Strong mission and vision statements aren’t just nice additions to include in your company pitch deck. When lived and breathed, woven into the very fabric of your company culture, mission and vision can form the backbone of your long-term, sustainable success.
Take Plum, for example, a company that has made it their mission to leverage AI and predictive analytics to get enterprise talent into the jobs they love — harnessing employees’ superpowers and improving results for the companies that now have the right people in the right places. Plum doesn’t just help those enterprises to harness their employees’ superpowers and attract and retain top talent: they live it in their own culture, using the very same tools to ensure their own employee engagement, fit and operational excellence.
There’s a reason why the number of B Corps has now risen to more than 2500 companies across 50 countries. Whatever their approach, successful organizations are finding new ways to turn their corporate values into a core part of everything they do. While to some, the concepts of mission and vision may have begun to feel like mere lip service — another marketing tool to help brands rise above the fray — the truth is that laying the foundations for a company around a strong and cohesive sense of purpose can be valuable in every aspect of growth and success.
According to our Managing Partner, Janet Bannister, the key is in bringing mission and vision to life by giving them context and empowering employees to make them part of their daily decision-making. So how can founders make sure they’re going beyond just talking about these things and ensure they translate to specific actions? At this year’s FounderCamp (a two-day program for all new Real Ventures founders), Janet offered practical tips and guidance on how to turn those well-crafted words into action and what startups can gain in the process.
Mission vs vision: What is the difference?
While they’re sometimes used interchangeably, vision and mission actually serve quite different functions. For our purposes, here’s a simple definition:
- Mission: the core purpose of the organization — what we’re trying to do, why and how.
- Vision: the ultimate goal of what the organization would like to accomplish — i.e. what we hope to achieve on a larger societal level.
Many other crucial elements of a company’s identity derive and interact with these core principles. Core company values, for example, help people to navigate how they operate as they work to achieve the grander mission and vision. Processes, narratives, talent strategies — they’re all likewise informed by the mission and vision, fostering the synergy, alignment and focus that thriving companies need.
In our experience, true alignment comes easiest to teams with a clear and well-communicated vision.
So how do you get everyone on the same page without starting a cult or discouraging crucial divergences in opinion? Our partner John Stokes says self-awareness and equilibrium are key to promoting your vision effectively. Yes: your vision should serve as your North Star, but be careful not to become dogmatic or self-righteous. In some cases, John has seen purpose-driven leadership pushed so far that it’s effectively turned non-believers into the enemy.
“It was really interesting because they actually realized that their mission had almost elevated them to a level of superiority. So as powerful as that mission can be, it’s important to remember that your mission is a guide to you, but not a judgement of others. Getting that balance right can be hard with such a mission-driven company.”
Employee Engagement: What makes work meaningful?
As a startup, attracting and retaining talent can be challenging. Your team can likely make more money at an established company and in many cases, joining your team at this stage may involve some instability and risk. You need something bigger to garner employee trust, buy-in and dedication — your vision and mission can serve that purpose. Recent studies have found that 80 percent of employees report feeling more engaged when their daily work feels consistent with the company’s core values and mission. A UK-based survey also found that 44 percent of Millenials would swap out higher salaries for meaningful work with a powerful mission, so you have everything to gain from being thoughtful and intentional in translating your mission across every part of your company’s culture.
“By creating a culture and environment which has values that are meaningful and aligned with those of staff, people are more motivated to work for you and will bend over backwards for things that they believe in. Employees are not just doing it because it is a job, the work becomes an extension of themselves. Values don’t stop or start when you get into the office or go home, they are a part of you and what you are passionate about.”
- Simon Cohen, Founder. Global Tolerance
So how do you go about driving home those core values? Here are a few of the guiding principles Janet shared with our founders.
- Make your mission and vision central to the stories you tell about your company’s daily progress, challenges and culture. The narratives you craft and share about who you’re helping, what you’re learning and how you’re making decisions can — and should be — powerful.
