Is Your Corporate Mission Statement Bullshit?

You’ve seen them a thousand times. They are the promises. The reassurances. You’ve seen them on countless websites and while in line at the department store. While lying on the couch watching Sunday afternoon television, during commercials for investment firms and energy corporations. Not to mention any time you’ve started a new job. During orientation they sit on page six of your binder, after the table of contents, a Welcome message from the president and three pages of policies and instructions on where to park. Then you see them again in the office kitchen, laminated and pinned to the wall; looking faded and dog-eared.

They are corporate mission statements. A company’s rallying cry and the gospel by which an organization shall elevate above the rest.

And they are mostly bullshit.

Scan through the mission statements of companies in the Fortune 500. It doesn’t take long to establish a pattern. Promises of “excellence” and “performance”. Adherence to “ethics” and the delivery of “strong financial returns”. All valid pursuits, for sure. But in visiting the list, one doesn’t get beyond the letter “A” companies before the eyes glaze over. Things that are supposed to differentiate organizations and lead to uncommon results are, in fact, strikingly common. Consider this gem from supermarket giant Albertsons Inc.

“Guided by relentless focus on our five imperatives, we will constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives required to achieve our vision. In doing this, we will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve. All of our long-term strategies and short-term actions will be molded by a set of core values that are shared by each and every associate.”

Yikes. Equally meh is the mission statement’s cousin, the company values statement. A client of mine (and the former company president no less) once quipped in a meeting, “I think one of our values is something like ‘be excellent in everything you do’….or something like that.” He couldn’t be certain.

This isn’t rare, and even at the top the clichés can get murky. So it’s safe to bet that if those in the big chair don’t buzz with pride over mission statements, neither do the rank and file.

Greg McKeown, author of the outstanding book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, put it well. “If I read one more platitude-filled mission statement, I’ll scream”, writes McKeown. He presents his readers with an exercise, listing a handful of recognized companies and a choice of mission and value statements, challenging the reader to match company to mission. McKeown then concludes:

“The largely indistinguishable statements make the task almost impossible. Such statements may still be considered “best practice” in some quarters but in so many cases they do not achieve what they were intended to achieve. Ironically, many “directional documents” are not fit for purpose: they do not provide direction.”

Not only do mission statements often fail to inspire, they can in fact have an adverse effect. As Tara Darrow, public affairs director for retail giant Nordstrom, stated in an article for Fortune, “We think that mission statements can limit people from seeing the business through the eyes of the customer.”

It’s not that the basic components of most mission statements, when considered in isolation, are without merit. Of course you want people in your organization to act with integrity and to deliver results. But these things are (or at least should be) nothing more than a ticket to the dance.

And who would dispute the importance of shareholder value, especially for publicly traded companies that live and die by the primacy of the quarterly report? When financial targets are missed and share prices tank, people lose jobs. Pretty simple stuff. Besides, why shouldn’t you want to be the recognized authority or achieve competitive and sustainable rates of return? Nobody should aim to be “The Guy You Call When Number One Is Busy.”

So can mission statements have meaning and deliver as intended?

The good news is this: Regardless of what is posted on the wall, your company is likely already full of people who want to do great work and feel proud. Just because most probably can’t recite your mission statement verbatim doesn’t mean they don’t already embody the elements within. So how do you make statements count?

Start here:

Keep it Simple

McKeown (borrowing from Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad’s “Strategic Intent” in the Harvard Business Review, May 1989), advocates for what he calls “essential intent”. In McKeown’s words, essential intent is “both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable…(It) is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions.

In his study of over 1000 organizations, McKeown determined “When there is a serious lack of clarity…people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.” He continues, “If you don’t have clarity in the first place, you can’t produce a clear evaluation afterwards. There is a tendency in developing directional documents to start saying, “Should we use this word or that word?” When you start doing that, stop yourself. Instead, ask about the tradeoffs: “If we only get one thing would we want X or Y?”

Online retailer Zappos encourages and empowers its associates to “Deliver Wow”. While this might seem vague it is strong in its simplicity. A Zappos employee, before taking on any task, can ask herself “Will what I am about to do, in some way, contribute to delivering Wow?” She can use this easy, powerful question to connect herself to a really freakin’ happy shoe buyer.

Iams, the premium pet food manufacturer, abides by a mission to “improve the well-being of dogs and cats”. Legend has it that former Iams CEO Clay Mathile was once offered an opportunity to be featured on the cover of a top business magazine. Mathile is said to have rejected the offer by saying, “I don’t see how that would improve the lives of dogs and cats.” Now, if the tale is true, I suppose one could suggest that Mathile missed an opportunity to tell his company’s story to a wide audience and even further improve the lives of animals. Still, the lesson is that with simplicity of intent the compass for action is strong and clear.

Give it a Higher Purpose

Talk to almost anybody who works for recreational apparel leader Patagonia and you will find an embodiment of the mission to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm (and) use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Patagonians are relentless innovators and champions of the environment, long residing at the pinnacle of their industry as a result.

Warby Parker “Offer(s) designer eyewear at a revolutionary price while leading the way for socially conscious business.” Cradles to Crayons, a Massachusetts based not-for-profit, “Provides low-income children with the essential items they need to thrive — at home, at school and at play…by connecting communities that have with communities that need.”

Mission statements with purpose resonate with employees and help create a foundation for behaviour that translates into a healthier bottom line.

Be Inclusive

If not everyone in the organization can get behind the mission in a practical and functional way, the statement is faulty. And involving employees in the development of statements in the first place is a useful tool for helping people feel enthused and accountable for the final result. This is usually simpler in smaller companies, but it bears consideration for all organizations.

Finally, while the folks at Patagonia, Warby Parker and Cradles to Crayons know what needs to be done every morning, perhaps food manufacturer Dean Foods might learn a thing or two. Their mission?:

The Company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term stockholder value, while adhering to the laws of the jurisdictions in which it operates and at all times observing the highest ethical standards.

Hey, nothing screams feel the buzz quite like not breaking the law, am I right?

Maybe it’s time to get a little more real.