A Truly Wise Person Never Plays Leapfrog with a Unicorn

How many times did we hear that Hertz was number one but Avis tried harder? Avis attempted to play leapfrog with the unicorn of the rental car business and failed. Enterprise knew better. Enterprise didn’t try to get you out of the airport faster—Hertz’s claim. Even though they did try harder and give better customer service than all the others, they didn’t advertise that. Instead, they told you they would pick you up.

They became number one in supplying replacement cars to people who have had an accident. Now, they have built a successful business by partnering with insurance companies, and by the way, they also get you out of the airport fast now, too. But that isn’t how it all began nor how it continues.

In 2007 Enterprise Rent-A-Car became the unicorn when it moved into the first-place position and ranked as the largest car rental company in the world. When Enterprise owners learned of a proposed merger of their two biggest airport rivals, Vanguard (which owned National and Alamo) and Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, Enterprise decision-makers took bold action.

Leaders at Enterprise had already realized that to grow at the rate they desired, they needed a larger share of airport rentals. They immediately recognized the threat of standing by idly as four rival brands combined into one competitor—a monolith that would have endangered their very existence. That didn’t happen. Instead, CEO Andy Taylor agreed to buy Vanguard, less than six months after he learned of his rivals’ plans. This deal paid for itself in less than three years, and total revenues for the combined Enterprise, National, and Alamo brands, now surpass $22 billion.

Who is the unicorn in your industry? Are you trying to emulate, duplicate, or imitate it? If so, you will probably always take second place. My guess is you’ve spent too little time analyzing your unique contribution. What can you do that no one else does as well? Who would miss you if you went away? What would it take for you to become the unicorn in your industry?

In 2001 I worked with the leaders of a family-owned business to help them set their strategies for the next year. In our first meeting, they told me they wanted to set up a two-day seminar during which officers of the company could identify a clearly articulated goal and timeline, both of which would be used to evaluate their performance at the end of the year—a clearly tactical approach. I assured them we would have that discussion, but first I asked to see a copy of their mission statements.

Looking confused and more than a little annoyed, the father said he thought they had a mission statement somewhere around there in a framed picture, and the son remembered hiring a company to put the statement on some mouse pads that they had used a year or so ago.  But neither father nor son could tell me the company’s mission statement!  What chance did this company have of becoming a unicorn?

As I explained to them, before taking any steps to formulate a strategy, they should have a clear understanding of their mission. A mission statement should play the same role in an organization that the Holy Grail did in the Crusades. It defines your reason for being, the touchstone against which you evalu­ate your strategy, activities, and expectations for overcoming the competition. Without one, you will diffuse resources, enable individual units of the organization to operate in silos, create conflicting tactics, and confuse customers, suppliers, financiers, and employees.

Conversely, when you have a well-articulated sense of purpose, you will build a firm foundation that provides clear guidance for all sig­nificant decisions and establishes a point of refer­ence for setting strategy and planning its execution. A mission statement answers these questions:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What is our business?
  • Who are our customers?
  • What do our customers value?

In addition to defining the organization’s identity, the mission guides its development over time.  Although it should be resistant to capriciousness, as the external landscape changes, leaders must tweak the mission statement as they recognize how to translate purpose into practice. The answers to these questions will give you a sense of your competitive advantage—that which separates you and makes you better.

Instead of trying to leap over or chase the competitor in front of you, change the game to one you can win—just as Enterprise did.

During a recent speech, when I asked an audience of 200 people from different companies to recite their mission statements, I saw bewilderment and discomfiture.  Three of the 200 hands proudly shot up to proclaim the executive of that company could remember the mission statement, but the other 197 sat stoically. Yet, when I asked these same people to tell me what’s on a Big Mac, the entire audience recited, “Two all-beef patties, special sauce….”  In other words, a commercial that has not been on TV for more than 20 years stayed in their memories more prominently than their own mission statements!

If you’re like the father of the family-owned business or most of that audience, you are missing a basic element of your strategic direction. How can your mission serve as the foundation of your strategy and help you know where you’re going if you and your people don’t know what it is and how it can help you define your vision?


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