“You cannot be everything to everyone, if you decide to go North,
you cannot go South at the same time.”
In one of his talks, Stephen Covey offered a powerful illustration. He asked the audience to close their eyes and he asked them to point North. After a few moments, he asked them to open their eyes and look around the room. As you can imagine, with their eyes closed, in a large venue the hands pointed every direction—even up in the air. Then he drew the following conclusion:
Just look at the people right around you. Do you want to have the same exact experience? Try it. Go to any group, any department in your organization that you work with, or go to the top executive team. Just walk in and say, ‘what’s the number one high-priority goal?’ and just see what they say. What’s number one? Write them down. I guarantee you it will be just like pointing North.[ii]
It is for just this reason that we write mission statements. Mission statements focus our collective energies on those things that are important. Yet, as Covey pointed out, there is often an organizational disconnect. Sometimes employees do not even know the mission. Mission statements that do not guide our activities are worthless. And when this happens, the people in organizations pull different directions.
Vision, Mission, and Values
Vision, Mission, and Values statements are strategic tools that are designed to bring order to chaos. Most people will see little difference between a mission statements, vision statements, and values statements, but according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), each statement, “has its own distinct function in the strategic planning process.”[iii]
A vision statement paints a vivid picture of the future:
If the organization were to achieve all of its strategic goals, what would it look like 10 years from now? An effective vision statement is inspirational and aspirational. It creates a mental image of the future state that the organization wishes to achieve. A vision statement should challenge and inspire employees.[iv]
The mission statement explains why the organization exists and how members plan to achieve the vision. If vision is a statement about the destination, the mission is about the chosen vehicle that will take us there.
The mission statement might also be called a statement of purpose. Colin Powell, for example, prefers the term purpose to mission. In his book, It worked for me: In life and leadership, he wrote, “I have come to prefer another and I believe better term—purpose.” [v]
He added that purpose must be infused into the organization and that, “Good leaders set vision, missions, and goals. Great leaders inspire every follower at every level to internalize their purpose.”[vi]
Whether you call it a mission or purpose, the issues are the same. The mission communicates how the organization will achieve the vision. A good mission statement should penetrate the thinking of all members of the organization. It should guide their decision-making and their behaviors. Sometimes it also acts in place of a values statement.
The values statement, “defines the deeply held beliefs and principles of the organizational culture.”[vii] It clarifies what is important and what is not. Well-written values statements not only clarify values, but they help members of the organization understand the behaviors that are desirable. Unfortunately, values statements are more rare than vision or mission statements.
Of the three, the most common statement—the one that I will focus on here—is the mission statement. A company does not need to have any of these statements in order to operate, but these statements help create alignment. Alignment means that unlike the directionless confusion in Covey’s audience, employees can clearly identify which direction they need to go and they are able to move in the same direction. It tells them what success looks like in their organization.
What happens when one employee thinks that efficiency is most important while another employee believes he should focus on customer service and another prioritizes cost-cutting? Each may think that they are supporting the organization, but the employees are operating at cross-purposes.
Do Mission Statements Matter?
Certainly a company can operate without a mission statement, but that is not optimal. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Justin Fox explained:
Does it really matter if a company has a good mission statement?
My reading of the HBR literature on this is that the answer is yes. Maybe not a mission statement per se, but a vision, a set of goals, a strategic intent that (1) goes beyond just making lots of money and (2) is unique to the company. In other words, something that doesn’t sound like this:
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.
That’s the profoundly uninspiring and undistinguished mission statement of Dean Foods.[viii]
Let me offer an analogy to help you consider the power of an inspiring mission statement. World-class, professional athletes have coaches. They would not have made it this far without their coaches. Coaches keep you focused on the fundamentals. They tell you if you are getting off track.
Your mission statement is like a coach. You get to select the coach that is right for you, but after you do, your coach is there to discipline you. He will focus you on what is important and what is not important. He will keep you from doing lesser things that detract from your success. As Michael Porter understood, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Great Mission Statements
Most mission statements begin with a variation of “To be” or “To do.” Here are a few great mission statements. Note how they operate like a compass, pointing employees toward the overarching purpose of the company.
Life is good: “the Life is Good community shares one simple, unifying mission: to spread the power of optimism.”[ix]
Amazon: “Our vision is to be Earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”[x]
Twitter: “The mission we serve as Twitter, Inc. is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve – and do not detract from – a free and global conversation.”[xi]
Universal Health Services: “To provide superior quality healthcare services that: PATIENTS recommend to family and friends, PHYSICIANS prefer for their patients, PURCHASERS select for their clients, EMPLOYEES are proud of, and INVESTORS seek for long-term returns.”[xii]
Mission statements can be simple like the one espoused by the T-shirt Company, Life is Good: “to spread the power of optimism.” Or, they may elaborate, accounting for customers, employee-customers, and supplier-customers, and investor-customers like Universal Health Services.
There is no one best mission statement. If you tried to replace one company’s mission statement with another—say Amazon’s with Twitter’s—it would fall flat. Amazon is used to communicate and people offer goods on Twitter, but these are not those organizations’ primary purposes. What is your mission statement?
