I was wrong to ignore Mission Statements

Posted on Jun 17, 2016

For most of my career I firmly believed that a Vision and Values statement was the appropriate tool to be used in a for-profit organization, answering the questions “What will we look like when we grow up” and “What do we believe in”.  A Mission statement seemed more appropriate for not-for-profit organizations who could more sincerely answer the question “Why do we exist”.

Attempts to create a Mission statement in corporations can result in a fair degree of backlash and cynicism.  If lofty statements about doing good and changing the world are paired with an overt bias towards short term financial results and shareholder interests, then it stands to reason that the Mission statement is a hollow phrase that does not truly inspire the direction and priorities of the organization.

At a recent seminar with the Caribbean Governance Training Institute to become a Chartered Director I met Dr. Chris Barth, one of the world’s foremost researchers on Mission Statements and their effectiveness.  I argued my case and lost.  And here is what I took away from that discussion

  • Every corporation should go through a sincere attempt to define its “reason to exist”, and the Board of Directors should be leading the charge.  Forfeiting the effort robs leadership of an important tool to achieve a sense of true alignment at the top of the organization, but more importantly robs the employees of a critical source of identification and purpose.  The latter has been shown to positively influence engagement and performance and is an increasingly important influencer of employment choices.
  • Sources of bad statements are typically lack of involvement by the Board in the creation process and an unengaging format of rolling out the Mission statement through the organization, which causes it to be barely known, poorly understood, and consequently irrelevant as an orientation guide.  Such a situation provides an opportunity to try again rather than a validation of my previously held belief.
  • Creating a good Mission statement does not have to be complicated.  In its simplest form it could be a dialogue among the Board about what truly matters and what sets the organization apart from others.  After building a common understanding, each director and/or leading executive can attempt to put the essence of that discussion into words.  The likelihood that among the twenty or so versions one or two will stand out and capture the essential message in an inspirational tone is fairly high and the process of gradually removing the other versions can help solidify the shared understanding of why certain words were chosen and what exactly they stand for.   Carrying that meaning forward and sharing it with the entirely of the employee base is the essential next step in creating a Mission driven organization.
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