The Importance of the North Star
Coordination totems align and inspire — they're essential.
Other than being very different, my past three blog posts have been broadly the same. Primarily, they all explored what good leaders looked like. The different angles on ideas, communication, and coordination were secondary to that; they wouldn’t be structured that way if they didn’t help me explore what good leadership looked like.
If I’d just chosen to explore these three ideas for their own sake, and if this blog wasn’t about how leaders can build societies fit for the 21st century, then the end product would have been very different, and, I suspect, worse. What ties everything together is exploring what good leaders look like; this is the importance of the North Star.
The point of this post is to say that everything is better when there is a North Star. Back in January I created (or at least redefined!) the phrase ‘coordination totem’. These metaphorical totems clarify the mission that everything in a team focused on achieving. They should also encourage people to collaborate, who self-select to coordination totems that energise them.
North Stars are useful at the intra-personal (i.e. your personal mission(s)) and interpersonal levels.
On the internal side, they help you consciously and subconsciously align everything that you do under achieving your goals. I was speaking to a very successful serial entrepreneur a few weeks ago who told me that whenever he starts a new company, he writes a press release that he wants to send out for when he sells it. Something like: “[Company name] is being bought by [Acquirer] for £xxx m/billion. [Company name] is the marketing leading organisation for X, with Y many users and revenues of £xxx m/billion.” The main reason, he says, is that it orientates every decision towards making that mock press release a reality.
There are many incredibly smart undergrads at Oxford, mostly highly talented and effective, but rarely with an internal North Star about the things that matter to them in their lives. I met them, and as far as I’ve seen it’s the same outside the university campus too, probably more so. What this combination is a recipe for is time spent floating around doing lots of cool things, but at the same time doing nothing. This is a recipe for regret until a North Star makes it make sense.
Yet a North star is even more powerful when it is shared by a group of people. That’s because in addition to that impact above, coordination totems make it much easier for teams to, well, coordinate their energy and skills. Beyond coordinating the activities of an individual, totems are really there to coordinate the activities of a team. Humanity is awe-inspiring when people are aligned around the same totemic mission.
When it comes to social movements, a North Star is clearly essential to getting off the ground. As I’ve discussed previously, people believe not in ideas, but in people who believe in ideas. In politics, a North Star is crucial for communicating why your collection of policies is best and also for helping you come up with good policies at all. As Noah Smith wrote recently, US Republicans are struggling on both fronts. Dan Pfeiffer notes that the Democrats are struggling with the former, and don’t get me started on the UK.
North Stars do wonders for business leaders too. A 2019 white paper from Deloitte presents international evidence that “a clear purpose is everything to an organisation”. They argue “companies that lead with purpose and build around it can achieve continued loyalty, consistency, and relevance”. Purpose-led companies tend to be at the forefront of their industries, have workforces with higher levels of innovation and retention, and are preferred by consumers.
“companies that lead with purpose and build around it can achieve continued loyalty, consistency, and relevance” — Deloitte Global Marketing Trends, 2020
Looking at these examples makes me happy. The authors zoom in on Unilever and contrasted the conglomerate’s 28 “sustainable living” brands (i.e. those focused on social impact) with the rest of its business. It was these 28 brands that delivered 75% of the company’s growth in 2018, growing 20% faster than the rest of the business; “by promoting sustainable living these (essential) products become differentiated”.
Professor Andrew Carton at the University of Pennsylvania’s storied Wharton (Business) School focuses his research on answering “what can organisations do to unite people?”. He tells the story of how NASA changed the meaning of work by connecting every employee’s individual tasks directly to their coordination totem. One NASA employee proclaimed “we’re going to the moon” in the mid-1960s even though the landing was not planned to occur for several years and he, in fact, would not be going. This echoes a fond legend in which John Kennedy, touring NASA HQ, encountered a cleaner mopping the floor. Kennedy asked the employee, “why are you working so late?”. Their response: “Because I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon.”
Whether it’s Kellogg’s aim to “nourish families so they can flourish and thrive”; Patagonia being “in business to save our home planet”; Lego selling toys to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”; Tesla’s mission “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”; or Toyota’s aim to “lead the future mobility society” — the world’s best-run companies are built on ambitious and encompassing coordination totems. These totems make it easier to build, inspire, and retain effective teams that grow your organisation.
Where North Stars bring more confusion than clarity is when the roadmap from the day-to-day to achieving the North Star is unclear. Earlier this year Unilever came under fire for linking Hellman’s mayonnaise to reducing food waste; North Stars that are too abstract to be understood, let alone achieved, do as much to disillusion others as they do anything else. It is the role of the leader to define the roadmap to the North Star, as well as what the North Star is.