Over the summer, there were headlines about the war in Ukraine, the Omicron variant, the usual political divisions and the effect of runaway inflation on the country’s economy. There were severe floods in one corner of the world and a killer heat wave in another.
There was a lot to think about and talk about, so it’s not surprising that the passing of a 106-year-old Japanese businesswoman did not make waves. But that woman was Chizuko Kojima, whose business acumen and kindness made her legendary.
Now that mass layoffs and economic uncertainty have set the tone for the new year, it’s appropriate to celebrate the woman who literally grew a multibillion-dollar business from the ashes of a World War II bombing raid. And it’s also a great time to ask: How did she do it?
To put it simply, the company she ran with her brother — now known as Aeon Co. — had more than the boilerplate mission statement that most companies have. It had an actual mission. And there is a big difference between the two.
If you are an entrepreneur, a company founder or simply a person who needs their career to be meaningful, it’s important to know the difference.
This is a time of job cuts, high inflation and fast-moving changes to the way people work. Having a mission can mean the difference between sadly punching a clock and emerging a star and a business role model like Kojima-san.
Thanks to new technologies and changing workplace norms, younger workers are rewriting the playbook when it comes to how they work and what they hope to achieve from their work. Most people no longer aim for 30 years of loyal service to a company like General Motors.
For this reason, mass layoffs in the tech industry are not necessarily the bad news for workers that the headlines suggest – at least not for all of them. Having worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years, my expectation is that many of these laid-off workers will simply cross the street to find a new opportunity, while many others will start their own new businesses.
These are the professionals who need to spend a little time crafting a mission statement, then spend far more understanding what their actual mission is. If your conclusion is that your mission is just to turn a profit, you need to start over. This is like saying your purpose is breathing oxygen or walking on two legs.
You can do better than that. In fact, you must do better than that.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What unique strengths do you have as a worker and a thinker? What do other people see as your strengths, and your unique contribution? (You can ask them. In fact, if you’re uncertain, stop reading for a moment and ask them now. You’ll be the better for it).
Answering these is the beginning of understanding what your mission is, and being able to convey it to others. And there is another question that is vitally important: What is it that I want to be doing — and what contributions can I make — on the days when absolutely everything goes wrong?
Understanding how you will perform and what you will be doing during the worst of times — not the best of times — is what it means to have a mission. And being clear on your mission is the most powerful tool in your box when it comes to having agency in your own career.
From Ruins to Prosperity
In 1945, Kojima-san was helping her family run a small clothing store in Mie Prefecture, Japan. A U.S. bombing raid removed that store — and a lot of the neighborhood — from the map.
Prior to the bombing, many local customers had gift certificates entitling them to merchandise from the store. But that merchandise, and the store itself, were gone. A deadly bombing, to 99 out of 100 business owners, would be considered exigent circumstances, and they would not feel the need or see the point in offering people anything for those now useless pieces of paper.
But Kojima-san went the other way, and that’s why we are talking about her and not another merchant in Mie Prefecture. Understanding that the people trying to redeem gift cards were her customers, now and in the future, and that she had made a sort of pact with them, she honored it by offering people cash in exchange for the cards.
Aeon Co. is Japan’s largest retailer today, and sees annual revenue in the tens of billions of dollars. But to get there, Kojima-san had to sacrifice something, and come through for others on what certainly must have been the worst day of her career, if not her life. She took a short-term loss to achieve not just long-term gain but a place in Japan’s history books. She is and always will be that person who kept her word.
Are you ready to do the same? Would you honor the pacts you make with customers and partners even if your business was in the path of a bomb?
Writing a mission statement is easy, but having a real mission and sticking to it is considerably tougher. Because whatever your mission is, it will be tested. Maybe not by bombs, but by setbacks, naysayers and a difficult business climate.
You can become a leader. But for this, you need to have a mission. And you need to cling to it just as fiercely on your worst day as you do on your best. If you can do this, your mission can become so ingrained it becomes part of your DNA. Your job becomes your calling, the thing people will know and trust you for, and the reason they will pick you above all others.
We don’t know precisely what Kojima-san’s mission was as a business operator, but it was probably something along the lines of being a real presence in the community, and maintaining genuine relationships with customers. Your mission should be similar, otherwise you might as well punch the clock.