I once worked for a company who was really proud of their mission statement. They had it printed on everything and talked about it often. For all that talk, there was very little action. Somewhere along the way I realized that we were deluding ourselves. We weren’t changing the system, we were working directly in the confines of it.
We weren’t only lying to ourselves, but we were being disingenuous to the consumer about what the main intention of the company was. You could turn on your television and see the management reciting the mission statement with an impassioned plea to viewers, but no one in the company was living it.
This is not an isolated problem. It’s one so many companies, especially startups, must confront. How do you live your mission statement, honestly, thoughtfully, and with purpose?
If there was any doubt in your mind about the precarious position of mission statements, look no further than the mission statement generator:
The mission statement has become the cornerstone of corporations, higher education, CEO’s, and even families. Beginning in the 1970s the mission statement began its surge in popularity—dominating the corporate world for the next thirty-odd years. You couldn’t turn around without being assailed by books touting the benefits of the mission statement.
But do they work?
“The fact that there is no reliable and recognized base of research on mission statements is somewhat amazing because the virtues of having a well-articulated mission statement are extolled in almost every current management textbook.”
Perhaps the best explanation for why we continue to use mission statements comes from Christopher C. Morphew:
“Mission statements are normative—they exist because they are expected to exist.”
We’ve become so accustomed to seeing mission statements that the absence of one would cause us to question the company or organizations legitimacy.
Where do mission statements go wrong?
They are either too boring or too presumptuous to make any impact. The worst mission statements over exaggerate and rely on flowery language to give the impression that they are a company of action—even if the reality is much different.
Let’s take a look at this mission statement as an example:
“Serving corporations, institutions, entrepreneurs, and individuals, our attorneys build enduring relationships by providing legal counsel informed by business insight to help clients achieve their objectives.”
Ah yes the age old tradition of achieving objectives. It’s certainly vague enough to give you the impression that the company acts with the best interests of all people. Unless I told you this is from a corporate law firm composed of a few hundred attorneys who mostly help Fortune 500 companies obtain their objective of absolving themselves of expensive asbestos litigation.
Does saying you are committed to serving stakeholders really put you in a better position to actually serve these stakeholders? Isn’t there a better way to get employees to buy into your company without offering them a slice of bullshit pie?
Why yes, yes there is.
Mission statements can provide a sense of purpose and clarity, but they mean nothing if you can’t fulfill the objectives of your mission statement. Here are five tips to help you live your companies mission statement:
- Lose the hubris
Success doesn’t come because someone chose the right buzzword. If your mission is to provide a free app for people as a utility to improve their lives, than let this guide your mission statement. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be optimistic, but a healthy dose of realism is needed. Overreaching in your mission statement only undermines your company instead of helping it.
2. Do be concise
If your mission statement is longer than eight words, you may want to reconsider it. Employees and customers won’t remember what your company is about if they have to consult a jargon filled paragraph. Your mission statement should be something no one easily forgets.
3. Be inclusive and ask questions
You should not write your mission statement in a vacuum, devoid of any help. It’s important to have as much input as possible about the purpose of the company. Ask employees why they believe the product or service is needed? What values are important to them? What’s more important to them than money? These are just some of the questions Warren Berger of FastCo believes companies should answer in the quest to define your mission. Questions before content; make sure you’ve thought it all through.
4. Don’t hire someone to write your mission statement
Hiring someone to write a mission statement gives the impression that there is more concern about outward appearances than the real purpose of the company. The act of writing a mission statement is about learning what matters the most. The exercise of writing is almost as important as what you finally end up with.
5. Enough talk, do it
The mission statement means nothing if you aren’t living it. Your mission statement has to be clear, it has to quantify what you want to accomplish. If it does this, it will help crystalize what policies and decisions you need to achieve your goal.
Mission statements should evolve as your company evolves. Always search for how to improve, for ways to better live your mission statement. This means constantly asking questions and searching outside for inspiration.
Writing a mission statement should help you focus on what matters most in language that is clear and accessible to everyone. Do that, and living your mission statement should come effortlessly.
Ultimately, I found that I could not work for a company whose mission was so far misaligned from the work I was doing. I now work for a company whose mission is clear and aspirational. I am driven to incorporate the mission into my work each day.