Mercenaries, Volunteers, and Contemplators

This past Easter I stayed in a hotel on the coast of Catalonia. It wasn’t ugly. It wasn’t a horrible experience. But there were a number of details that caught my eye.

For example, the cheese was horrendous. They seemed to have bought the cheapest cheese available; I imagined a dialogue between the dairy provider and the procurement manager of the hotel. 

Procurer: We have to offer cheese at breakfast, but we cannot pay more than this per pound.

Provider: How much?

Procurer: This much.

Provider: That’s not enough to buy cheese.

Procurer: What about a substitute?

Provider: I can give you something that looks like cheese, which has the consistency of cheese, but tastes like used bed sheets.

Procurer: Deal.

This reminded me of an old theory of mine. There are two types of companies: those that care only about profits and those that care about the customer first and about profits later.

Let’s call the first category Mercenaries, for obvious reasons. The second category consists of Volunteers.

Mercenaries fight in any war they can for money, whereas Volunteers have an altruistic mission. Doctors usually set the example that there are more important things than money. Let’s imagine a medical Mercenary:

Doctor: I’m out of here.

Anaesthesiologist: ??

Doctor: It’s five o’clock.

Assistant 1: But we’re in the middle of an operation and you’re the chief surgeon.

Doctor: But do I get paid overtime?

Assistant 2: No, but could you at least stitch up the abdomen of this poor man?

Doctor: Do I look like a retard to you? See you tomorrow.

Doctors may earn a nice salary, and may even be very interested in money, but (in general, and thankfully) they don’t drop the scalpel when the five o’clock whistle blows. When a doctor or a nurse passes by the scene of an accident, they are most likely to roll up their sleeves to help the injured. For free.

Well, the same happens in business. There are businesses for which profit is the ultimate and absolute goal. Whether to get there one needs to step over clients’ or whoever else’s corpses is irrelevant. Customers are a “necessary evil” for Mercenary companies.

Volunteer companies are clear about the fact that there is something much more important than making money: creating a memorable product or experience, contributing to technological advancement, changing the world for the better, even if only infinitesimally, and so on.

Usually this comes from higher up in the hierarchy, from its founding genes. Steve Jobs was a fan of design and user experience and could not imagine launching a half-baked product. Apple could have released the iPad and the iPhone several years earlier. But they didn’t, because customers always came before billing.

So, what is the point I am trying to make? I think professionals can also be classified into Mercenaries and Volunteers.

There are, for example, IT Managers who know their role is important and who cannot do enough to obtain value for their company and opportunities for their team, regardless of whether they are well paid or not. Others see users as a necessary evil, their peers as competitors and their employees as their slaves.

Am I exaggerating? Possibly. Perhaps there is a legion of Contemplators between the Volunteers and Mercenaries—those who are neither at one extreme nor the other. Perhaps there are others who play for the Mercenaries for a while and then switch teams to join the Volunteers, depending on the circumstances.

Perhaps there are extremely professional people among the Mercenaries who make respected leaders. There are, after all, great surgeons who’d do anything for money. And there may be many half-witted Volunteers. One thing does not imply the other.

But there is something interesting about this. Apple, without having sought a pot of gold as its primal purpose, enjoys the highest market valuation on the planet.

And, with the data at hand, students in business schools are taught that entrepreneurs who start projects only to make money are those with the highest failure rate.

I have no data to back up what I am about to say, but I think that, all other things being equal, Volunteer professionals end up being much more successful than Mercenaries.

And especially more endeared.

Let me know what you think

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