Our mission is to make actionable information accessible to everyone at the time it matters.
Can you name this company from its mission statement?
I’ll give you some clues: it was founded in Silicon Valley; achieved a $10bn valuation within its first ten years; and counted names like Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch amongst its board and investors.
Yet this is no tech giant, socials app or media conglomerate. In fact, given its eventual fate, the idea that it was giving useful information to anyone (let alone regulators or shareholders) in a timely matter is grimly ironic.
The company was Theranos. It collapsed in 2018, becoming the most spectacular fraud since Enron – and is a perfect example of why corporate mission matters.
What is the point of business?
Before we go any further, let me quickly slay a sacred cow: the point of business is not to make profit for shareholders.
No, the true point of business is far greater: to solve a genuine problem in the world. Profit is a by-product of doing this well. It is a measure – and just one of many – rather than a destination.
This matters, because the pursuit of profit without purpose has led to all sorts of terrible outcomes. From colonialism and ecocide through to fraud and financial crisis, the worst of human behaviour has historically been justified by mere profit. Just ask Elizabeth Holmes.
On the other hand, a sincere mission can turn any company into a force for good in the world. It can spur innovation, motivate people to bring their best selves to work, create impact, and offer strategic differentiation (and pricing power) in crowded markets.
But those of us at work in the ESG space are already sorted for the mission, right? We have climate change as the goal – what more thinking do we have to do?
When the mission goes missing
If only it were so simple. In my own industry, most renewable companies are born of well-meaning founders with a sense of mission. However, the givenness of purpose in the climate space can lead to complacency over time. Then, when a gold rush hits, it’s all too easy to become mesmerised by short-term profit and forget why you started the business in the first place.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this occur all too many times. Without naming names, imagine that a start-up OEM building out some green tech is blessed with access to a new subsidy. All their resources suddenly shift over to ramping up production in the pursuit of maximising revenue and market share. They fill orders for a while, but then the punch bowl is taken away; and because the firm both over-extended and stopped developing the technology to a point where it would be economical on its own terms, they collapse. The team loses their jobs, their customers lose ongoing support, and the climate effort is left with another promising technology unrealised.
If this company had foregrounded that its purpose was to develop an outstanding new technology to make a long-term impact, then it would have avoided the trap of chasing valuation/scale (as per Theranos), kept investing in development, and maintained a sustainable go-to-market plan. And in the long run, the profit would have come.
How to find your mission
Your mission should be the reason your company exists. That said, defining and articulating it effectively isn’t always straightforward – as anyone who knows the old joke about two lawyers, three opinions can understand.
Here is a simple framework for (re)discovering your collective purpose.
- Find your focus. Boundless ambition is great, but you can’t do everything. Start with your core team and get personal – what really gets them out of bed in the morning? It needs to feel exciting, but it should also fit with your unique strengths as a company. If you can find consensus on one or two themes that make a difference whilst aligning with your competitive edge, then you’ve got the ingredients for that special sauce!
- Make it clear. Simplicity and sincerity are the watchwords here. It’s all too easy to slip into grandeur or platitude – so keep returning to what makes you special, and what feels real on a personal level. There’s nothing wrong with simple language. If you can articulate the mission clearly, others can understand and value it. That allows everyone to trust each other with that larger goal, even as you break it down and distribute it into incremental steps and processes.
- Bring everyone along. A living mission is one that is embedded throughout the organisation. To sell it internally, commit to transparent tracking and reporting – people respect accountability at all levels.
That said, a mission should inspire hope rather than anxiety, so frame it as an evolving process rather than a destination. Reward individual contribution, but celebrate progress as a group too.
Keeping it real
Theranos stands as a cautionary tale: beware of empty words.
True purpose must be authentic, clear and collectively owned. Get it right, and it will bring out the best in people; act in alignment, and profit will follow.
Every one of us really just wants to make a difference and have a purpose. Go find yours.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.