WRITTEN BY DAN SALVA
What is it about a Big Audacious Meaning that makes it so irresistible? What about it causes people to become so passionate about it?
A company can develop a vision. It can declare its mission. These can be lofty and ambitious Yet, they rarely elicit a visceral reaction. You know that feeling. When something connects so powerfully with you that your heart starts beating a little faster. There’s no calculated evaluation at this point. There is a rush of adrenaline. And you are an instant convert.
So few organizations stop to examine this. Most will put together a serviceable mission and then quickly move on to tweaking the tangible things. At some point, the results of the tweaking start to diminish. Management goes on a retreat to ponder why there is very little passion associated with their brand. Whether it’s the lack of passion among their customers or their team members.
Sorting out the difference
Vision and mission statements talk about what the business will accomplish and how it will do it. They are all about the organization. In order for these statements to be effective, it requires the majority of people within that organization to emotionally commit. That’s a tall order (like herding cats).
So what makes a Big Audacious Meaning different? Quite simply. it’s personal. We’re talking about how each of us will help make a difference in a life, a community, and even the world. That connection to the impact is the thing that causes that visceral reaction.
We like it when things get personal. We have a greater sense of ownership of the outcome. It also motivates us.
When we have a personal connection to a Big Audacious Meaning, we’ll put in what it takes to make sure that it flourishes.
Very few mission statements create that kind of fervor. So companies create programs to get team members excited about the mission. “To live it everyday” as they say. But should you really have to create a program to get everybody excited about the very thing that defines what is at your core? Shouldn’t it already be so compelling that everyone can’t help but feel energized by it? That’s how it should be, right?
If you’re creating an employee program to get them excited and engaged with the mission, you ought to take that as a sign that you have a problem. And that you should do some soul searching about your Big Audacious Meaning.
It comes down to this. Vision and mission are more focused on the organization. A Big Audacious Meaning is more focused on the individual. In short, it’s personal.
A Big Audacious Meaning can’t be stopped
How powerful is something that feels personal – like your Big Audacious Meaning? It can work magic whether your organization formally defines it or not. Here’s what I mean.
I was working on an internal initiative for a nationwide tax preparation firm. We were in search of stories that we could hold up as examples of team members living the mission. I remember thinking at the time that the mission wasn’t all that inspiring. What is compelling about living a mildly-interesting mission? How was I going to capture stories that would move people if the guiding principle wasn’t really much to get excited about?
My job was to talk to tax preparers in the field. I don’t know how you think about this, but I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to be a tax preparer. Taxes are complicated. And boring. I don’t want to think about taxes. Now I was to interview a bunch of people that made this their life's pursuit. What could they tell me that would be even remotely inspiring?
Needless to say, this was an awful bias to take into an interview. It took everything I had to put the bias aside in order to help any possibility of a story to emerge. There was another complication as well. We were capturing these stories on video. Set up a video camera and people just freeze up. It takes a while to thaw them. So the interview I planned for was rather stiff. Oh every once in awhile, one of the tax preparers would forget that the camera was running and they would start to tell stories. Nothing earth shattering. Just a nice tale of how he or she wanted to do a good job for the client.
I’ve done a lot of these types of interviews. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned over time is that the best stories happen after the interview ends. I’ve developed this sneaky habit of formally announcing the end of the interview, but not bothering to turn the camera off. It’s amazing to watch interviewees' demeanor change when I say that the interview has come to an end. Their posture changes. They relax and laugh. I can understand why. It’s stressful if you don’t spend much time in front of a camera.
People do really like to talk about who they are and what they do. Just not on camera. So at the end of the interview, I asked each tax preparer, “Why do you do this.” I wasn’t prepared for what happened.
That one question unleashed a flood of stories.
One person told me of the incredible sense of responsibility she felt. She explained that once a year her clients layout their entire financial life in front of her. People are notoriously insecure and tight-lipped about their finances. And they show her more about their lives than they show their closest family. This was an incredibly vulnerable moment for them. And she took it as a monumental sign of trust. That made her so proud. That she could be a trusted part of those people’s lives. As she told me this, tears welled up. She just couldn’t help it.
Another tax preparer told me how clients would enter the office worried and stressed. By the time they were finished, they were physically changed. He said that it was incredibly gratifying to see the relief on their faces. He had never had a job that made him feel like he was doing something so worthwhile.
Were these tax preparers living the mission? Honestly, they couldn’t tell you what the mission was. But they were acting on something. They had a palpable sense of purpose. They knew that they could make a profound difference in people’s lives. And that ignited them. They told story after story. This is what got them out of bed in the morning. It was what sustained them through the long days of tax season. It wasn’t a corporate mission. It was a Big Audacious Meaning. And they considered it very personal.
If you stopped and thought about it, I’d bet you’d be able to easily recall your own stories of the things that have ignited your passion. Things that energized your efforts, making work feel less like work and more like a vocation. I’d also bet those things felt very personal.
This is a powerful lesson for all of us. If we want to get people engaged, it can’t just be about business. We have to give people something that connects with them in a meaningful way. And on an individual level. It’s got to get personal.
Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.