The Importance of a Mission Statement (it’s not what you think!)

Most people when they think of a mission statement secretly (or not so secretly) roll their eyes.  They think of the tired poster on the wall, or the crisp paper stuffed in a notebook from an offsite event three years ago, and basically have no recollection of what it says, even if they pass it in the lobby every day.

In large organizations we are dismayed when there is poor communication, silo-ed departments, redundant work, or the inability to move projects forward swiftly.  We think of these as individual issues, but I’d like you to consider that it’s part of not having a clear and concise vision/purpose/direction that draw each and every member of the company forward.

First, let’s clear up some terms.  Definitions:

Vision: this is the largest purpose of the company.  It is unattainable by design.  It should be something you company could spend its entire life over decades or centuries trying to accomplish.  “Feeding the youth of the world” is a vision.  “Educating our future leaders” is a vision.  “Making money for our shareholders” is typically NOT a vision: everyone wants that: it’s not distinct and doesn’t say in what way or direction you want to do that.  A Vision needs to be the overriding reason people get out of bed in the morning to work at your company; in what way are they looking to make the world a better place?  It does not change over time.

Mission: this is about how you will fulfill on your Vision.  Quite frankly, I break this into several components that include Values and distinguishing WHAT you do as a company as well as HOW you do it.  In my opinion, a company doesn’t just have one simple mission statement that can stand for all time: some components are steady, but some are adaptable based on market and the need to be flexible to sustain changes.

Strategy: this gets even more specific about HOW you will accomplish your Mission.  This will change over time, but not monthly.  Strategy has long arcs but will adapt to changes in the marketplace as needed.

Tactics: the most granular.  This is the nuts and bolts of how you will accomplish your strategies.  Which stores will you open or close?  Who will you hire?  Which markets will you enter or retreat from?  These will vary frequently based on the arc of your strategies.

The issues with most companies are these:

  • They jump right to the mission without exploring the Vision.  Big mistake.  If you don’t know WHY you do what you do at the highest level, you cannot make decisions aligned with something bigger.  Without that, people (your employees and customers) are uninspired.  People want to be a part of something with purpose.
  • They identify their Vision, Mission, Values, or Strategies because someone told them it was a good idea, but they don’t translate that into everyday action.  If it’s a slogan on the wall that doesn’t drive behavior, it’s a waste of time.  If your Mission talks about the importance of innovation, but your employees can’t get the resources for new software, you are not living your Mission statement, and they know it.  That leaves people feeling lied to which doesn’t inspire their best work.  Worse, they then ignore the Mission statement on the wall because it is clear it doesn’t mean anything.
  • Leaders are afraid to be specific.  Look, if you live your mission, you will have to make some choices.  If your mission talks about teamwork, in order to live that mission you’re going to have to fire the high performer who is a pain in the @$$ to work with because that person is not in line with your mission. If that person is an SVP, that can be rough, but must be done if you’re going to stand by your values.  The alternative again is that employees (and customers) see that your mission statement is a nicely framed bit of aspiration, not practice.  You lose credibility and trust, and who wants to work for someone or do business with someone they don’t trust?

Leaders who look at their Vision, Mission and Values and do not see them in the organization have two choices: align the company to the plaque, or take the plaque down and admit you are not planning on guiding the company to that North Star.  You are planning on making decisions one at a time based on whoever is in charge that day or in that department.  You can absolutely do that, it just has consequences.

It’s hard work to sit in a room for a couple days and hash out what your Vision, Mission and Values are.  It’s even harder work over the months and years to come to align all the company’s practices, procedures, policies to those.  But what’s the alternative?

To learn more about how to get your company on board with its own Vision, Mission and Values, contact us.