What’s Your Mission?

Talent Management

February 18, 2013

by Marshall Goldsmith

If you provide people with continuity, however trivial or feeble, they will notice. When they see a pattern of repeat positive behavior, they begin to understand what you’re doing and they accept a new you. This is how reputations are rebuilt.

Last month I talked about rebuilding our spirit. I likened long-term processes such as changing behavior to building a wall. You lay down one brick, then another, aiming for serial achievements to show people who you are and to get others to accept the change. The first rule is to stop waiting for more information or for better circumstances before getting started. Circumstances are rarely perfect.

The second rule is move quickly. One brick at a time isn’t a license to go slowly. You’re constructing a sequence of successes, and you might as well do it quickly. The smaller the gap between your serial achievements, the easier they are to notice. Also, there’s a fine line between patience and procrastination. If you must err, err on the side of urgency. People pay attention to someone who’s in a hurry.

The third rule is say two no’s for every yes. You never want to turn down a chance to get involved in something good, but in my experience, dead ends outnumber opportunities in almost any walk of life. For every good idea, there are dozens of bad ones.

When someone asks for help, unless it’s inappropriate or thoughtless to say no, weigh every yes as if you were spending money. If it distracts you from your goal, don’t do it — no matter how tempting the upside seems. Think of your reputation as a wall that you’re building one brick at a time. If you’re using red bricks and suddenly insert a yellow brick, the wall doesn’t look right — and people notice. That’s what saying yes to the wrong idea can do to the reputation you’re trying to rebuild.

The fourth rule is it pays to advertise. I know a playwright who never reveals what new work she’s writing. “When you talk about it,” she says, “you’re not writing it. You’re just talking.” That sort of secretiveness may apply to creative work, but it doesn’t apply to rebuilding your reputation. People have preconceptions about you. They not only filter everything you do through those preconceptions, but they are constantly looking for evidence that confirms them. Thus, if they believe you are perennially late, even when you’re only a few seconds late to a lunch date or a meeting they’ll quietly file that away as another example of your tardiness.

However, if you tell them you’re making a serious effort to be on time from now on, that bit of “advertising” can change their perception. They’ll be on alert for evidence of your on-time behavior rather than confirmation that you’re always late. That little tweak in perception, created solely by telling people that you’re trying to change, can make all the difference.

When management consultant and author Peter Drucker worked with an organization or individual, he always posed five basic questions. The first was: “What is your mission?” Drucker began with the premise that you cannot figure out where you’re going or how to get there until you articulate what that destination looks like. It’s a simple concept, but it’s amazing to me how many people never articulate their “mission” to themselves or anyone else.

I realize that mission statements are now regarded as overbaked relics of the 1980s — a faddish buzzword of the same vintage as “excellence” and “quality.” That may be true, but because a concept is no longer the newest fad does not mean it doesn’t have value. What turned mission statements into a corporate joke was how quickly companies broadcast their embrace of a concept and then didn’t follow up with consistent action. You don’t write a mission statement. You live it and breathe it. A lot of organizations never did that.