By Blaine Bartlett

A Mission With a Business or a Business With a Mission?
8 November 2017 | 11:08 am

Patagonia famously ran this advertisement in the New York Times on Black Friday 2011 as a way of encouraging its customers (and others) to question their “need” to buy something new. This was not an isolated publicity stunt. It has on numerous occasions made decisions steeped in and informed by its mission of environmental sustainability that many in the business community thought were actually detrimental to the business. To quote from their company blog: “It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy.”

Starbuck’s closed 7,100 of their domestic U.S. stores in 2008 at a cost by some accounts of almost $10 million to reconnect their store partners (as their employees are called) with the company’s value proposition. The investor and business communities were extremely critical of this move. However, as CEO Howard Schultz explained in a video played to launch the session in each store, “This is not about training. This is about the love and compassion and commitment that we all need to have for the customer.” It was the opening move in a long term process of recapturing the company’s founding spirit – its link to its mission.

I cite these two examples of very well-known large businesses to illustrate a point – they are by far the exception rather than the rule for how businesses mature. Almost every business begins with a founder’s idea to bring something to market that they believe will benefit life on this planet in some way small or large. They begin with a mission fueled by passion and spirit and then a business is developed to further that mission. If their mission strikes a chord and finds a receptive welcome in the marketplace the business begins to generate revenue and then, if managed well, will begin to show a profit. So far so good. And…in this success, hidden from the awareness of almost everyone, the seeds of their eventual demise have begun to take root.

At some point the leaders, the founders, the managers, the employees, the investors, really almost everyone, begins to pay attention to the business. How is it doing? Are we making our numbers? Are our margins holding up? What are the comps telling us? Are our investors happy? What is the competition doing? How about our share price? Are we well positioned for an IPO (or other liquidity event)?

These questions are all organized around a paradigm that is concerned almost exclusively with insuring that the life and well-being of the business is paramount in everyone’s mind. Notice that the questions that are less and less frequently asked as these organizations mature are questions that invite examination of the delivery of the original mission of the organization. Rather than being a mission with a business, the organization has morphed into a business with a mission.

The consequences of this evolution are not to be dismissed as simply a distinction of linguistics. When the organization’s attention shifts from the honoring and delivery of the mission as the ultimate test of the organization’s viability to one of a focus on the care and feeding of the organization itself things change.  What is given priority shifts. Resources are allocated differently. The result is evidenced in what we see every day in most organizations – the building of silos, breakdowns in communication, distrust of other’s motives, disengagement of employees, strategies and tactics designed to “maximize profits”, diminishing morale and short term (quarterly) thinking. The catalyzing, passion producing sense of spirit that is informed by and connected to the founding mission is missing!

Most “fixes” that are entertained to address these issues do nothing to reconnect the organization, its people, it’s stakeholders or the consumers of its products or services to the original spirit of the mission that was the raison d’etre for the organization’s founding in the first place. As a matter of fact, this founding spirit or mission has been missing for so long for many organizations that it may be almost impossible to rediscover or recover.

Leadership that is expressed as a co-creative process steeped in Spirit can reconnect stakeholders to this spirit. Doing so requires approaching both the activity of leadership and the activity of business with very different mindsets. First, it’s a mindset that declares business to be a spiritual discipline, the purpose of which is to enhance the quality of being alive for all that encounter it. The purpose of business is not to make a profit! The purpose of business is to express the founding mission! And this mission is always life enhancing – otherwise it would never have achieved any traction in the marketplace. Secondly, it’s a mindset that looks to leaders that are exemplars of what it means to be merchant priests! These are leaders that hold space for a higher ideal to emerge. They question differently, they invite engagement differently, they frame possibilities differently, they prioritize differently and, ultimately, they keep the spirit of the founding mission foremost in the collective mind of the organization.

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