Astute Businesspeople Know the Difference between Policy and Mission

This is the tale of two business approaches: business as policy and business as mission.

First tale

I was conducting a weeklong training event in Atlanta. When I arrived at the front desk of my hotel, I asked the night clerk if the hotel had a workout room.

“Yes, we do,” the twenty-something clerk said.

“Wonderful. I need to start my workout at six in the morning.”

The clerk regarded me with a prune-like face. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir, we don’t open until seven.”

“But I have to work out at six.”

“I’m sorry, sir, that’s our policy.”

Not willing to cave, I leaned over the counter. “Well, my policy is to be treated reasonably. Why don’t you just give me the key in the morning, and I’ll let myself in.”

“I can’t do that. That’s not our policy.”


Second tale

I had just watched the 1987 film Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas. In that movie Douglas removes his very expensive suit jacket and reveals a pair of navy suspenders with white polka dots. Classy, I thought. Before the age of online shopping, I decided to telephone the buyer for men’s accessories at Nordstrom’s. His name was Higgins.

“I know exactly what you’re talking about,” Higgins said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have those braces in stock. However, I’m going to Singapore next week, and I will look for them there. Would that be satisfactory?”

“That would be most satisfactory,” I said, trying to fend off an English accent.

Two weeks later, Higgins called me. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Johnson. I could not find the braces in Singapore. But I’m going to London next week. Perhaps I can find the material there, in which case we will happily make your braces.”

“Well, you don’t have to go to London,” I said, a little embarrassed and tinged with a deep-seated fear that the final cost would be the price of a roundtrip first-class ticket to Katmandu.

“It is not a problem, sir. And I should mention that the cost will be exactly what we charge for our in-store items. So, please don’t worry. I just hope the delay is not inconvenient.”

“Not at all, sir,” I said with relief–definitely sounding English at this point.

Two weeks later, Higgins called a second time. “I’m delighted to say that I have found the material,” he said with a happy ring in his voice. “I have sent the material to Trafalgar, who makes our braces. We should have them in two weeks.”

True to his word, I received the treasured suspenders in a fortnight.

Here is my point: Many businesspeople do not understand the difference between policy and mission. 

Policies are written for the convenience of the company. They are designed to make life easier for the business owners, and they are sacrosanct. They are a listing of all the employees’ duties and privileges—when they must be at work, when they can take a break, and when they can go home. Policies have little to do with serving the customer. The Atlanta hotel clerk was abiding by company policies, and his boss likely praised him for his strict allegiance to the corporate code. In fact, I would give you ten-to-one odds that neither the clerk nor the clerk’s boss could recite their company’s mission.

A mission is a higher-order mantra, and it is always customer-centered. This is Nordstrom’s mission: “At Nordstrom, our goal is to provide outstanding service every day, one customer at a time.” My buyer at Nordstrom’s understood the mission. (I thought of Higgins now as my buyer the way I thought of my ham sandwich or my boxer shorts, as personal and intimate.) Higgins did not have a fuzzy notion of the company’s mission; it was not limited to a slogan on a coffee mug; it was in his blood and as rich as English ale.

The Atlanta hotel clerk could take a lesson from Hilton. They have a policy, too, but their policy is mission driven. Here it is: Whenever a request is asked of a Hilton employee, that employee—from the janitor to the president—owns the request.

I remember once asking a Hilton janitor where I might find the men’s room.

“Oh, let me show you,” he said.

“You don’t have to show me,” I said meekly. “Just point.”

“Oh, no, sir. Please follow me.”

The amiable janitor led me to the bathroom door.

“I think I can take it from here,” I said with a wary smile.

Now that is a mission-driven enterprise.

Some argue, “Sure, Nordstrom’s or the Hilton can afford to offer great service, but a struggling company cannot.”

My answer to that is “heifer dust.” I suggest they’re struggling because they forgot their mission or never learned it or worse never had one. It doesn’t take money to serve the customer; it only takes an attitude of servant leadership—something that is good for both customers and employees. There is pride in serving and gratitude for being served. I know: Thirty-five years later, I still think of my buyer, Higgins, when I proudly don my navy-with-white polka dot suspenders. I just have to stop myself from hooking a thumb under a brace and saying, “By jove, I do look splendid.”

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