The parable of Ray’s Helicopter Company

by Josh Bernoff

helicoptersOnce there was a man named Ray who was the CEO of a company that made helicopters.

In his youth he had been an avid pilot. Soon after, he started the company with a few friends. Over time, Ray’s Helicopter, as the company was known, grew rapidly to command an impressive share of the world market. Every day he was happy to go to work, and most days his job energized him even more. His workers respected his passion for quality and by and large were quite happy to work for his company.

One morning Ray’s cofounder and chief of strategy visited his office. “Ray,” he said, “we need to reinforce with everyone, inside and out of our company, who we are and what we stand for. We need a statement of purpose to keep everyone inspired.” Ray thought this was a good idea. Quality had always been the ideal that drove Ray and his workers, so his first thought about the purpose statement was “We make great helicopters.” But Ray knew he needed his executive team’s buy-in, and they would probably have other good ideas.

He visited the office of his chief operating officer. She pointed out that the company made much of its money from its extensive distribution network and service operation. So Ray changed the statement of purpose to “We make, distribute, and service great helicopters.”

Then he ran into the chief financial officer. The CFO reminded Ray that making and selling helicopters wasn’t what made shareholders happy. Because the company was well-managed, it made a healthy profit. So Ray added “profitably” to the statement.

He had lunch with the head of research and development, who was an old friend. She was very excited about the company’s upcoming foray into the market for unmanned drones. “We don’t just make helicopters any more,” she said. But the head of R&D didn’t want drones in the statement, because they weren’t announced yet. They settled on changing “helicopters” to “flying machines,” since that covered everything they would conceivably make.

Word had begun to get around about the purpose statement. The head of human resources and the chief marketing officer showed up in his office. “We need to recognize that our strength comes from our people,” said the head of HR. “And we need to get our new ad tag-line in there somewhere,” said the CMO. The ads for Ray’s helicopters said that the company had “machines with edge.”

Finally, Ray emailed the remaining members of his executive team. His head of sales was in India with a client. He responded by saying that he couldn’t get to this right away, as he was closing sales at the end of the quarter. The chief information officer didn’t respond, since he didn’t see how this statement affected his department. And the corporate counsel emailed back with concern about the word “great,” which might be perceived as some sort of guarantee. She thought “excellent” would be a safer word.

Ray put together all the suggestions and wrote this on his whiteboard:

At Ray’s Helicopter, our global team makes, distributes, and services excellent flying machines — machines with edge.

This didn’t feel very inspiring, but Ray decided to think about it for a while. It was Friday evening, and he was looking forward to dinner with his wife, who had just come back from a professional conference. Talking to her always tended to make things seem clearer to him.

They had ordered dinner to be delivered from their favorite restaurant, and sat down to dine by candlelight. Ray’s wife noticed that Ray was uncharacteristically quiet and preoccupied. When she brought it up, Ray explained what had happened that day with the purpose statement.

“Ray, you started this company and you are its heart and soul. If you are not happy with the statement of purpose, then you shouldn’t settle. Who forced this statement on you?”

Ray was about to blame his chief of strategy, but realized that he had made all the changes himself, at the suggestions of his top managers. So he really had no one to blame but himself.

“What do you really think is your purpose?” his wife asked. “Well, we make great helicopters,” he answered. “They’re the greatest passenger helicopters in the world.” And once he had said this, he felt much better.

He resolved to resolve the problem as soon as work started on Monday. So he called his leadership team into a meeting on Monday morning. On the board he had written the statement from the week before:

At Ray’s helicopters, our global team makes, distributes, and services excellent flying machines — machines with edge.

“What do you think?” he asked his team. Everyone looked down at their smartphones and tablets and laptops. “Does this inspire you?” he prompted. Finally the chief marketing officer spoke up. “It sort of dilutes the brand,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s the best way to use our tag line.” As soon as the CMO has spoken up, the room began to buzz. It was clear that no one was very satisfied with the statement.

Ray erased the statement and wrote this on the board.

We make the greatest passenger helicopters in the world.

He could feel the mood in the room change. His cofounder and chief of strategy was smiling. So Ray started polling his staff one-by-one. The chief operating officer said that the statement about being the greatest in the world would inspire the service and distribution operations, even though it didn’t mention their roles by name. The head of human resources agreed that this kind of statement was the reason the workers loved working for Ray. And the head of sales said that his salespeople usually said something like this anyway, because the company made a great product. The CFO said that short-term investors looked only at the numbers and wouldn’t care, and long-term investors would probably be happy with the statement, so long as the results backed it up.