- Be proactive and self-aware about keeping alignment and consistency between your vision and the way you treat your employees. If you run a startup in the healthcare industry, your employees should not be struggling to access basic health benefits.
- Adapt the way you translate and model your vision to different people and teams. Purpose might look different to your product manager than to your CTO. It’s your job to frame it in a way that connects and makes sense to everyone.
In Janet’s experience, those principles can take on countless shapes and sizes. In her early days at eBay, for example, she remembers that storytelling became a particularly powerful tool for innovation and recruitment.
“Every earnings call and large meeting would start with a story. The CEO, Meg Whitman, often talked about how eBay was changing people’s lives, how it was enabling people to be financially self-sustaining because they were able to start their own businesses on eBay (…) or how people who were socially isolated but loved collecting something were able to find their people, their tribe, with whom they connected and felt a sense of community. Meg would often say “we’re hiring missionaries, not mercenaries” because we wanted people who were there to change the world, rather than people who were just there to make a lot of money.”
For Breathe Life CEO Ian Jeffrey, that mission is reinforced every time an insurance policy is sold, thanks to a message that all employees see in a dedicated Slack channel that notifies the team that a new family is now properly insured and protected. Other founders at the session had different examples of how they bring their company mission to life:
- Organize an event that connects teams and customers face-to-face
- Mandate a certain number of customer support hours for all employees
- Share impactful feedback, emails and testimonials company-wide
- Provide opportunities for continuous learning about your solution and industry
- Offer symbolic and meaningful perks that embody your mission
Customer Experience: How do your values empower clients?
When leadership takes charge of exemplifying your vision and your team lives and breathes your mission, you’re ready and equipped to let that same sense of direction permeate every part of your customer journey. Beyond being good practice, making your vision a fundamental part of your outward-facing brand identity is good business, allowing your company to make a lasting impression and differentiate itself. A 2018 study found that 77 percent of consumers feel more emotionally connected to companies and brands that are purpose and values-driven, while 66 percent would switch solutions if they were more connected to its mission. All the more reason to make sure your clients understand what you’re truly about!
But how do you get that message across? Here are a few helpful suggestions to set you on the right path:
- Tie your vision and mission into any and all communications about your solution’s features, advantages and benefits. Go beyond talking about technical specs, and make sure you’re clearly painting a picture of how it’s going to directly impact your customer’s life.
- Empower employees to become ambassadors and translators of your mission through every customer interaction. That means that if your company is driven by a mission to go above and beyond, your support staff needs to have the time, resources, trust and autonomy to independently make decisions that align with that vision.
- Don’t be afraid to take a bold stance on something that matters. In the Fall of 2019, 180 of the United States’ top CEOs signed a statement committing to consider all stakeholder priorities and not just those of shareholders. This clearly signals that we no longer live in a world where customers frown upon companies voicing their values. In fact, they expect and demand it.
So what’s the main takeaway? Continuously allocating the time, resources and brain-power needed to make your vision an integral part of your company’s daily culture and decision-making isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. While the pace at which your startup’s products, features and priorities are constantly changing may seem like an argument against the perceived rigidity of a well-defined mission and vision, it’s actually in times of chaos and change that these foundations prove most valuable. According to Columbia Business School adjunct professor Len Sherman, companies evolving in rapidly-changing industries need that guidepost the most.
“Some might argue that (…) it seems incongruous, in an era where the pace of change in all aspects of business is accelerating so rapidly, to stubbornly adhere to a company’s founding core purpose, which may have been established decades ago. But it is precisely because of, not despite, the rapidly changing business environment, that a company needs an anchoring ideology to guide it.”
Remember: your vision’s power lies not in its catchy phrasing or its ability to elicit warm, fuzzy feelings. Live your mission, make it real for your team and your customers, and when you do hit an unexpected hurdle, you will have your north star there to guide you.
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