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Yes – Your Organization DOES Need a Mission Statement

Interestingly, the topic of mission statements, and whether organizations need them, came up several times last week. First there were debates in a few of the LinkedIn groups I belong to and then a Master’s student in the strategy mapping class I was leading at the University of Waterloo challenged me on the relevance of mission statements. More specifically, he referred to thoughts from Guy Kawasaki advocating for mantras (defined by Kawasaki as a 3 – 4 word phrase that helps employees truly understand why the organization exists) versus missions.

So what was going on here I wondered? Why the sudden backlash against mission statements? Here’s my take on it all.

First, let’s agree on what a mission statement is. A mission is a statement of an organization’s purpose – what business it is in, what impact it hopes to make on the lives of the people the company touches, and the (unique) value it brings to the world and society. When I work with clients to help them create their mission statement, I tell them that it should be short (7 words or less is ideal because you want employees to be able to remember your mission), inspirational, and aspirational. Your mission should be something that your organization is always striving to achieve realizing that you’ll never “get there”. In addition, your mission should endure for as long as your organization is in the business you are in.

In my view, a mission statement is for everyone, not just employees. Your mission is your commitment to the world about who you are and the contribution you are striving to make by existing. Most importantly, a mission is an important guide for company leaders and employees during difficult times. A clear and well understood mission (supported by solid core values) can make it easy to know exactly what doing the right thing in a tough situation actually looks like. For example, a clear mission and strong core values made the decision to pull all its product off store shelves an obvious response for Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol scare in the 1980’s.

Now whether you want to adopt my view on what a mission statement is or whether you want to call it a mantra as Guy Kawasaki suggests, I really don’t care that much. However, a key imperative is that your mission/mantra must be short so that everyone can remember at a moment’s notice what the company is here to do and relate it to/apply it in the work they are doing, including the business decisions they are making, every day.

A common understanding of your company’s mission across your organization lays the foundation for consistency in action and your customer’s/stakeholder’s experience of your organization (two keys to long-term business success). For these reasons alone, every organization absolutely does need a mission statement.

This includes private sector companies where the pursuit of profits/profitable business growth is a key business goal. In these cases, a mission statement, as I defined it earlier, serves as an important anchor that helps keep for-profit organizations from crossing over to the dark side of seeking financial gains at all costs.

However, what I think was driving the spike in talk about whether or not organizations need mission statements has more to do with the misunderstanding many business leaders have about the real way to use mission statements in their organization and the disconnect in many companies between the mission statement/purpose of the organization and day to day action.

Here’s the thing.

If your mission statement is just some collection of words posted on the wall that employees don’t feel connected to and can’t remember then you may as well not even take the time to create one. A mission statement is meant to be lived by everyone in the organization from the executive level to the front lines. If it isn’t inspirational, doesn’t convey passion and emotion, and doesn’t drive aligned action, your mission statement is dead in the water. Your mission statement has to reach out and grab the hearts of your employees and everyone who is touched by your company.

How can you do this? By involving employees and stakeholders in the process of creating and living your mission statement – that’s how!

Some people will tell you that a mission statement shouldn’t be created by committee. They suggest that writing an organization’s mission statement should be the job of the chief executive after receiving input and advice from others. Now, every organization is different but I have to say that my preference is to include a broad, representative group of employees in the mission statement development process. In my experience, when the work includes a review of the outlook for the business environment and the needs and expectations of stakeholders, and a discussion of the unique value the company provides to customers and stakeholders, employees will do a wonderful job of creating a remarkable mission statement. In fact, I have found that when you have them work with the backdrop of the discussion outlined above, small sub-groups of employees will come up with remarkably similar and equally powerful mission statements. By having everyone, including executives, work together to create a mission statement for your company that leverages the ideas coming from any sub-group work, the outcome is always an emotionally charged, clear, and concise statement of the organization’s purpose that everyone can get behind and put into action every day without reservation.

While getting employees involved in the mission creation process sets the stage for real mission implementation, there are some additional steps business leaders must take to ensure that the mission statement reaches its potential and has the maximum impact on their organization. Everyone needs to feel and live your company’s mission passionately every day and they need a little help to do just that!

