In any organization, it is the employees that deliver on the company’s strategy. For that reason, fostering good communication habits and transparency among your team is critical to success. Your mission statement is a powerful, unifying communication tool that can provide inspiration and direction for where the organization wants to go.
When your team understands and embodies a well-designed, high-quality mission statement, it pays off in more consistent delivery to customers. Without a codified statement, well-trained and motivated employees will head in the direction that they (individually or in small groups) believe is best, risking becoming out of alignment with the overall strategic focus leaders want.
I have been examining mission statements for the past two decades and have concluded that they tend to fall into one of five categories based on both the senior management’s goals and the employees’ reaction. These include:
The well-designed, widely adopted mission statement
In category #1, the well-designed mission statement, senior management knows where it’s taking the organization, and works with employees to keep it top-most in their minds. Employees feel empowered, and that they have a tangible direction guiding their work.
We have a mission statement, now let’s get back to work
Category #2 includes organizations that embody the ethos: “We finally have a mission statement—now get back to work.” With this category, senior management implies that “this mission thing” isn’t very important.
Management feels it’s more important to just meet budget and is only putting out a mission statement for the public and the analysts. It sees the statement as just full of words that no one can really disagree with.
Employees’ reaction is embarrassment. Ask these employees about their mission, and only a few can tell you what it is (sort of), but they quickly admit that isn’t what they do each day and so it doesn’t really matter.
Vague to the point that it isn’t useful
In category #3, “We have no mission — would you consider a strategic statement, a statement of purpose, or an overarching goal?” Here, senior management implies that “specificity is just not our thing; we prefer to be vague.” Employees react by only loosely knowing what’s desired. They think it’s a good thing that this statement doesn’t impact them day-to-day.
Values but no direction
Companies in category #4, if they’re honest, might say: “We’re not sure who we are, but we have ‘values.’” The senior management implies here that, as long as the employees honor these values, anything goes. Unfortunately for employees, confusion reigns. Leaders find themselves leaking corporate assets in an attempt to define the value concepts, while the company spends inordinate effort examining all possibilities for growth.
The overarching preference for retaining optionality
Leaders in category #5 are likely to be guided by the idea that “Statements of any kind might restrict our options, so we have none.” With this, senior management says it will do anything to make money, increase market share and grow the company. This approach leaves employees feeling disempowered, often with a sense of desperation. Company resources are poured into any possibility for growth, and politics wins the day.
Why the well-designed, well-adopted mission statement supports your business
A great mission statement has a unique ability to focus the efforts of every employee in the organization if, and only if, it’s designed well and is implemented with a singular focus that places it above all the company’s daily firefights.
Doing “good” in the typical employee’s day is insufficient for the firm to truly set itself apart from the rest of its competitors. What one employee believes is “good” may exactly counter the efforts of another employee’s interpretation of “good.” On even a small scale, this creates a situation where everyone is working extremely hard, and yet the firm seems to constantly achieve only average returns.
An organization of people exists to accomplish what the individual can’t accomplish alone. The most pressing issues that develop as the organization grows are ones of coordination and communication. As Henry Mintzberg pointed out many years ago in his definitive book on structuring organizations, the issues of coordination and communication are really the continual struggle to get employee effort focused on the unique mission of the organization.
Once you have figured out what constitutes the competitive advantages for the organization, the implementation of that strategy logically begins with a useful, focused mission, grounded in those advantages, that every individual in the company can use to make decisions.
My long history of assisting organizations in designing effective mission statements has led me to develop a five-point approach to creating effective mission statements. These five points should drive the “art” of designing a quality statement. Mission statements should be:
- Short. It fit on a coffee mug.
- Simple. The mission should be something that everyone in the company can learn and understand.
- Directional. It should guide every individual in the company every day.
- Actionable. It tells everyone exactly what the company does and does not do.
- Measurable. A metric can be developed for every part of the mission statement.