The head of R&D agreed that, by far, the main product the company made or would make would be helicopters, and that her best designers worked on those projects. Except for the chief information officer, who nobody listened to and who rarely said anything in these meetings, this left the general counsel and the head of marketing.

Ray asked the counsel if there was any risk in this statement. “This is always risk,” she said. “Anyone can sue you for anything.” But she admitted to Ray that the chances of a successful suit were low because “greatest,” while inspiring, is not a statement that requires proof. Ray decided this level of risk was not a problem.

The CMO still had a sour look, though. “What’s the problem?” said Ray? “I can’t help but think that our statement of purpose should have the customer in there somewhere,” said the CMO.

“Who do you think is the customer?” asked Ray.

“It’s the buyer,” said the head of sales.

“It’s the pilot,” said the head of R&D.

“It’s the passenger, too,” said the CMO.

Could the company really have gotten so large without everyone agreeing on who the customer was? Ray doubted it. “What do these customers think of us?” Ray asked.

“The buyers love us, because we create a great buying and service experience. Ours is way better than the competition,” said the head of sales.

“The pilots love us, because our product design keeps improving, making a better product experience for them,” said the head of R&D. “We really understand flying.”

“The passengers love us,” said the CMO, “because we design and build the helicopters for them, not just for the pilots.” He was quoting the marketing materials, but he knew it was true.

“Could we all agree that we create a great experience for buyers, pilots, and passengers?” Ray asked. Everyone nodded their heads. (“We could call them ‘stakeholders,'” said the head of HR, but her suggestion didn’t catch on.)

Now the text on the board said this:

We make the greatest passenger helicopters in the world. For buyers, for pilots, and for passengers, the Ray’s Helicopter experience is the best you can get.

Ray felt a lot better now, and so did everyone else in the room. He asked the CIO to put the new text at the top of the Web site; the CIO said it would take three months to make the change. So Ray fired the CIO and moved the Web site under marketing, which was much more responsive. He also put the statement onto the company intranet and at the bottom of all his emails. Morale remained high, and the workers did all they could to live up to the promise of the purpose statement. And they all lived profitably ever after.

This is not a true story, but in some form it happens thousands of times every day. I wrote this because to me, this narrative feels real. Please feel free to draw your own lessons from it (and suggest them in the comments). Here are a few lessons I draw from it:

  • Statements of purpose must not compromise for completeness. They’ll always leave something out, and that’s ok.
  • If the customer is missing, you’re not done.
  • When it comes to writing, someone must lead and “own” the result. Accepting all suggested changes results in mush.
  • When you get suggestions, don’t just take them. Ask what’s behind them. Don’t just accept the solution, solve the underlying problem.
  • Listen to your spouse.

For further reading, see Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk on “Start With Why.” For more on real-world statements of purpose, see post on companies with a purpose (and more coming up).

Photo: Bluesnap on Pixabay.com

9 responses to “The parable of Ray’s Helicopter Company

  1. Well written and feels 100% authentic. I would add that mission statements need some Why in them (I too love the Simon S Ted talk. To me this one is missing that. I would add” Flying is special; we build that into every passenger helicopters we build. For buyers, for pilots, and for passengers, the Ray’s Helicopter experience is the best you can get.”

  2. Gee. Relatively free of bullshit. Nice.
    I particularly agree with the suggestions at the end. Someone has to lead and decide when NOT to include more input

  3. “So Ray fired the CIO and moved the Web site under marketing, which was much more responsive.”

    … until the CMO decided that outsourcing to an agency/outside vendor was a better idea. And then everyone got annoyed, who made this guy CIO? Then Ray attended a Forrester Forum and decided to chuck the CMO, create a joint CMO/CIO position and hire a new guy who knew better. The old CMO took to LinkedIn, shaking a virtual fist at Ray’s Helicopter with passive aggressive status updates, grabbing the attention of an ex-girlfriend who now lived in Silicon Valley, and eventually landing a job as the marketing head of Google’s drone program. And they all lived happily ever after.

    (Yes. I have way too much time on my hands.)

  4. “So Ray fired the CIO and moved the Web site under marketing, which was much more responsive.”
    Then their website got hacked by Russians who plastered videos of helicopters crashing all over it, and nobody knew what to do about it.

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