How to come in third (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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When Hewlett Packard and Compaq first announced their plan to merge, one writer commented that both companies had spent several years searching for a strategy.

Ain’t that pathetic? I picture Carly Fiorina wandering around the desert, looking under rocks and behind the occasional saguaro like some National Geographic photographer hoping to capture a rare, elusive Strategis corporatus on film.

As if anyone ever doubted the inevitable result of a merger in which neither parent company had a viable strategy, it’s now official. Zero plus zero equals zero: The combined company also lacks direction.

It isn’t entirely Fiorina’s fault. In 1997, the Business Roundtable — an association of CEOs from “leading” American corporations — made it official: Shareholder value is the only responsibility of a company’s leadership. Translation: All that matters is the price of a share of stock.

The problem is, the “shareholder value” strategy is an obvious loser.

Imagine your company focuses on shareholder value. Meanwhile, competitors focus on designing and building the best products in the marketplace or on taking care of their customers better than anyone else.

Is there any doubt which company will come in dead last? It might seem paradoxical, but the surest way to make the price of a share of stock plummet is to try to push it up.

Career advisors have preached a similar message for years: Stop worrying about titles and salaries and instead do what you love and are good at. In this case, what’s true for individuals is also true for corporations. Concentrate on doing something exceptionally well … to choose a word, a mission.

This insight is equally valid at every level of an organization. Whether you lead a whole company, an IT division, or a project management team, your clearest route to success is to establish a goal for everyone who reports to you, make it clear why that goal is important, take away all the organizational obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goal, and reward and promote the people who do the most to help you achieve it.

Mission statements have fallen out of fashion, and that’s a good thing. Most leadership teams, faced with creating one, spent no time at all discussing ideas. Instead they word-smithed and group edited, never considering that mission statements don’t matter.

What matters is understanding the mission.

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