainers.
[Jon] That’s amazing. So, you started off managing just a few people and ended up running a large department of over four hundred. When did hit you that you were a leader? How did it affect you?
[Mitchell] Probably on that first tour to Korea in 1994. I was a Staff Sergeant (E-5) and was a young supervisor in the flight. I had numerous experiences during that year that I felt solidified myself as a leader. I started to feel like what I said and what I did made a difference in people’s lives. I could tell from their responses to me in certain situations and I felt good about it.
[Jon] How did you learn to become an effective leader?
[Mitchell] I’ve made many mistakes in my career, but, as I’ve always told my children, “I learned from it.” I used to be short-tempered and even found myself yelling during stressful situations. But as I grew up in the Air Force, I met leaders like Chief Master Sergeant Tom Schroeder, who showed me that it is much better to take a step back, assess a given situation, and then make the best possible course of action. We came across this daily on the flight line, so I learned to listen to what was being reported to me, and then think before I responded.
[Jon] What compelled you to write this book? What do you hope will come from it?
[Mitchell] For probably the last twenty years I’ve thought about writing a book. I just didn’t know what kind of book I would end up writing. I felt that to be able to adequately complete something like this could be quite daunting, so I had to do it on something that I was passionate and knowledgeable about. I have always been drawn to learning about leadership and I felt I would have something to say about it. In the end, I was compelled to write it to help people who may have found themselves in a similar situation as mine. Sometimes people feel stuck in the middle with nowhere to go. I feel that learning more about leadership will help people attain their goals. My hope is that people like the book and that it will help them to navigate their way out of the middle and up to other opportunities.
[Jon] What is “The Middle” and why is this so important?
[Mitchell] The “Middle” is the middle of the workforce. I actually came up with the name of the book before I had even written a single word. I’ve found that many, if not most, leadership books are written by CEOs or scholars on the subject. I’m neither; I’m just a regular guy, and when it came to leadership, I just lived it. This is where my perspective on leadership comes from, based on my experiences. People in the middle are those who are beginners, individual contributors, and even managers, basically, everyone who is not in the executive suite. People in the middle of an organization make up the vast majority of people in the workforce and within this vast majority are leaders—at each and every level. This is why it’s so important for people to understand the middle; leaders exist at every level of every company, worldwide. I believe that people should learn more about leadership to help them gain that next rung on the ladder, even to the extent of climbing out of the middle and on to the top.
[Jon] In the book, you talk about leading by example. How does that affect your ability to lead?
[Mitchell] Leading by example is key. In chapter two, I learned this when Drew said to the young Airman, “How do you expect me to send you out on a job that I’m not willing to do myself, first?” All he was trying to do was demonstrate how he was going to lead by example. I’ve thought about that moment numerous times throughout my career, in fact, I even quoted it during my speech at my retirement ceremony in 2008. Leading by example is probably the number one basic thought in leadership. The leader cannot show someone the way if he has not experienced it for himself first.
[Jon] You also talked about a “follow me moment.” Explain what you mean by this.
[Mitchell] I related the “follow me” moment in the book as if an Army Sergeant had jumped up and beckoned his troops to follow him to take that hill. In my situation, we had a task to complete and it was going to take all night, causing us all to work a minimum twelve to fourteen hours. So, I stood up and suggested to everyone that a few of us sacrifice our weekend, for the good of the mission. I said I could complete this task over the weekend, so everyone doesn’t have to stay all night long on Friday. I was floored that so many hands shot up to volunteer with me. When that moment happened and I saw all the hands raised, I actually felt a shiver run down my spine. I got “goosebumps!” As I felt the tingle go down my back, I knew that I had arrived as their leader. Why would people actually volunteer to give up their weekend, only to perform more work?
[Jon] You describe how a leader should provide both physical and emotional support. Why is this important?
[Mitchell] We are here to help our followers. Whether it is something as simple as bringing in doughnuts or being there for them as they suffer through a personal event, it is what leaders do. Bringing in doughnuts tells them that we care about them as their leader, and what better way than to make them smile on a Friday morning? Being there for them and displaying empathy to their plight is another key behavior in the leadership realm. We must be there for our followers! It is why we are here in the first place.
[Jon] Who was the most effective leader you’ve seen? What made them so good?
[Mitchell] Had to be Drew Walls, the man who led by example. He was an expert in his career field, and as the expediter of our group of aircraft maintainers, he was our voice to the other entities on the flight line. He had a quiet demeanor and liked to test the young Airmen whenever we had a slow day. In fact, one of the things he used to do was to give the trainees an aircraft malfunction (on paper). He would tell them the malfunction, and then give them an hour to provide the proper troubleshooting steps, with source data and schematic signal flow, of what they would do to fix the aircraft. It became a race to see which Airman could finish first with the correct answer. Everyone loved working for Drew. Last year I called him and told him that he was the one who provided the genesis in my mind to actually write a book about leadership. He was so humble.
[Jon] What are some mistakes you have seen of leaders?
