This is early-process writing that I did for Wanting (out now), adapted for Substack. This story didn’t make it into the book—not because I don’t think it’s important, but because it would’ve broken the flow of a chapter. Not to mention this thing called ‘word count.’
In the summer of 2019, I traveled to Seville, Spain, to visit the Jiménez Maña corporation, an auto parts distributor headquartered in an industrial park about twenty minutes south of the city.
I’d heard about the company and its CEO from a few people that I’d spoken to about mimetic theory and organizational health. “You need to meet Manolo. He’s a leader who knows where he’s being led,” one told me. “But he isn’t the most important leader at Jiménez Maña—the mission is.” Strange.
I brushed up on my Spanish (thoroughly corrupted because I lived in Italy for a few years after learning it; I can’t get through a Spanish sentence without inserting Italian), then embarked on my brief foray into investigative journalism and made the trip down to the company HQ.
My day there was punctuated with all types of new words and Spanish expressions and a wonderful lunch at the nearby town’s best restaurant. They couldn’t understand why I was there. I was writing a book about René Girard and mimetic theory, I told them, and tried my best to explain my interest in their company: I thought they might have developed an organizational structure that is a partial antidote to destructive mimesis. Of course, I was met with shrugs and smiles as soon as the word “mimesis” came out of my mouth.
I’m used to that. I haven’t expected anyone to understand what in the hell I’ve been working on these past couple of years. It’s my job to create meaning. I just needed them to talk.
Everyone at the company, from the warehouse packers to the sales team, seemed genuinely interested in telling me about how their job was a key source of meaning and pride for them. High enthusiasm: at an auto parts distributor in a sleepy industrial suburb of Seville.
It was almost weird. I wondered if it was a The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas situation: was there a tortured child locked away in the basement of the warehouse on whose suffering everyone else’s happiness depended? Or was everyone reading to me from a script? Would I be ritually sacrificed at the end of my visit? (I had watched the horror film Midsommar literally the night before. And I am usually creeped out by over-friendliness.)
After a tour of the company headquarters and warehouse, I sat down with the Director of Corporate Affairs, Juande. He played a key role in implementing Manolo’s vision to make Jiménez Maña a company managed by missions—not “mission-driven,” but missions-driven.
This means that the personal missions of each team member are connected to the mission of the company in a concrete way. Each department within the company has a clearly defined mission (discovered and articulated by the people within that department—not outside of it) that is connected to the organizational mission.
“Mission-driven” has become corporate CSR gobbledygook; focusing on people’s personal missions in life is something that I am interested in, though.
“Manolo hired me in 2004 because there was a problem,” Juande said. “The business was booming, profit was growing. But he was uneasy. There were clashes between departments. He said that he felt like a fireman—putting out fires every day.”
Juande came from the world of education. He’d been a teacher and principal of schools for many years. Like Maria Montessori, he understood that children had a mission: to become adults. And if that mission was overlooked and reduced to a set of “learning objectives,” they’d miss the point of education in the first place—it’s not the acquisition of knowledge, but the formation of the whole person. (The Greeks had a version of this called paideia, but it related to forming good citizens or members of the polis.)
The same is true of a business. When the business objectives are siloed and divorced from the person—when people live a siloed existence of work/play/worship (or whatever the domains for that person are), you get fragmented people.
“My personal mission in life was clear,” Juande said. “It’s to develop people—to help them grow and become the person they want to be.” He pauses to look around and gestures with his hand to the factory floor and all of the sales and operations people we can see working outside of the room we’re sitting in. “Work is an important part of that. Work has transformative power. It transforms people—for better or for worse.”
Work in my view has three dimensions.
The Objection: The exterior work being done. For a blacksmith hammering away on a piece of metal, what’s happening to the metal is the objective dimension.
The Subjective: What’s being done to the subject who is working. Work is reflexive. It does things to us. In the case of the blacksmith, his work is shaping his body. It might also be shaping some interior dimensions of who he is—virtues like industriousness or patience.
The Transcendent: The work is never about the work. There is always a purpose for the work that extends beyond the work itself. It’s the “why”—the ultimate end of the work. What’s it for?
(More on these three dimensions in a future edition of this newsletter.)
A well-planned and executed work life is a key element in people’s pursuit of happiness, Juande tells me. “I wanted to help them discover the full meaning of their lives through work—the idea of Viktor Frankl with his ‘man’s search for meaning.”
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned at Auschwitz during World War II. While in the concentration camp, he found that those with a sense of meaning in the concentration camp were able to cope with their circumstances better than those who didn’t seem to have any meaning or purpose.
