We’ve had a rough 2020 with most companies revising their yearly goals to cope with the reality of Covid-19. While it might seem counterintuitive, I think it is the ideal time to think about the bigger goal for your company, whatever that is that is more important than profit or shareholder return. And, yes, those who know my capitalist nature are probably rolling their eyes. Allow me to explain.
I’ve been thinking about the significance of companies after reading Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game. In it, Sinek compares the worldview of business leaders who hold a limited “finite” mindset against their peers with a more expansive mindset, one that isn’t simply focused on short-term goals and profitability. In my opinion, there’s no better time than now to do some hard thinking about what the ultimate goal, or what Sinek calls the “just cause” of your organization, really is.
To Sinek, adopting an infinite mindset means that an organization needs to exchange short-term goals for the goal of achieving lasting, positive impact on the world. Leading with an infinite mindset isn’t easy. A leader needs not only a vision, but also courage and the trust of their employees to make the sacrifices necessary to follow that vision. For most, it’s simply easier to aim for short-term goals. I can readily attest to this, and I have failed miserably at times.
What does an infinite mindset look like? I can think of two contrasting examples. Contrary to the story Sinek communicates about Google in startup mode, I would refer to them in a different light. Google would seem to be an example of an organization that leads with an infinite mindset. The company’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is one with a lasting, positive impact. However, on one project, I don’t believe Google followed its own mission. When trying to launch Google+, the company reportedly made missteps.
Google was unable to achieve success with this project. Over several years, the company tried different strategies to redefine the application. They offered financial incentives, tying employee bonuses to the success of the platform. They even tried to force users onto the platform by requiring them to create Google+ accounts in order to use other Google properties. I believe this is a classic finite mindset — they pursued the short-term goal of competing with platforms like Facebook instead of creating something new and different.
Let’s go back a few decades to compare this with a very different journey. For about three decades, Grumman Aircraft Engineering had designed and built military aircraft. But in 1962, Grumman entered the space race when it won the bid to build the lunar module that put astronauts on the moon. (One could argue that JFK’s 1961 commitment to land on the moon is an iconic example of an infinite goal in American history.) But Grumman had no experience building rockets. How did they succeed?
Offer a Sense of Belonging
In The Infinite Game, Sinek argues that there are things more important to businesses than shareholder return. Businesses really only have two core responsibilities. One, he says, is to “advance a purpose: Offer people a sense of belonging and a feeling that their lives and their work have value beyond the physical work.”
When building the lunar module, Grumman’s engineers didn’t seem to be focused on where to save a nickel. They were focused on goals like using lightweight materials and ensuring the mission was completed safely. Grumman employees embraced that mission. In an interview, Harry Armen, who worked in Grumman’s research department at the time, recalled, “Anywhere you looked in the company you could find someone who would help you. Experts came out of the woodwork. There wasn’t a technical question you couldn’t get an answer for. People would drop what they were doing to solve your problem.”
And this wasn’t true simply for the engineers. In the words of Thomas Kelly, engineering manager and deputy program manager for the program, “There was a dedication and a drive on the Lunar Module program that I haven’t seen equaled since. We’re talking about thousands of people here that were swept up in the enthusiasm and the historic importance of this endeavor.”
Protect Your People
Grumman also fulfilled Sinek’s second business mission, to “operate our companies in a way that protects the people who work for us, the people who buy from us and the environments in which we live and work.” When you think of working at a large company, things like perks, high salaries and prestige likely come to mind. The word family? Not necessarily.
“Grumman was a very benevolent organization,” said Bob Ripp, president of the Grumman Retiree Club in a Newsday interview. “It was run like a family oriented company.” Ernest Finamore, for example, spent six years working on lunar modules. The company hired him after his father, a Grumman sheet metal worker, was injured on the job. How many companies today feel that personal responsibility to an employee’s family?
Today you may be focused on quarter four’s numbers and perhaps even thinking about headcount. It’s a good time to ask what your company’s end goal really is. What is the story you want your people to share with others someday? If you do this, you may find it’s no longer enough to pursue the ordinary when there may be a moonshot out there waiting for you.
Originally published on the Forbes Business Development Council.
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