I’m a big tennis fan, so I was especially interested to follow what happened on the Olympic courts. Tennis is different from other Olympic events, being an individual sport that’s popular around the world at the professional level too; these aren’t athletes who have to wait four years for a brief moment in the sun.
This got me thinking—what motivates a rich and famous superstar like Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal to participate in an event that takes them away from the professional tour, doesn’t help their rankings, and doesn’t give out prize money? In both cases, these individual performers embraced the opportunity to compete for something bigger than themselves: the chance to represent their country and belong to a national team.
Nadal is still recovering from wrist surgery, and he’s gone on record saying he wouldn’t have even played if this weren’t the Olympic Games. Serena has also talked about why the Olympics have special meaning for her, despite all of her Grand Slam championships. “When I held my first gold medal, it was a feeling I never expected. I had a chance to enjoy my gold medal trophy more than my other trophies,” she told the media.
This seems to align perfectly with studies showing today’s employees, especially millennials, want to work for mission-driven companies where they’re contributing toward a greater good. Employers are also realizing the motivating power of business goals that transcend revenue alone. I talk to all of our new hires—bright, talented people who could probably get interviews at lots of other hot companies in Silicon Valley besides us. One of the primary reasons they choose to work at Udemy is because of our mission to help people around the world build the lives they imagine through access to online learning. It’s incredibly inspiring to hear from instructors and students who are expanding their knowledge and finding personal enrichment as part of the Udemy community.
When you’re in the online learning space, it’s not a stretch to have an inspiring company mission. But companies in less obvious industries can connect themselves to worthy missions and give employee contributions a higher meaning too.
I was bowled over by this campaign by 3M for Post-it notes, which positions the ubiquitous stickies as a tool for helping young people fulfill their goals. Backed by research, the campaign associates Post-its with academic success and transforms them from office supplies to empowerment tools. Which characterization do you think is more inspiring to 3M’s employees?
Having an inspiring mission isn’t just a gimmick to make employees feel good; it’s actually a key factor in retaining them and driving overall business performance.
I think it’s terrific that millennials are prompting companies to reexamine what they stand for and how they benefit society, not just investors. The Olympics reminds us every four years that it’s possible to be fiercely competitive as an individual and also fight for an outcome that’s larger than any one contributor.
After her disappointing third-round loss, Serena said playing in the Olympics, “…was a great opportunity. It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. But at least I was able to make it to Rio. That was one of my goals.” And she’s already itching for another shot at the opponent who defeated her. Rafa came away empty-handed too, but he shares Serena’s attitude, regardless of his results. They’re fired up and hungry to win again.
Companies would love for their employees to be just as intent on achieving success, but they have to give them a reason to keep at it. Compensation and benefits may bring new talent in the door, but looking at a pay statement isn’t going to motivate someone on an emotional level every single day. Having a powerful mission actually can have that effect.