[Mitchell] Don’t get me started. I’ve made many mistakes, but have seen numerous ones as well, through both of my careers, in the military and as a civilian. The main thing that I think I’ve seen continually was when a manager would distance himself from his workforce. Managers seem to get so caught up in the mission or the customer that they forget that they have actual people working for them. One way of distancing themselves was to pay more attention to their email than the actual employee that was sitting in front of their desk, asking for help. It was as if they didn’t care.
[Jon] Why do you think there is a shortage of good leaders in business today?
[Mitchell] The apparent lack of leadership training. I’ve spent eleven years in my second career after the Air Force so far, and I’ve been to a total of three days of formal leadership training and one four-hour session. Managers in my company may have one or two short courses and a few computer-based training sessions but, in reality, it is nil. In the military, we had access to formal leadership training every few years like clockwork. We also had self-study guides that assisted us to gain the next rank, year after year. Every person in the military, no matter what experience level or years served, has more leadership experience than someone who had never served.
[Jon] What advice would you give to a new leader?
[Mitchell] Listen and learn from it. Listen to your followers and remember to be there for them. After all, there would be no leaders if there were no followers. Also, give them what they want, give them what they need. If you make their lives easier, it will only turn out better for you in the long run.
[Jon] This has been great. How can people learn more about your book?
Leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge but not if you master the art of engaging employees.
A Young Factory Manager
At 32 years old I was promoted to plant manager, although I had never run a manufacturing plant in my life. After I left the Navy, I spent five years working for ABB, a global engineering company, as a design engineer, a quality manager, and an engineering manager. I had never worked in manufacturing or production, yet my boss at the time felt that I had the leadership skills to take on the responsibility of leading an important manufacturing plant in our division.
Upon arriving at this manufacturing operation, I soon realized there was a lot to do. There were quality problems that needed to be fixed, cost challenges that needed to be addressed, and morale issues to be confronted. I was concerned I might be in over my head. I was the youngest manager this plant had ever had, and I didn’t want to fail.
What made it more intimidating was that the managers and workforce at this facility were all older and more experienced than I was. They knew far more than I did about how to run the plant. My challenge was to figure out how to lead this operation effectively while not knowing as much as my team.
The Age and Experience Gap
Many leaders find themselves in situations like this. They’re surrounded by people who are older and more experienced after a promotion or a job change. It’s easy to become intimidated. Leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to appear knowledgeable, to fake it, but it doesn’t work on experienced employees.
The truth is that inexperienced leaders don’t need to have all the answers to be successful but they need to be excellent at working with their team. Fortunately, my past had prepared me well for leading in a situation like this. Even though I didn’t have extensive manufacturing knowledge, I had previously led people who were older and more experienced than I was during my time in the Navy.
As a young junior officer fresh out of submarine school, I was assigned the reactor controls department on the USS Tennessee, where I led a team of veteran sailors who were deeply talented and experienced. Despite my inexperience, I became an effective leader by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team. I took a humble approach and treated the skilled sailors with the respect they deserved. That prior experience prepared me well for my role as a 32-year-old plant manager.
Becoming an Effective Leader
Here are some of the things you can do to become an effective leader when you are young and inexperienced. They worked for me both in the Navy and at this manufacturing plant:
Listening. Probably the most important thing you need to do as a young or inexperienced leader is to listen to your team. Be curious. Listen to what’s working and what’s not. Ask good questions and engage your experienced employees in helping to find solutions.
Respect. It is extremely important to demonstrate respect for your new team. They will see you as an inexperienced leader so don’t pretend you’re an expert. It’s alright to ask questions and defer to their expertise to help solve problems in areas where you lack proficiency.
Seek feedback. Talk to key leaders and employees and seek feedback. If you have a potential solution to a problem, run it by some of the experienced people and listen to their comments. Ask your employees if this has been tried before? Has it worked or failed? What did the previous managers get wrong? How can you do it differently? Engage and seek feedback from your team and you will avoid the pitfalls of going headlong into an activity that’s doomed to fail.
Experiment. Try incremental actions and look at the results. I like to start small and observe the response of the team. Do they get excited about this new initiative? Is this something you can build on? Who were the naysayers? Who were the cheerleaders? Experimenting can help you discover what’s going to work and what isn’t.
Learn. Continue to be curious and seek knowledge. Read about the issues affecting your industry. Understand the norms and standards. Study the products and services you’re providing. Become knowledgeable in your new role. As your employees see you gain understanding, they’ll increase their respect for you.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge. You may be well outside your comfort zone, but that just means you need to be more engaged, active, and involved with your employees. Use these five actions to work with experienced employees to find the best way to improve the organization. Find out who your naysayers are, discover your cheerleaders, and uncover the opinion leaders in the group. Continue to grow and gain knowledge to earn respect. In the end, you’ll find you can be very successful even though you don’t have all the answers.
How about you? Have you had a similar experience? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you did to overcome the age and experience gap.