What types of companies survive during trying times? And how does a good leader separate themselves from the pack?
These are questions that I have been reflecting on over the past twenty months. It was extraordinary to watch who stepped up at my company, Alliance Exterior Construction, when crisis was striking in March of 2020. There was unrest and uncertainty among our employees, but our Owner and President Korky Bowling was a stout leader throughout and projected confidence that inspired us all. He started the company thirty-two years ago, built it to where it is today, and has survived an unending number of challenges in doing so. I recently asked Korky why he gets up every day to do what he does; he explained that “I always wanted Alliance to be the best damn contractor it could be.”
That why describes Korky’s beliefs, and at a small company like ours, the Owner’s beliefs trickle down into everything we do. Those beliefs end up becoming Alliance’s mission, which drives us every day.
So, what types of companies survive and thrive during trying times?
In a crisis such as COVID-19, the groundwork had to be laid far before March of 2020. Leaders needed to ensure their workforce was prepared for any type of situation. Their people needed to be flexible as information and policies changed, resolute in their trust of leadership and the company, and have a strong sense of why they do what they do that was consistent across the business. In short, they needed to understand the mission.
Building a set of values allows employees and clients to understand what you believe as a company. Building a mission allows your employees to understand why they come to work every day and the greater whole that they are working towards. For a company to survive and thrive in trying times, leaders must therefore start with a strong mission that describes to their people exactly why they should keep fighting forward even when times are tough.
Mission in the Nonprofit Sector
The best examples of how a strong mission can inspire companies come to us from an unsuspecting place: nonprofit organizations. We often think of nonprofits in a totally different category from for-profit businesses, but from a management and strategy perspective, there is a significant amount we can learn from them.
Consider this: according to the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute in 2020, the value of a volunteer hour was worth $28.54/hour1. That means that for every hour spent volunteering, the non-profit organization is getting the same value out of that person that they would from someone who they paid $28.54/hour! And instead, the organization got that value for free. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Why would someone worth $28.54/hour (almost triple minimum wage in most states) instead work for FREE? The answer is because they believe in the mission of the organization. Figure 1 shows the percentage of the population volunteering in the U.S. from 2008 to 2017. Based on this data, volunteers contribute nearly $200 billion to our communities each year.
Further, management guru Peter Drucker describes the effect of the mission of a nonprofit in his book, The Essential Drucker (2008) as follows:
Starting with the mission and its requirements may be the first lesson business can learn from successful nonprofits. It focuses the organization on action. It defines the specific strategies needed to attain crucial goals. It creates a disciplined organization. It alone can prevent the most common degenerative disease of organizations, especially large ones: fragmenting their always limited resources on things that are “interesting” or look profitable rather than concentrating them on a very small number of productive efforts. (p.41)
Mission breaks through all the noise that a company and its employees hear daily. It allows them to understand what’s important and how they should make their decisions or prioritize their actions.
Consider Habitat for Humanity. Their mission statement is “Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.” Isn’t that so easy to understand? And doesn’t it clearly demonstrate why it is worth your time to volunteer instead of needing money as a driver for action and success? You don’t need to pay people for them to put in hard work, but you need to demonstrate to them that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Businesses would do well to better understand how their missions can inspire their employees to do the same.
Mission in the For-Profit Sector
I stumbled across a company recently, Duolingo (DUOL), that embodied the type of mission that businesses should be striving for. Their website explains their mission as follows:
There are over 1.2 billion people learning a language and the majority are doing so to gain access to better opportunities. Unfortunately, learning a language is expensive and inaccessible to most.
We created Duolingo so that everyone could have a chance. Free language education – no hidden fees, no premium content, just free.
Duolingo is used by the richest man in the world and many Hollywood stars, and at the same time by public schools students in developing countries. We believe true equality is when spending more can’t buy you a better education.
That is a company that gets it. They aren’t telling their employees to, “make us as much money as possible by building an app that teaches languages”. They are telling them to focus on the fact that what they’re doing is ultimately providing free education for people around the world that wouldn’t have access to it otherwise. Imagine going to work every day to drive towards that goal. There will obviously be employees that don’t jump into the boat, but for the majority this is going to lead to higher quality, more productive work. People are willing to give extra effort, but you must show them why the extra effort is worth it beyond more money in their pocket.
In conclusion, surviving and striving in trying times starts with good leadership and a strong mission. That mission lays the groundwork for the work the company performs and will allow the company to survive hardships and thrive well after they have passed. Nonprofits can teach us so much about creating a mission that illustrates the greater good and why we go to work every day. This is critical not just for company success, but also for creating a culture where your employees are proud of their work and have a high sense of their worth. Which all leads to better quality of life.
I’ll leave you with this: I have been trying to define Alliance’s mission statement going into the future, but for it to be effective, it must be consistent with Korky’s beliefs that have built the company to where it is today. Below is my effort at this so far, let me know what you think.
Alliance Exterior Construction’s Mission
“To elevate Alliance’s people and their families to a higher quality of life; to elevate our business to be the best contractor we can be; to elevate our community by prioritizing a happy and safe environment for all.”
Until next time..
22 November 2021
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1New value of volunteer time released, $28.54 per hour. Do Good Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://dogood.umd.edu/news/new-value-volunteer-time-released-2854-hour.
2Drucker, P. F. (2008). The essential drucker: Selections from the management works of Peter F. Drucker. Collins Business Essentials.