4 Characteristics of Legendary Business Missions

This is a phenomenal time to be in the process of business building. Any information you need is at your fingertips. You can learn to avoid mistakes that other businesses have experienced by checking industry histories and stories. You can also learn what has led to extraordinary success. It’s all here for anyone to find. In this commentary, I will examine the one fundamental reason legendary businesses have survived and prospered. Hopefully, you will be convinced to follow in the footsteps of these great businesses as you begin the process of business building. From Day 1 your intention can be to create a legacy business for service to humanity.

Most of the important business literature points to the importance of designing a strong Mission or Purpose. In this writing, I will use Mission and Purpose interchangeably. I will treat Vision and Values and separate elements of your business foundation. You have more than likely, seen these terms used in various ways. Sometimes Mission and Vision will mean the same thing or Values, Mission and Vision are all the same. Here, they are three different things.

The focus here is on the importance of a sound Mission/Purpose. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book “Built to Last” consistently found that great companies embraced a strong overarching principle or Purpose to guide their business operations. They found these principles lasted through many years of development and formed a solid foundation for continued success. “There is an ‘extra dimension’ in a great company. Enlightened business leaders around the globe intuitively understand the importance of timeless core values and a purpose beyond just making money” Collins and Porras.

Let’s consider some of the Missions of great American businesses of today:

Southwest Airlines has flourished for 38 years. It’s managers have upheld the original Purpose:

The Mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.” “Our Purpose is: To connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.” Southwest describes a Mission and a Purpose. Both are principles the company continues to be deeply passionate about. Everyone involved with the company knows that all business actions must be guided by these fundamental principles.

Charles Schwab continues to grow after 30 years. The Mission is “to empower individual investors to take control of their financial lives, free from the high costs and conflicts of traditional brokerage firms.” The focus of this Mission is on the customer and the intent to simplify the investing experience. This Purpose has led to great success.

Amazon was founded in 1994. It has continued to be the leader in its industry. The Mission reads:

“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” There is no doubt Amazon has fulfilled its Mission for over 23 years. Recently, it has ventured into brick and mortar locations, but continues to dominate their original industry. It’ll be interesting to see how this venture outside of their original purpose will effect their success.

Two of our most successful businesses have made changes to their Purposes even though their original Missions have brought them tremendous success.

Facebook founded in 2004 has enjoyed phenomenal success in just 13 years. The original Mission was:

“Making the world more open and connected.” An excellent, open Mission to encompass many products and services.

The new Mission reads: to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

This is also an excellent, open Mission to encompass many products and services but it limits the Purpose to two ideals. The current intent highlights the values of community and internationalism. It will be interesting to see the difference the new Vision makes in the operations of Facebook. “Watch this space” (Maddow).

Apple’s Mission has served them well for 37 years.

According to the Economist, Steve Jobs’ mission statement for Apple in 1980 was: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” His goal to be the best in the world was evident in the passion he and his affiliates showed for the Mission. They were extremely successful.

Apple’s Mission today is quite different. It reads:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store.” This Mission moves aways from the broad, overarching principle that has grown a digital empire.

Henry Blodget in “Apple’s ‘Mission Statement’ Is Making People Worry That the Company Has Gone to Hell”, believes “If that really is Apple’s ‘mission statement,’ it is indeed pretty lame. It’s not a mission statement so much as a list of product lines. And it would be hard to imagine a less-inspiring, more prosaic description of what Apple is (or used to be) all about.”

The fundamental difference between the two Missions is: Jobs saw the products as tools to improve the quality of life for mankind. There was no product limitations. This left the door open for many products or services as long as they fit the principle. The passion came from a great purpose. The new Mission focuses on products, not service. What happens in the future remains to be seen. “Watch this space” too!

“People want to do well and do good. They want to understand how they’re making a difference in the world. Things change all the time, but your organization’s purpose transcends any individual product or service.” – Mark Weinberger, EY

We can identify at least 4 characteristics a great Purpose after careful analysis of these legendary Missions.

Collins and Porras reveal many characteristics of a business purpose in “Built to Last”. I highly recommend this book for business building. Four characteristics are highlighted here:

First, the Mission promises to give something to the customer or society at large. The Purpose is larger than the founder and extends to the greater community. Such as Southwest Airline’s promise to “connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”

Second, the Purpose is something the founder is deeply passionate about. He or she “walks it and talks it” with zeal. Steve Jobs is known to reiterate the larger principle whenever there were problems to solve. He always kept the overarching principle in mind… “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” 

Third, the Mission supports a viable business model to achieve economic feasibility. Business is formed to make money. It must have money to support all operations and services so, any Mission must imply financial growth. Amazon’s Mission exhibits this. “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Fourth, the Purpose should be set in an industry where the business can strive to be the best in the world. This intent should be implied in the overarching principle and promoted by the founder. This can only be done if a narrow niche is defined. The Purpose can strive to improve, create, or innovate. Charles Schwab provides an example of niche definition allowing the business to strive to be the best in the world…“to empower individual investors to take control of their financial lives, free from the high costs and conflicts of traditional brokerage firms.” 

One more example of an excellent Mission is Merck’s principle designed by George Merck II in 1935: “We are workers in industry who are genuinely inspired by the ideals of advancement of medical science, and of service to humanity.” Merck was true to these principles in at least two well known incidences. The company supplied the Mectizan drug for “river blindness” to Third World countries free of charge. They also supplied streptomycin to Japan after World War II to eliminate tuberculosis, free of charge. They saw the need and supplied it. The CEO said they had to go forward with the distribution without government funding because if they hadn’t the scientists working for Merck would have become demoralized. They were committed to the Mission. They continue that commitment today.

This brings me to the most important revelation about the Missions or purposes of legendary companies. Dedication to the Mission/Purpose above financial concerns leads a company to greatness. The money usually follows strong dedication to some kind of contribution to mankind. More focus is given to the overarching principle than pleasing investors. It happened in the 18 legendary companies Collins and Porras studied for their landmark research reported in “Built to Last”.

Carefully design your Mission/Purpose as an overarching principle you can become passionate about. A great Mission/Purpose will help you through problems as well as successes. Try to live up to your grand principle and become another legendary business for the world.

More information in: “20 Directives for Small Business Success: Do or Die”