Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~ Robert Frost
In October of 2013, my father-in-law called to
let me know that the CFO of his company had
left. He asked me to lead Onex, a family-owned,
50-year-old, industrial furnace service business. It’s
hard enough to take charge of a business that is doing
well, but this one was, to say the least, in disarray.
The employees were not working together as a team
and were actually pitted against one another, while
others had a “not my job” attitude. All the business
units were siloed. The previous CFO led through
fear. We were no longer the friendly “family” company
we once had been where people loved to come
to work. So, there I was, trying to build trust in a
team who had been betrayed by their former boss
and did not know me, and with a business that was
in severe financial distress, but I was motivated and
determined to figure out a way to turn the business
My road to business success was truly the road less
traveled. You see—my education was in engineering,
not in business management. Even though I had no
idea what strategies the business books would have
suggested for solving my dilemma of trying to turn
around a distressed business, my background came
through in spades, because engineering taught me to
solve a problem by knowing how to find a solution.
When I began my career, my father was quick to tell
me that just because I had a degree in engineering
that did not mean I knew more than the personnel
on the plant floor. He stressed that in order to put
my degree to work and make the textbook learning
practical, I had to ask the people on the frontlines
doing the actual work their perspectives. These individuals
very likely knew the solution to the problem
I was working on but had never before been asked by
management for their input. So, I set out to explore
on the road less traveled by identifying problems and
That advice from my father proved invaluable as
I began asking these troubled employees questions
about the processes. At first, they were skeptical,
which was understandable based on their former
manager’s style. They feared I was fishing for what
they had done wrong and would berate them. I had
to convince them that this was the previous CFO’s
management style—not mine. I truly wanted to
know how we were doing things so I could understand
the jobs and the business well enough to suggest
ways we could make improvements. I started
by hanging up “think outside the box” signs on the
walls in every plant and office. I requested suggestions
on how we could make things better. When a
suggestion resulted in a process improvement or cost
savings, I gave the employee a think outside the box
trophy and a handwritten letter of gratitude—everything
was positive. My authenticity, transparency
and humility slowly allowed me to earn the trust of
my employees. The more we improved the business
by working together, the better everyone felt. We celebrated
our successes together as a team and planned
the problem we would tackle next.
What I learned was that when everyone knows
their voice is being heard and their suggestions are
considered meaningful, they speak more freely and
have pride in and loyalty to their jobs. Employers
might pay an employee for his or her hands, but
when these employees feel psychologically safe, they
give their hearts and heads as well.
My message to all business leaders is that everyone
in an organization needs and wants to
know that their work is important for the greater
good, so you should start with an attainable mission
that everyone can get behind and play a part
in achieving. This mission will drive every decision
that you make as an organization. In other words,
this mission will be your guiding light.
Know Your Why And What
Your “Why” is what gives you the passion and energy
to pursue the challenges ahead, no matter how
dire they may seem in the moment.
Several years ago, a vendor visited Onex to compare
the two companies’ synergies and see how we
could further work together. We had a PowerPoint
presentation of all our product lines and a plant tour
prepared—isn’t that what you are supposed to do?
After our presentation, the vendor asked one simple
question that changed our course as a company.
What do you want the company to be when it
Onex had spent years saying “yes” any time a client
asked if we could do something. We had grown
opportunistically, but not strategically. There was no
mission by which to guide our decisions. The goal
was essentially, “Be everything to everyone.” Unfortunately,
when you try to do everything, you don’t do any one thing as well as you could.
And, when you are in the midst of an economic downturn, you
may find yourself with too many resources devoted
to failing product lines and not enough income.
Constructing a Mission Statement
Because the mission statement is the guide for all
of the company’s actions, it’s important to get right.
The following is the process I used to find Onex’s
My first stab at it was:
“Onex is committed to providing unique,
cost-effective solutions for our customers. We
aim to deliver exceptional value by producing
high-quality products, optimizing processes, and
eliminating waste in the total value stream.”
That does not make you want to be a part of the team, now does
it? This first try was just like most generic mission
statements, in that it contained lots of words that
were pretty uninspiring and stated the things a
company is supposed to be doing anyway. What I
needed was to have a heart-to-heart conversation
with my employees about what inspired them to
get out of bed each morning. In this instance, I
found Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why: How
Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, to be
an incredible help. In it, Sinek explains something
called the “Golden Circle” and how most companies
communicate. Everyone will tell you what he or she
does, some of them will tell you how they do it, but
very few will tell you why they do what they do.
This is important, because customer loyalty is not
built on features and benefits, but on shared beliefs
A Mission Increases Success
Knowing your mission increases your chances of
success. Here are four reasons why:
Direction: Your mission statement should be
the driving force behind everything you and your
employees do. It is the reminder of why you exist
and what you are selling.
Decisions: Following a predetermined set of
boundaries can help you quickly and confidently
make good decisions.
Strategy: Your business strategy should not follow
that of your competitors’. Their plan may work
for them, but not for you. Use your mission to help
form a healthy approach to achieving what you set
out to do.
Improvement: If you are not doing your best,
you are probably not serving your mission. Your
mission should be your standard—always work to
achieve it and more.
Every company wants its team to wake up excited
to come to work, feel safe both physically and
emotionally, and return home fulfilled by their job.
Every employee wants to know that their work is
important for the greater good of society. So, your
organization must have a mission that everyone can
get behind. Never forget that your mission is what
drives your every decision, and the reason for following
it, your “Why,” gives you and your team the
passion and energy to pursue the challenges ahead.
My new and revised mission statement for Onex
Make Things Better: empowered employees,
happy customers and thriving communities.
People want to know how they can help make
the world a better place. This revision was important,
because creating jobs is exciting. There’s an employment
multiplier effect, which means our mission
ultimately improves society by creating jobs and
strengthening a community’s economy. For instance,
American Certified reports that for every manufacturing
job created, there are an additional 4.6 new
support jobs created in the community, such as
grocery store clerks, teachers, and restaurant staff.
Doesn’t all that job creation feel amazing?
Reflection: Take some time to review your personal or company
mission statement. Make sure it instills in you the
energy required to forge the road ahead while navigating
the potholes in order to reach your destination.
If it doesn’t, it’s time to rethink your mission.