Two heroes that embody missionary vs mercenary styles. Or something.

Famous billionaire venture capitalist John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins has been talking about the difference between Missionary and Mercenary entrepreneurs since about 2000. According to Doerr:

“Mercenaries are driven by paranoia; missionaries are driven by passion. Mercenaries think opportunistically; missionaries think strategically. Mercenaries go for the sprint; missionaries go for the marathon. Mercenaries focus on their competitors and financial statements; missionaries focus on their customers and value statements. Mercenaries are bosses of wolf packs; missionaries are mentors or coaches of teams. Mercenaries worry about entitlements; missionaries are obsessed with making a contribution. Mercenaries are motivated by the lust for making money; missionaries, while recognizing the importance of money, are fundamentally driven by the desire to make meaning.”

I won’t pretend to have much insight into the various types of entrepreneurs and what makes them successful. My background has not really been in that space. I have however, spent a lot of time as a member or leader of influential teams inside larger organizations. Because of that background, I look at these two styles from the lens of culture, and how it affects employee engagement and productivity.

There is rarely a single culture within medium to large businesses. It really comes down to different teams – or perhaps tribes is more appropriate. Groups of like-minded workers tend to find each other, collaborate and support each other. The most cohesive and effective teams are made up of these people – with the same kinds of principles guiding their work. Ideally, the whole organization is united.

But that’s almost never the case, once your organization has multiple teams. There seem to always be clashing groups who value different ideals and focus on success in different ways.

I wouldn’t say this is a terrible thing – after all, different types of work require different types of people. Head into the software engineering department for example. You will undoubtedly find a very different culture compared with the sales team – appropriately so. Is a Missionary or Mercenary mindset right? I think it depends.

I have tried very hard on my teams to develop aspects of the missionary culture described by Doerr. I consider it the right approach for customer-centric marketing, and it matches my style.

It’s not too hard to bring in people with that mindset when you hire the team. Transitioning an existing team into that mode requires some effort for sure. The hardest part is broadening that culture to the rest of the organization.

So how do build a team of missionaries? Here are my thoughts:

  • Lead by example. First and foremost, ensure that you have and show the qualities you want your team or colleagues to adopt. Funny how this one has to be said.
  • Be Explicit. Have a conversation with your boss, your team, your coworkers, etc. Discuss the culture you all want to have, and get on the same page.  Hold each other accountable.
  • Hire them. Make sure that when you bring people on board you are hiring for those qualities. It sends a clear message to the existing team that these are desirable traits too.
  • Praise the right things. It’s sad how often folks talk about these high ideals, but when bonus time or promotion time comes around, it’s the cut-throat mercenaries that get the credit. It’s fine to praise results, but if you want the how to change you can’t ignore it.
  • Know when you are beat. If you are working for a mercenary leadership team, you may have to come to grips with the fact that it isn’t going to change. Sure your team or your tribe may be able to operate as Doerr describes, but you will always be at odds with the rest of the company. They will take their cues from the leadership in place, and you trying to change that may even feel threatening to them.
    The long and short of it is that you may have to recognize that this isn’t the company for you. “It wasn’t a good fit” is not the worst thing to have to say at your next interview.

What about you? What do you do to try to build the right culture in your business?

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