Frankl’s emphasis on meaning is related to desire. “When I was taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz,” he wrote, “a manuscript of mine ready for publication was confiscated. Certainly, my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in.”
For others, it was their love for their spouse or their desire to make some concrete impact on the world or to tell their story if they made it out.
Desire is a force that propels us to continue seeking that which we do not yet possess. It moves us toward those people and things that we believe will complete us. Without desire, we stop moving. We die.
In Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce survey, 85% of employees were not engaged or actively disengaged at work. The consequence of this lack of engagement is estimated to be $7 trillion in lost productivity. Eighteen percent or employees are actively disengaged, which means they are actually trying to sabotage the organization—spreading gossip and rumors, undermining key decisions, stoking rivalry, taking advantage of every loophole on the corporate expense card, and swapping out the regular coffee for decaf so they can watch a rival fall asleep during an important sales meeting. Those are concerning. But the largest group—sixty-seven percent of the global workforce—are “not engaged.” They are completely indifferent to the organization.
Indifference is a problem of desire.
But it’s not a problem at Jiménez Maña. The way its employees talk about this auto parts distributor is more typical of the way you hear people talk about their favorite football team.
Manolo compares his company to a soccer team. Every soccer team has one primary goal: to win the game. “The goal is to win,” he tells me. “If we lose, it’s not the fault of the forward or goalkeeper. We’ve all lost.” His philosophy provides some built-in protections for scapegoat-making.
Each person at the company evaluates themself based on the particular way they are living out their mission and how that is connected to the company’s mission.
“If you ask me what I do on a day-to-day basis, I have no idea,” Manolo says. “I have my door open, and everyone knows it. Anyone can enter, from a new warehouse forklift operator to the CFO. My job is to be fully open and available to what others want. I help discover and develop the desires of my team and make sure it’s aligned with the mission of the company.” His role is something like a Chief Mission Officer rather than a traditional CEO.
The company so effectively focuses on the connection between the organizational and personal mission that it rarely has to terminate anyone. After pointing out disconnects to people who are struggling, those people usually voluntarily resign. They want to leave. They develop a desire to live out their personal mission better, and they realize that it’s more important that they do that than staying in a role that won’t ultimately satisfy them—or which is getting in the way of their vocation. That’s the point at which we realize that our job is a scandal to us.
“The people who leave the company understand and love us,” Manolo says. “We have, in some small way, reconnected them with the deepest desires of their heart.” What if every company focused on its people like this?
The strategy that Jimenez Mana employs is called “management by missions,” a concept first introduced by IESE Business School professors Pablo Cardona and Carlos Rey ten years ago when they realized how many organizations were managing by objectives.
An objective is a waypoint, a marker, a measurement. A mission is a destination—it transcends the objectives of any one department, of the market, or even of the company itself.
Here’s where most companies get it wrong: they start concocting a company mission statement well before listening to and learning about the personal missions of the human beings at the company.
Rarely are those humans even asked what’s important to them on a personal level: what they want to do with their lives, where they find the most meaning.
And if they are asked, few tell the truth. When a person is in front of someone they can sense doesn’t have ears to hear or eyes to see (and we are really good at that), they instinctively cover up and protect themselves from sharing anything personal and meaningful because they know it won’t be treated with due reverence.
It’s not right to take food away from children and feed it to dogs.
Jiménez Maña hired people with backgrounds in the humanities who knew how to listen well and open the door to enriching conversations. The company underwent its transformation in a three-step process.
Each person attempts to articulate their personal mission, which involves a long process of discovery
Each one aids others in their own process of their discovery
Each person’s personal mission is connected to the mission of the company in some way—at every level of the organization
Over the years, they’ve developed a system (which looks very cool in graphical form, but I’m not at liberty to share it) that connects the mission of every department to that of the organization—and the unique and unrepeatable mission of each person within every department is connected to the mission of their business unit, which is in turn connected to the overall mission of the company. It forms a web of purpose.
(Manolo said the mission is so important that he had turned down acquisition offer after acquisition offer because no suitor could demonstrate that they understood that they would have to agree to take on a mission, not a company; if they couldn’t integrate into their own, it wouldn’t work.)
The third step in Jiménez Maña’s process is the critical piece. If personal and professional missions are not connected, work has little or no meaning. A person becomes one of the 67% of “non-engaged.” Worse yet, their work may come to shape their personal purpose rather than their personal purpose shaping their work.
Business is for human flourishing; humans are not for the flourishing of businesses. We get the order reversed.
We should be spending more time thinking about “human-centered” design in the way organizations are structured than in the technology that those organizations produce. Rotten trees can’t produce good fruit.