Your firm has a unique culture, whether you craft that culture intentionally or it arises on its own. In every business, transformative events imprint on employees, clients and vendors. The way you handle business decisions and how you treat each of these parties impacts your firm’s culture—and casts you as either a mercenary or a missionary.
In this context, a missionary culture is based on a strong belief in what the firm does and a desire to inspire people to convert to their way. A mercenary culture, on the other hand, is driven by money.
Now I recognize the danger of segregating an entire industry into two overly simplistic categories. Obviously, variations exist within each type, and one should not infer that mercenaries are inherently evil or missionaries necessarily good. They simply run on a different kind of fuel. This analogy allows you to examine whether you are creating the environment you admire and desire, or whether you are encouraging your partners, clients and associates to act in a way that is not ideal.
For example, companies that value production over all else encourage mercenary behavior, as do organizations that consider shareholders more important than clients or employees. Firms that are overly stingy with expenses and resources also fall into this category. The common denominator is behavior driven by immediate financial results tied to short-term acts.
Those who behave like missionaries tend not to be “me-first” or “money-first” types. They are more inclined to consider the impact on clients and employees before inquiring about cost or return. They look toward a longer-term payoff because they believe that by doing the right thing, the rewards will eventually come. It’s not uncommon to find recovering mercenaries in this group, those who have made enough money to feel like they can be more generous in their behavior, but still ask themselves how much something costs or how much they can make.
While both types can be successful in business, whether you define success by profits, growth or value, their chosen approach clearly dictates the firm’s culture. The best advisors have a healthy balance between financial reward and doing what’s right. The worst are those who preach commitment to clients, employees and family but make decisions primarily for the money. The world hates hypocrites whether in religion, politics or business, so mercenaries posing as missionaries present a dangerous threat to the health of any organization.
Mercenary businesses can be compelling because their owners and top producers often achieve great wealth quickly. These firms are vulnerable to pitfalls, however: high staff turnover, low morale, increased client complaints, fraud and other forms of malfeasance. Many believe the country’s largest banks and brokerage firms contributed to the Great Recession in just this manner. Companies that become too large and unwieldy must manage to the lowest common denominator, and often that means filtering every decision through revenue, cost and profits. These metrics are simple to measure, contain obvious levers and allow shareholders to relate to decisions viewed through a financial prism. With a heavy tilt toward generating financial returns no matter what, the stewards of these firms lose sight of what matters most.