To create a remarkable culture, organizations need more than a meaningful purpose; they also need a challenging mission. The first element of a remarkable culture is a meaningful purpose. It’s the “why” an organization exist at all. The purpose rarely changes. Extraordinary talent will want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They will want to be part of a challenging mission – a goal the team can rally around and celebrate when they achieve it. The mission represents the “what” of the organization and it is the second element of a remarkable culture. It answers the question: What is the team here to accomplish? Unlike a purpose, missions often change once they are accomplished.
If I had lived this story prior to writing Bet on Talent: How to Create a Remarkable Culture that Wins the Hearts of Customers, I would have included it in the book. I sat on the sidelines to watch the achievement of an incredible achievement of a mission. When I think of an example of a challenging mission, I think about the 2018 Wake Forest University football team.
The “Demon Deacons” may not be the most well-known team among college football fans. Wake Forest University, located in Winston Salem, NC is the smallest school of all colleges and universities in the NCAA FBS Division 1 classification. Best known as an elite academic institution, Wake Forest ranks in the top 30 colleges and universities in the U.S., but competing on the football field in the power 5 Atlantic Coast Conference presents quite a challenge for them.
Five years ago, Wake got a new coach – Dave Clawson. Coach Clawson played Division 3 football at Williams College and was the head coach at Richmond, Fordham and Bowling Green, prior to coming to Wake Forest. Entering his sixth season at Wake Forest, he is ranked as the 33rd best coach in the NCAA by Athlon. There are several reasons the Wake Forest Football program has a healthy culture. Strong leadership that sets a challenging mission for the team is definitely one of the reasons their culture has strengthened and grown.
In 2018, Wake Forest football accomplished something that had never happened in school history. Many schools in this same conference set winning the ACC championship or even the National Championship as their season goal. In fact, Wake Forest and Clemson play in the same conference, and in 2018, Clemson beat Wake Forest 63-3. It set a record for the worst loss ever in the ACC. But Coach Clawson and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons refused to let that or any other loss deter them. Instead, they defined themselves by aligning the team around a specific mission. They chose a challenging mission.
Their mission was to have a winning season and make it to a third consecutive bowl game for only the second time in Wake Forest school history. They confronted several obstacles. First, the four-year starting quarterback graduated and a talented, but yet still a true freshman, replaced him. Early in the season, the defensive coordinator was dismissed leaving a vacancy in a critical leadership position.
In addition, Wake had a record number of season ending injuries in 2018. At times, they were down to their last linebacker available to play. Could it get any worse? Oh yes, in early November, the young quarterback suffered an injury that pulled him out for the season.
Wake’s optimistic goal of a winning season and a third bowl trip looked bleak. Week after week, the season was up and down, more injuries, another loss, and then an unexpected win. Although the media had long quit projecting them to go to a bowl game, Wake still never took their eyes off the goal they set at the beginning of the season. When the team won, Coach Clawson talked about the player’s success. When they lost, he talked about his mistakes.
The last game of the season held the final opportunity for Wake to be Bowl eligible. Coming off a loss to Pitt at home, they confronted the favored Duke team at Duke with a highly touted quarterback headed to the NFL. The unexpected happened on that rainy Saturday in Durham. Wake dominated the game, scoring 21 points in the first quarter and easily winning the game 59-7. Everyone was shocked – everyone except the members of the team who focused on the mission.
Wake accomplished one of its goals: a third straight bowl game. But at 6-6, without a bowl win, they fell short of accomplishing the second goal of a winning season. Like other great organizations, when the mission is accomplished, it’s time to set a new mission and the Demon Deacons did. The new mission was to be the first Wake Forest football team in history to WIN three consecutive bowl games.
Wake was selected to play Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl on the Saturday before Christmas. Some teams might not be so excited about that opportunity, but not the Demon Deacons. They were a team on a mission and they were thankful and excited for the opportunity. Their coaches led the team to completely focus on their challenging mission.
When game day arrived, they were once again the underdogs. Sports commentators predicted their demise. No one expected this injury riddled team to be successful, except them.
The game seemed to have no certain victor as the line of scrimmage moved back and forth in the first quarter. At one point in the second quarter, Wake was down by 18 points and it looked like their mission achievement was slipping away.
However, Wake went on to score 20 unanswered points and led the game late in the 3rd quarter. The 4th quarter was more interesting after Memphis took the lead again and then Wake answered to put them in the lead 37-34.
With 4 seconds remaining on the clock, it looked certain that the game would go to overtime as the Memphis kicker walked on to the field to kick the game tying field goal at Wake’s twenty yard line. Overtime is like starting the game all over again and it was uncertain if Wake could make it through a fifth quarter due to the number of injuries.
But the Demon Deacons were on a mission. Just as the kicker started to kick the chip shot, Coach Clawson called time out. The ball sailed through, but did not count. Memphis lined up after the time out and the next kick cleared the middle of the uprights. The game would go to overtime, except that there was a yellow flag laying on the field. Memphis was offsides and was backed up 5 yards. It was still a very easy kick for the experienced kicker.
Then on the third time, it happened –”Bedlam in Birmingham” as the media called it – Memphis missed their field goal attempt. That’s when the magic moment happened. That’s when the fans, the team, and everyone watching realized they did it: the Demon Deacons achieved their goal of a winning season and made school history by winning a third straight bowl game. Mission Accomplished!
View this video from the locker room celebration and see how Coach Dave Clawson encouraged, motivated and celebrated his players in this link: Wake Forest Post Game Locker Room at the Birmingham Bowl.
The Demon Deacons didn’t make the cover of Sports Illustrated in January. Their victory wasn’t the topic of long discussions and glowing descriptions on ESPN. But the lives of the individuals on that winning team from that small campus will forever be shaped by that moment. What it took to get them to that point was a team with a purpose, a mission, and leadership determined to keep them all focused on achieving that one goal.
In a Remarkable Culture, challenging missions, when accomplished, lead to ever greater missions and success leads to greater victories. There’s something different about an organization transformed by people who have experienced success and remain focused with that single-minded drive and determination to accomplish the next Challenging Mission.
Did you notice in the video what Coach Clawson said at the end: “Hey guys, in three weeks, we start going after 4 in a row.” A new mission was immediately declared after accomplishing the current mission. That’s what great leaders do. They use the emotion and momentum of the accomplishment of one mission to drive energy to the accomplishment of the next.
Leaders who can define their mission and then rally their organization around it to achieve the challenging goal will enjoy success, a remarkable culture and have a lot more fun in the process. What mission have you challenged your team to accomplish?