J. N. Halm’s thoughts … Missionaries or Mercenaries? Getting it right at the front


They were both medical practitioners. They both stood up against the establishments of the time—one, against the unjust enslavement of millions of able-bodied men and women of a continent; the other, against what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of an entire continent. They were both passionate about their causes. They are both idolised by the people they sought to serve.  It can be argued that both of these men succeeded in their respective causes. There are statues and monuments built in honour of these two men both in the areas they most impacted as well as in areas far away.

However, these two men could not be any different. In spite of all their similarities, it is rare to find the names of these two men on the same list. This is because one is globally recognised as a missionary while the other is deemed a mercenary—although there are many others who would prefer “freedom fighter.” The missionary, David Livingstone, left the comfort of his life in Scotland to come to travel the length and breadth of Africa because he believed it was a good cause. The revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, put behind his middle-class upbringing in Argentina to travel throughout South and Central America joining several causes that sought to liberate the poor and marginalised.

Howard Love, in his book The J Start UpCurve, implies that there are two kinds of people when it comes to starting a business. There are either Missionaries or Mercenaries. According to Love, mercenaries do what they do for money. Missionaries do what they do for love. Mercenaries and missionaries can both be very successful in business. However, their reasons for starting the business can have serious effects on the future and growth of the business.

Missionaries are all about the mission of the business and how the business will change the world. The level of commitment of the missionary to the cause is never up for discussion. The missionary goes the extra mile to ensure that the business succeeds. Love asserts that missionaries would mostly tend to focus on products or services that have a perceived social utility. He cited Steve Jobs as the classic missionary, who started Apple with a mission to change the world.

Reading through Howard’s piece, it occurred to me that his delineation of these two categories goes beyond those who start their own businesses. This categorization works just as well with regards to other people in the business, especially the individuals that man the front lines for businesses. Front line here refers to those at the reception or shop floor who welcome visitors, those in the sales and marketing departments who interface with customers on a regular as well as those on the telephone talking to customers regularly. In my experience, individuals who are placed at the front line at any one point or another are either going to be missionaries or mercenaries.

The first point of difference between missionaries and mercenaries is that the former love their work. Missionaries have a genuine love for what they do and that is what keeps them going. Mercenaries are all about what they expect to get. It could be money or some other form of remuneration but the bottom line is that for the mercenary, it is all about what he or she is getting. Howard Love states that missionaries work for “meaning over money”.

Another point of departure between the two types of front line employees is that for the mercenary it is all about personal concerns. The mercenary is concerned about what he or she will get at the end of the day. The mercenary looks out for himself or herself first and foremost before thinking of anybody else. The missionary thinks more in terms of the organisation. Missionaries want to ensure that the organisation succeeds—knowing that the success of the organization leads to success for employees.

Missionary front line staff see the bigger picture. Mercenaries are only concerned about today—and what the customer brings to the table today. Missionaries understand the concept of the Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). They know that it does not matter the size of the purchase today. They realise that if they are to treat the customer well that customer’s value over the lifetime of the one’s relationship with the business could be very substantial. Missionaries at the front line treat customers as people not mere account numbers or mere statistics. They know that the individual in front of them is a human being, with his or her own aspirations and challenges.

If there is one thing missionaries are known for it must be their willingness to go the extra mile. Missionaries of old will leave the comfort of their homes and security of their surroundings and travel to unknown lands for the sole purpose of taking a message. Missionaries at the front desk are those who ready to go the extra mile for customers. They are those individuals who see the customer as being critical to the survival and success of the business. Therefore, they will do anything in their power to ensure that the customer gets the best service available.

According to Love, missionaries tend to recruit other missionaries who commit to their cause. This is true not only for entrepreneurs. In my experience, missionaries at the front desk also tend to gather others of like mind and attitude around themselves. Because they want the company to succeed, they tend to like others with the same mindset and will naturally gravitate towards such people. It is not uncommon to see employees divided along factions based on such commonalities.

It is important to note that customer-facing missionaries can be quite difficult to work with. They take their work so seriously that colleagues who do not match up can become a bother or a burden to the missionary. In the same vein, colleagues may also view the missionary as a pain in the neck. Missionaries are those who behave as if the work belongs to them—and by so doing tend to make enemies for themselves inside the office. Wanting the organisation to succeed, missionaries would not hesitate to report any behaviour that they deem detrimental to the success of the organisation.

While having missionaries at the front desk tends to be very beneficial to an organization, it is also true that missionaries have a higher burnout rate than mercenaries. Their love for the work means that they put in a lot, both physically and mentally. If their enthusiasm is not curbed, it can have deleterious effects on their mental and physical health. Mercenaries, on the other hand, do not tend to suffer these effects. Because they will not give more than is expected of them, mercenaries do not tend to drain their energies easily.

The ongoing discussion in no way means that mercenaries cannot be good front desk staff. Some of the finest front line employees I have come across also turned out to be hard-core mercenaries. If by serving customers well, the mercenary’s self-seeking objectives are met, then by any means the one will do a good job at the front line. A mercenary at the front line will fake his or behaviour to meet expectations of customers and the organisation. However, the problem is that fake behaviour can be spotted from a mile off. Customers know when a mercenary is not being sincere with his or her actions—and customers resent that.

Mercenaries can exist in an organisation for a long time without any issue. However, their true nature comes to the fore when they become offended. Mercenaries turn on their full destructive mode when they feel wronged by something. They will “punish” everybody just to feel even. They are the individuals who do not mind carrying out their negative behaviours even before customers. Aggrieved mercenaries will see nothing wrong with badmouthing their organisation to customers. There are even stories of front line staff sending customers to the competition just to get even with their employers.

HR managers must also ensure that in filling up front office jobs, missionaries are given the customer-facing jobs. During interviews, questions must be asked that cause the interviewee to reveal what their predominant character is. I have served on many interview panels and so I know that on far too many occasions, the emphasis tends to fall on the candidate’s academic qualification and less on the one’s attitudinal qualifications. Unfortunately, by the time the real characters of these individuals begin to come to the fore, it is too late. Customer relations might have soured to irredeemable depths.

Just as Howard Love said, there are no pure mercenaries or missionaries. We all tend to have a bit of both tendencies running through our veins. Certain situations can bring out the mercenary or missionary in us. It is the one that is allowed to become dominant that turns one into a mercenary or a missionary. Front line employees must know how to manage these tendencies so that at every point in time, they are more of missionaries than mercenaries.

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