The Importance of Purpose

Mission matters. Even at publicly traded companies, where so often “the mission” seems to be making ever more profit for shareholders— at the best of them, that’s not true. They still articulate some greater purpose, and believe that purpose is worthwhile. Their leaders like talking about that purpose, whatever it is.

I’ve been reflecting about mission this weekend after reading an article in the New York Times about Rex Tillerson’s approach to running the State Department, and the dry, desiccated mess he seems to be making of the place.

The article hangs on a letter Tillerson sent to the State Department’s 30,000 employees last week. Our secretary of state walked them through his plans to reorganize the department, as part of the Trump Administration’s aim to cut the department budget 30 percent: from $54.9 billion this year to $37.6 billion next year.

The letter is full of CEO-speak: generating deliverable efficiencies, setting aspirational general interest targets, empowering leadership at all levels, improving management support services to reduce redundancies; and so forth. We’ve all received those CEO emails.

The killer passage from Tillerson’s letter, however, is this:  

“The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient and for all of you to take greater satisfaction in what you do day in and day out.”

Umm, no it’s not. The most important thing Tillerson can do is to help prevent North Korea from nuking us back to the Stone Age. Or prevent Iran from posing the same threat some time in the near future. Or prop up free trade among Pacific Rim nations, before they all abscond into the future in a pact with China. Or work to alleviate climate change. Heck, he could even go old school and worry about human rights abuses in Myanmar.

You get the picture. All the above-mentioned objectives are mission-oriented goals; they’re about making the State Department do something. That’s where chief executives should fix their gaze; not on the mechanics of doing anything really well.



Tillerson has carried himself away with process-oriented goals. Little surprise, then, that employee morale is plummeting, and diplomatic efforts around the world are sputtering. The CEO of this organization forgot to tell crucial stakeholders what he actually wants to do.

We do need to cut Tillerson a few breaks. He says he never wanted the job, and only took it because President Trump asked him. Serving as the nation’s chief diplomat under Trump seems like a fool’s errand; Trump tramples all over aides’ policy goals with random tweets, and (recklessly, incorrectly) sees geopolitics as a zero-sum game of conflict. Maybe Tillerson dwells on budgets and cost-cutting because he has nothing better to do.

And yes, the State Department does need to be more efficient. It’s a bureaucratic swamp that wastes taxpayer money and frustrates employees with antiquated technology, among many other shortcomings.

Still, operational challenges belong to a chief operating officer, rather than the CEO. Normally at the State Department, that COO role would be filled by a deputy secretary for management, supported by an undersecretary for management. (Don’t die of surprise, but both roles are currently vacant.)

The Mission Thing

All this is to say that the best organizations thrive because they do three things. They know their purpose; build smooth, efficient processes to act on that purpose; and cultivate a strong corporate culture so employees and business partners won’t seek to pervert that purpose.

The CEOs are crucial to all of that, but ethics and compliance officers can play a role there. Or more precisely, you can argue that if senior executives ignore the matters you oversee—processes, core values, and corporate culture—they risk the same predicament Tillerson has at the State Department: a cynical workforce that distrusts the CEO, and wonders whether it’s time to head for the door.

For example, publicly traded companies will spend plenty of time talking about how to generate more profit and shareholder return. That’s natural, and proper. Senior leadership just needs to understand what else to talk about, and to what extent.

A successful organization needs to talk about what it wants to do, regardless of profit. After all: Would Steve Jobs ever have had Apple do something other than pioneer new technologies for the masses, if that would score greater shareholder return? Of course not. Innovating new technologies is what Apple does. If you have a leader who genuinely doesn’t much care about what the company should do, so long as it makes money— that executive won’t last long. Nor will the company prosper while he or she is there.

Likewise, the company also must talk about how it wants to conduct itself: its scruples, ethics, and honor. On that point I’ll give Tillerson credit. When he was CEO of Exxon Mobil, he endorsed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as a vehicle to make business more ethical. He defended the FCPA to President Trump, apparently as recently as this spring.

Still, at best, at the State Department Tillerson is hitting only two of the three keys for a successful organization. No wonder headlines this week are asking how much longer he’ll last in the job.

Mission, ethics, and process— they all matter. An organization can stall for time with any two of them, but eventually, you need all three to succeed.

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