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?

I recently had a thought.

I know, shut up.

My thought was this – Any task you request of someone, you should send in writing.

Skeptical BabyThe reasoning behind it is that, although you may *think* you were clear in your verbal communication, putting it into writing solidifies the request enough that the chances are much greater that you will be understood. On top of that, now there is a paper trail and a conversation can be had if more clarity is needed. It gives the team member something to refer back to.

But more than anything – it makes sure both you and your team member know what you are asking of them.

It’s something I have down as a goal to do more. I think it’s more fair to my team. Also, by sending requests in an email, I can include my task management system (Todoist) as a recipient. This adds the request to my task list so I make sure and follow up. If I get the syntax right, I can even tag it as “followup” and add a due date.

Since I am a bit of a verbal thinker, I will usually assign tasks in a meeting or in person, and then follow up with an email reiterating that task. Both my team and I get the benefit of being able to process that information by hearing and reading – which should aid in retention. Good things all around.


An extremely wise friend of mine shared with me his perspective on what employees need to be happy and productive in their job. It’s fairly sage advice, and I think it’s worth sharing! In his own words, direct from an email he sent me (with a few omissions and some formatting and punctuation added by me):

From my perspective every employee needs three things… That’s it, just three.

Fun / Friends

Work is stressful, people want to be surrounded with others who can laugh at it. Out of the three, this one is the most impactful, and the most important! If an employee feels they are not valued, paid enough, or have to scrape toilets everyday, they will stick through it – if they feel a personal genuine friendship with their co-workers. Most employees will describe it by saying “I love the people I work with”.

Accountability / Responsibility

I’m not talking about… “Hey, you need to get this done by 5 today!” It’s more about feeling like what you do contributes to the whole objective. That what they have been asked to do is important. That it matters. That if they themselves were not doing it, other processes, teams or products would fail. And in almost all of the positions I have observed in corporations, its true!

To Learn

I believe no one applies for a job thinking, “I am the best person for this position. I am an expert at everything they have outlined on the job posting”. Rather, I believe they apply with a hope to become what is stated. If an employee stops learning, they will move on.

That’s it. I truly believe in one simple equation:

“The Business takes care of the employees, the employee takes care of the customer, the customer takes care of the business.”

Build communities, not cubicles.

Trevor Dow

See? Wise right? I tend to agree. I think we can pick this list apart and come up with other things employees need to be happy and productive, but they will likely distill down to these three. What do you think? What would you add to the list?

Trevor is also working on a pretty intriguing project to change how creative freelancers collaborate and find work. You can find out more information about that at

Success is hard. Periodic success is actually pretty easy, most people can do it right every now and again, but really succeeding over and over again is difficult. What’s even more difficult? Leading a team to succeed. And if you are a manager, pretty much the only thing you are there for is to drive the success of your employees.

As I mentioned, in this series I will be writing about some of the things that your employees need to succeed. This post tackles the first: Ability.
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A smart person I know taught me that a wise manager will surround himself with the people that will make his or her job easier. Fantastic advice right? But how do you know whether the people you have are the ones who will make your life better?

A manager’s success, and ability to sleep through the night, is due in large part to the success of his employees. To set your employees up for success requires that you give them all opportunity to do the work as best they possibly can.

Along these lines, I am working on a multi-part series, hopefully with entries to be posted at least every few days. The question I hope to answer is, “What do I, as a manager, need to provide to make sure my employees have the best chance possible for success?”

Stay tuned, we’ll have the first installment soon. If you have any initial thoughts, please do leave a comment.