7 Tips to Build a Mission-Driven Organization—Even at Big Tech
We tend to throw up our hands and assume that big companies mean big politics. It doesn't have to be that way.
I just wanted to offer a huge thanks to all the new Scarlet Ink subscribers! It's remarkable to be supported in doing the thing I like to do (write). Last week's article on avoiding being under-leveled drove more new subscribers than the next two most popular articles combined. Taking a look at the volume of emails I received (more emails were sent for that article than any other article I've written), I'd say it's because the topic resonates with so many people. Once you get a job offer, it feels like your level was set in a black box. The company simply tells you, "Your level is now X". My article helped some of you recognize how to impact that X. Great!
It's a beautiful sunny day here in the Seattle area, and I can see the chickens if I look out my window. Have I mentioned how fun it is to raise chickens? I never would have imagined that I'd enjoy their antics so much. They're a bunch of dummies, but I appreciate their attitudes. At least the girls. Lavender (our surprise Rooster) is becoming a bit of a jerk as he gets older. Anyway! On with the article.
Why do startups feel mission driven, while large companies feel political? What causes an organization to be more or less political, and what can we do about it?
One of the appeals of working at a startup is that startups are often mission-driven. Instead of needing to pay attention to large company politics, you can simply focus on making the best experience for your customers.
Before proceeding, I want to explain the two major terms I'm going to be using.
For me, being mission-driven means that you're primarily working towards a larger goal or vision. The mission is what tends to drive your daily work.
When I refer to company politics, I'm referring to employees using their authority or social power for a personal agenda. Personal gain tends to drive your daily work.
While it feels a little naive to hope for a mission at a big company, I think it's entirely possible to build a team and organizational culture which connects employees with a mission, and discourages company politics.
My experience at Amazon
I was lucky to be a part of 5 distinct organizations at Amazon. Global Payments, Marketplace (the 3rd party sellers one), AWS EC2 (AWS is so large, you need to be more specific when you're describing where you're working in AWS), Devices, and Video games.
I was able to observe the difference in culture between these organizations. In particular, the differences in which organizations (or parts of organizations) felt political, and which organizations felt driven by a mission.
I look back on my mission-driven organizations fondly. It felt like we were on the same team. We were working together to accomplish the same goals. There were disagreements, but they were about making the right decisions. We were collectively thrilled when things went well, and were upset when things were going poorly.
I feel residual stress when I think about the political interactions I had. It felt like we were competing against each other for limited resources, attention, or career growth. Our arguments were frequently about personal gain of one participant or another. A business success only felt like a success when we could claim a portion of the victory.
At a startup, there's a strong connection between the company, product, and employee. If you join Zwift (for example), you understand that you'll be working on indoor bicycle training and fitness. If you care about indoor bicycle training or fitness, this job would be exciting for you.
Even if you're building a new database, or entering numbers onto a spreadsheet, you know that you're contributing towards the Zwift mission. You're also likely interacting daily with those who work directly with customers.
Why is an employee at a startup? It's often because they care. They find the product and vision interesting, and they feel connected to the company. The early employees in particular have fully bought into the goals of the company, and feel a personal obligation to do their best to help it succeed.
How does an employee make a lot more money at a startup? In general, when the startup makes money, the employees make money. If the startup grows dramatically, employees may benefit dramatically. While there might be an opportunity for some employees to step up into a larger role, the primary way people talk about compensation at startups is about company success. And if the company does poorly, people could lose their jobs. The employees are fully invested and impacted by company success or failure.
Regarding large companies
At a large company, there are hundreds of products of various sizes. External products, internal products. You're working on one small part of the massive puzzle. If you asked an employee of Amazon Music, "Where do you work?", they'd likely answer "Amazon", not "Amazon Music". Apologies to the Amazon Music folk, just using you as an example.
Most large companies allow and encourage internal transfers because your employment is with the corporation, not with your department. There isn't an incentive to be personally connected to your department. It's simply a place you're currently working.
What's the downside to this disconnect? Well, how much does the average Amazon Music employee personally identify with Amazon Music's success? How much do they care if Amazon Music has a bad quarter / year? Often, not a lot, unless it personally impacts them.
What's the usual reason that an employee would work in Amazon Music, instead of AWS S3, or Alexa, or Health Devices?
The answer at a large company is often one of two things.
They have friends in that organization.
This is a good place for their career.
How does an employee make a lot more money at a large company? They get promoted. The next level up in their career offers more money.
Amazon's stock growth also played a major factor in my personal finances. However, there's a critical difference between Amazon and a startup. I had only the tiniest impact on Amazon's success. I could double my most aggressive goal, or cut our hosting costs in half, and no financial analyst would notice. More than once, I, personally, saved well over a million dollars in costs, and yet it made no fundamental difference to the company.
My stock growth had nothing to do with my personal work or success. Stock growth was incidental. I was not a real owner, I was a bystander, gathering wealth because Amazon did well.
Summary of the Issue
Why do startup employees feel more connected to the mission?
Mission-driven: You're primarily working towards a larger goal or vision, rather than focusing your mental effort on personal gain.
Because the product = the company = the reason they're all there. The mission of the company is related to everything they do. They, their management, their board of directors, everyone wants their specific work to be a success. Their personal success comes from the company being successful.
Employees can therefore use their skills and experience to try to make the product more successful, which is both fun, and directly connects to their future financial reward.
At a large company, the mission is often missing, or muddled. The primary mission for most employees is to keep and / or improve their career. Their work is one of the ways they can make that happen, but it's a means to an end.
Why do large companies have more political problems?
Company Politics: Employees use their authority or social power for a personal agenda.
Most employees are not on a particular team for the mission. They're on a particular team for the good of their career. That's literally their mission. Being promoted has far more impact on their financial rewards than any product success, and they have far more control over their promotion than corporate success.
This means that it's not just about an employee's skill and experience. They need to use all their tools at their disposal to help their career growth, which at large companies tends to include authority and social power.
Is there anything we can do?
I don't think you can eliminate politics from companies. Even on the smallest team, you can have one employee dislike another, and use their social influence to try to win their personal disagreement. It's just how humans work.
However, there are a variety of ways you can decrease the incentives behind politics, and increase the connectivity between employees, and their mission.
Below are 7 ways we can impact the level of mission and politics in our companies, organizations, and teams.
1. Create a social identity
When someone asked me where I worked, I wouldn't always answer "Amazon" during my 12-years there. At times, I would answer that I managed Seller Central (my teams in Marketplace ran the main Seller website), and at another time, I was a part of the Kids & Family organization (devices for kids, such as the kids tablet). Those organizations, in particular, felt like they had a strong enough culture to overrule corporate branding.
I think it was about having a group of close colleagues. We had social events together. We talked about things other than work. We appreciated each other's skills, and sincerely wanted our team to nail our goals. It felt like we had an identity, and that identity created a mission for our organization.
We wanted to accomplish things because we were doing it together, and we would rather not let our co-workers down.
How do you create a social identity?
Get to know people personally. Go out bowling. Make pot-luck work events. Have a chili recipe competition. Have a beer identification challenge. When you get to know people personally, you begin to feel they're a part of your group.
Take personal pride in your product quality, especially when it's clear that the corporation thinks that you shouldn't care. Build improvements in your product because your team wants to do it, not because it's profitable. Swap the team's motivation from achieving corporate goals to achieving organization and team goals. As you move your pride and identity to your smaller group, you'll find it easier to connect to the smaller group's mission.