Why mission & meaning matter more than ever in the post COVID-19 world

Clarity of mission and reinforcement and rewards that ladder back to the ‘why’ will be the new rocket fuel for tomorrow’s high performance companies.

GV Ravishankar

Published May 18, 2020

Covid-19 has kept many of us locked up in our homes over the last 50+ days working over zoom and calls. I have heard a number of people say that they’re working harder than ever before, and how the boundaries between weekdays and weekends have blurred. Many people say they feel more efficient, now that they no longer face a draining commute, and are able to pack more into each day. My senior partner Michael Moritz once told us “Never confuse travel for work”! Lots of wisdom in that and with no travel now, work is clearly at its efficient best!

Working from home has many upsides, but there are several missing elements. Social connection is the big one. The casual chit chats and water cooler conversations; the small laughs digging at a colleague’s new red shoes or the serendipity of knowledge transfer that comes from small group conversations you join sometimes uninvited– these are hard to recreate on Zoom (and we are still trying!). Work has gotten more intense but also less interesting without unscheduled chatter; without the spontaneity.

Without social interactions, work can get monotonous and start to lose meaning. This has come up in a number of conversations with C-suite executives across a range of industries, so I know I’m not alone. And if this is how senior leaders with experience in all kinds of challenging environments feel, I can only imagine that employees not used to this type of remote work may be struggling even more.

Now, more than ever, the mission of the organization and the meaning of the work we do is important, to keep the team together and motivated! The question for leaders is whether the ‘Why’ is clear to their troops.

At Sequoia, the majority of our capital comes from Limited Partners (LPs) who are non-profits doing some incredible work in making the world a better place and we are fortunate to be working for great causes. There is a sense of purpose beyond the capitalism that permeates our culture in myriad different ways. Several of our portfolio companies are also making massive impact across sectors like education, healthcare and financial sectors. It is the ability to serve such mission driven founders and the good causes of our LPs that gives meaning to our work at Sequoia Capital! If you speak to any of our employees, I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear the words “privileged” and “grateful” repeatedly in the conversations about what the nature of our work is like.

Why over What

People in leadership roles spend a lot of time on what needs to be done; we measure it through OKRs or key metrics and monitor this weekly and monthly. We reward people for performance and usually provide constructive feedback if someone hasn’t delivered. This happens usually quarterly or annually and usually incentives and compensation conversations are linked to performance. There is a cadence to the ‘what’. But very rarely do we take time to discuss the ‘why’ – the impact of this performance, the progress towards the mission. Unwittingly, we end up focussing on short term rewards instead of potentially buying life-long loyalty. We also lose the chance to provide meaning to their work.

In his 1946 masterpiece, “Man’s search for meaning”, Austrian Neurologist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl talks about how a person who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how’. While the stresses of modern work-life or even the lockdown we’re all in now is in no way comparable to life in World War II concentration camps, the fundamental motivation to work is driven by having clarity and meaning in what we do. There is a difference between a janitor at a hospital thinking his job is to clean the floor versus thinking his job is to reduce spread of infections – the latter has the power of purpose!

When there’s a clear alignment between what we do on a day to day basis and why we do what we do, people will be more driven. There needs to be a clear connection to every role and the mission of the organization. When the ‘why’ is in sync with a person’s personal beliefs then work stops feeling like work and there is a sense of purpose that emerges which drives them to deliver their personal best. When most people in the organization understand and are aligned on the why, there is a shared belief system which keeps them and drives them to achieve the big hairy audacious goals. Hence the ‘why’ should precede the ‘what’!

The role of every leader is to ensure that employees understand the ‘why’ very clearly and ensure there is no dissonance. In a recent episode of the Masters of Scale podcast titled “How to unite a team”, Angela Ahrendts, head of retail of Apple, talks about how she turned around British luxury brand Burberry by uniting a team of 11,000 people with a common mission and purpose. She talks about how in a large offsite she presented the mission and strategy and encouraged people to be 100% in; she offered people a great retirement package if they wanted to leave and asked that only those who really believed, stay. This wasn’t a threat – this was something the company needed to turn the brand around. Angela knew that unless the ‘why’ is clear, an 11,000 member team won’t unite on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ required to turn the company around.

Lock-down and future of work

As we resign ourselves to the new realities of how we may work in the future – especially with more remote work, less travel and more social distancing – the time has come for leaders to focus on and communicate the ‘why’ over ‘what’.

We will likely see tools and systems that enable organizations to ensure people are efficient and can be monitored in remote settings. There will be countless best practices that will be published and discussed to ensure organizations can get the most out of their remote workers. But if there is one silver bullet that may be 80% of the answer, it is likely the ability of the leader to provide meaning to the work that his/her employees are doing.

A motivated employee is a self-driven employee. And team members who feel they’re part of the mission will work independently to deliver to the company’s goals. Clarity of mission and reinforcement and rewards that ladder back to the ‘why’ will be the new rocket fuel for tomorrow’s high performance companies.

This column was originally published on LinkedIn.