First, when introducing your organization’s mission to others don’t just say the words, tell a story.

Who does your company serve and what benefit do they receive from interacting with your organization? How does this make them feel? How does an individual employee put your company’s mission into action through their work and how does it feel to play a part in delivering your organization’s purpose everyday?

Better yet, help everyone in your organization participate in telling this story. While hearing your mission translated into a story will help it stick in people’s minds, hearing the story from a peer and being able to tell the story themselves makes your mission that much more salient and memorable for your employees.

Next, bring your organization’s mission into everyday business conversations wherever it makes sense. Add a discussion about the alignment of an impending decision with your company’s mission into the decision-making process. Have a conversation with employees about how the work of their team supports the organization’s mission. And train managers and supervisors how to recognize, and remark on, the actions individual employees take that demonstrate the mission in action.

These are just a few of the ways I have seen companies tear their mission statements off of the wall and bring them to life in a way that has a real impact on employees and stakeholders alike.

Call it a mission or a mantra, your company must clearly define and communicate its purpose and value to society in a short, memorable, and compelling way that touches the heart of everyone who is associated with your organization. Your mission should be developed through a collaborative process that enables many people to blend evidence, emotion, and dialogue together to reveal the soul of your company. Only when your mission is shared as an ongoing story does it come alive, serving as a compass that helps your organization put your mission into action, living your purpose every day.

In the end, your company’s mission statement/purpose plays a key role in bringing your business strategy to life, moving your organization forward in a positive and valuable way – and that’s the reason why your company absolutely needs a mission statement.

4 Comments

  1. William J. Coleman
    Mar 13, 2013

    Very interesting and informative read. Highly recommend reading this.

  2. Sandy Richardson
    Mar 13, 2013

    Thanks William – glad you liked it. Was there anything in particular that you found most helpful? How can you see this information appying in your organization/work?

  3. Howard Armitage
    Mar 17, 2013

    I was delighted to see this discussion of mission vs mantra (slogans). As an academic in front of smart, well read and talented students or as a consultant in front of hard-nosed business executives, I have faced the same questions that motivated Sandy to pen this piece.
    Of course, there are similarities between mission statements and slogans, and great slogans can sometimes capture the essence of a firm’s promise. For example, I have often thought that the Fed Ex mantra of “absolutely, positively, overnight” is one of the great 3 word slogans of all time. It tells every stakeholder associated with Fed Ex exactly what the value proposition of the company is. In my opinion, few have nailed an organization’s purpose and commitment like this trilogy of words.
    But mantras are not mission statements and as much as I agree with Sandy’s desire to keep it short, it is mighty tough to meaningfully collapse the essence of an organization’s being into a handful of words and still provide the guidance and inspiration that are the hallmark of good mission statements. Johnson and Johnson’s mission statement (called the “Credo”) which was instrumental in guiding employee actions during the Tylenol incident, is of considerable length http://robdkelly.com/blog/leadership/mission-statements-examples/ and yet appears to be internalized by the J&J work force.
    In summary, I am really pleased to see this dialogue. Sandy has provided an important service in highlighting the critical importance of mission statements and the salient features which separate outstanding mission statements from the also-rans.

  4. Sandy Richardson
    Mar 17, 2013

    Thanks Howard for your comment. Your point and examples are really valuable. What I think they best illustrate is the truth that it isn’t good enough for organizations to stop at their mission statement. A mission isn’t an entire strategy. Some organizations that understand this need/want more detail behind their mission to further describe what it looks like in action – J&J’s credo does this as does a compmany’s SMaC. In my experience, it often comes down to the complexity of the business, the tolerance of executive leadership to take their mission to a deeper level of description, and the culture of the organization re: simplicity versus perceived complexity.
    HOWEVER, going back to my comment that a mission isn’t strategy, what ALL businesses do need is an integrated business model that outlines the value creating objectives and actions that support putting their strategy into action. I still think that the best way to depict and communicate that business model is a strategy map which includes a company’s mission statement (and values, vision, and customer value proposition). When combined on a single page, company’s have a powerful management tool that should enable quick and aligned decisions and action at all levels of the organization