My first day at Google, I was ushered into a big room with a couple hundred seats. Each seat was outfitted with an intern’s name, a laptop, a backpack, one of those nifty propeller hats (really), and a variety of other Google swag.
But almost before we could dive into and get too excited about all the gear, the presenter stood up in front and asked us, “What is Google’s mission?”
An enterprising fellow near the front raised his hand high, and said, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Nailed it! I’m sure he got an offer (just kidding, I have no idea). But he did get brownie points.
During the course of the rest of my summer at Google, I heard that same thing repeated countless times. “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Repeat x 100.
It was a powerful lesson for me. I knew that Google was a great company, and I knew that employees loved being there. But as I worked with Googlers and on Google products, I realized that everyone really had taken that mission to heart.
They came to work every day fired up to work because they knew what Google was all about—it was organizing the world’s information (all of it!), and making it universally accessible and useful. And my fellow Googlers and I took very little time to get truly engaged and motivated to help accomplish that mission.
In contrast, a few years before, I worked—for one day—at an affiliate marketing company. I was bootstrapping my own small business, and got the job part-time to make sure I was making ends meet.
When I showed up, I was put in a room with another guy who immediately started assigning me tasks, like finding photos of people with gym-bodies to slap on banner ads for supplements that almost certainly didn’t work.
And though I didn’t think of it in these words at the time, I felt an immediate disconnect with the company’s mission. What were we doing there? A walk out to the parking lot where my bosses had their exotic sports cars made it clear: we were there to make money for the owners. And apart from that, nothing we were doing really mattered.
It was incredibly demotivating. Not only were their tactics questionable, but the mission itself—the whole thing we were trying to accomplish—was something I couldn’t get behind. The next day, I came in just to let them know that I was done. That’s a story in and of itself, but even though I had no idea what I was going to do financially, I knew I had to do something I believed in. And I haven’t regretted it for a second.
All small business owners and startup founders should think hard about what their company’s mission is. What are you really trying to accomplish? Once that’s clear, ask yourself: is it something that your team—those truly invaluable people that you need working hard on your side in order to get anything important done—can truly rally around? If it is, great! And make sure everyone knows and understands the mission. If it’s not, rework it. And make sure it’s real.
You may need to take drastic steps in order to bring your company and mission into alignment, and I think that’s ok. Even Google realized that with many of their “moonshot” projects, the mission didn’t really fit. So they took a giant, painful step of separating Google into multiple companies, under the Alphabet umbrella. Now, Google is the part of Alphabet that still aligns with its mission to “organize the….” Well, you get it.
So here’s the tl;dr: if you want motivated, engaged, driven employees, give them something to truly be motivated about. Give them a mission.
Also check out Part 1 of this series, Empower Employees.
Tim is Founder and CEO of ZipBooks. He keeps his desk really nice and neat.