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Mission First, People Always

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Many years ago, when I was just 17 years old and beginning my military career with the United States Army, I remember getting off the bus at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and noticing a building with a motto painted on the side: “Mission First, People Always.” I would not know what this phrase meant for a few more years, but it was the motto of the army’s Non-Commissioned Officer Corps.

I would grow to live and breathe this mantra during my 22-year career. I explain my obsession with this phrase when I teach my young managers at GlaxoSmithKline the First Line Leader course. As leaders in today’s fast-moving business world, leaders owe it to our employees to slow down and reflect on what “Mission First, People Always” really means to us.

Mission First is just what is says—mission first. Leaders are in business to make money, produce a product, or provide a service, period. Do we tell our employees what the company mission is? Some leaders have the tendency to just let business flow and keep their employees uninformed about the company goals. As leaders, it is imperative to keep your teams abreast of the big picture for your company and team function. By doing so, you create team unity and purpose. This is accomplished by communicating with your teams. Communication takes many different forms today, but I have found that talking directly to your employees is the best way to get the message out and into action.

Mission First also needs to encompass your company’s values and expectations. Company values are usually underpinned by the mission statement, which aligns with the purpose of being a great organization to work for.


Enough of what Mission First is. I want to focus on “People Always.” Our people are the life’s blood of our work entities. Do we, as leaders, cherish every one of them (good or bad)? No matter how bad the workday gets or the density of an important project is, do we thank our employees for being good ones or being an integral part of solution to a critical problem?


People Always should mean that no matter how bad a situation gets, you will always have their backs. At times, taking care of your people could result in disciplinary actions. Do we show our employees that we truly care for them? Do we reward them with a monetary award or a small note of “thank you” for doing a great job? No matter what the situation is or could be, people are the reason why (or why not) your company is successful. However you prioritize People Always is your decision, and you will be rewarded two-fold for how you care for your employees in the end. Think about that.

Here are a few examples of how you can use this simple but effective motto daily:

  • Invite your team to participate in organizational meetings. By attending meetings, employees get a true understanding of your company’s mission (the true sense of mission involved).
  • Celebrate birthdays and other relative holidays (recognizes People Always).
  • Get to know more than name, rank, or serial number of your team members. Find out what truly makes them “tick” or, in this case, why they come to work every day.
  • Delegate members of your team to facilitate briefings on your behalf. This also helps develop your team.

On my last day in the army, I climbed the stairs of the out-processing center a lot more gray-haired and stiffer-jointed, and once again, I saw the motto of which I was introduced to many so decades prior:
Mission First, People Always. This motto has always kept me grounded in anything I do in life.

About the Author

Ken Dwyer served 22 years in the United States Army as a Senior Fire Direction (Field Artillery) Sgt. He currently works as the learning and development manager for Glaxo Smith Kline.

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