Your Mission Statement
A mission statement is not a USP or the tagline you use to introduce yourself at networking events. It is an intentional statement of the organization’s reason for existence. Ideally, those who have constructed it have given it a lot of thought. Are you operating in alignment with your organization’s mission?
Perhaps I should first ask if you have a mission statement. If you’re an entrepreneur, it is quite possible that you never got around to sitting down and writing out a mission statement. After all, writing a mission statement seems like an academic exercise, and you have real bills to pay.
If you work for a large company, you might not have heard your company’s mission statement since you joined the company. It could be that the company’s mission statement is so broad that it is difficult to apply in your context. If this is the case, you may want to craft your own mission statement—one that meets your needs while it serves the mission of the organization. After all, an accountant serves the mission differently than a salesman or an engineer.
If you want to serve your country you can join the Peace Corps or the Marine Corps. Yet, you should know that each of these organizations adhere to their mission statements, and if you are not in alignment with that mission, it is likely that you will not thrive. Here are their respective mission statements:
The Peace Corps:
To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained volunteers.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.[xiii]
The United States Marine Corps:
“Marines are trained, organized, and equipped for offensive amphibious employment and as a ‘force in readiness.’” [National Security Act of 1947, amended in 1952][xiv]
The official website of the Marine Corps expands on this theme:
The Marine Corps has been America’s expeditionary force in readiness since 1775. We are forward deployed to respond swiftly and aggressively in times of crisis. We are soldiers of the sea, providing forces and detachments to naval ships and shore operations. We are global leaders, developing expeditionary doctrine and innovations that set the example, and leading other countries’ forces and agencies in multinational military operations. These unique capabilities make us “First to Fight,” and our nation’s first line of defense.[xv]
It is not likely that a candidate for one corps will be happier in the other. A good mission statement makes this clear. It helps the organization differentiate itself. This will attract some and repel others. That is OK.
Good organizations speak directly to their preferred audiences. CSU’s mission statement is “to promote academic excellence in a Christian environment.” What does that mean? There are two parts. First, we strive toward academic excellence. That is not uncommon for institutions of higher learning. But the second clause changes everything. Allow me to offer a personal example.
In 2011, I was teaching at Liberty University, but I had begun to look for a new institution. I applied at Charleston Southern University. When I first spoke with the Dean of the School of Business, his first question was, “Why Charleston Southern?” My reply was, “Your mission statement—if that is really what you are doing.”
You see, the mission statement creates alignment by attracting the kind of employee-customers you choose to serve. If the Leadership Institute is right that “Personnel is policy,”[xvi] the employees attracted by the mission will carry on the mission naturally by living out the values of the institution. They self-select.
Allow me another illustration. Last Friday, I spent an hour in a colleague’s office. He had created a course similar to one that I was designing and he was graciously giving me some advice about the course I was creating. At 3:00 PM his phone beeped. He apologized and mentioned that it was a reminder to pray about a particular situation that the administration was facing. We stopped for a moment to pray. In our environment, this was a normal activity.
This disposition enters the classroom. Professors at CSU work hard to apply their faith to their academic disciplines. As a Christian, I feel that I have greater academic freedom at a private, Christian college than I do at a state school where mentioning my faith may expose me to legal action. Here, the professors are in alignment with the mission of the organization.
The alignment does not stop there. Students recognize that they will learn from this perspective. Many students want to be taught in an environment that is not hostile to their faith. That is an added value to those who seek it out. Many parents also find great value in the difference that a Christian college campus culture provides. Employers likewise know that our students are steeped in such teaching, and this too provides differentiation.
What did you think of this description? Some people value this type of environment. If you are one of these people, CSU may now be more desirable than it was before you read about it. On the other hand, someone else may be turned off to Christian colleges such as CSU as a consequence of reading this description. I would argue that this is also positive. That person was never going to become a student and it is better for all parties involved if they know that now. If you own an ice cream shop, don’t chase lactose intolerant diabetics. They probably will not make up a large portion of your market. As Michael Porter has told us, “Strategy 101 is about choices: You can’t be all things to all people”[xvii] And that is OK.
Do you have a mission statement? What is it?
If you do not have one, or you do not have a small-unit mission statement that supports a larger company mission statement, try to write one now. Remember, you choose the coach. Then you obey what he tells you to do.
[i] @jeroendeflander north (n.d.) Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/search?q=%20%40jeroendeflander%20north&src=typd
[ii] Covey, S. R. (2005). The 8th habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press. [Bonus DVD].
[iii] Mission & vision statements: What is the difference between mission, vision, and value statements (2012). Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/isthereadifferencebetweenacompany%E2%80%99smission,visionandvaluestatements.aspx
[iv] Mission & vision statements: What is the difference between mission, vision, and value statements (2012). Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/isthereadifferencebetweenacompany%E2%80%99smission,visionandvaluestatements.aspx
[v] Powell, C. L., & Koltz, T. (2012). It worked for me: In life and leadership. New York: Harper. (p. 24).
[vi] Powell, C. L., & Koltz, T. (2012). It worked for me: In life and leadership. New York: Harper. (p. 25).
[vii] Mission & vision statements: What is the difference between mission, vision, and value statements (2012). Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/isthereadifferencebetweenacompany%E2%80%99smission,visionandvaluestatements.aspx
[viii] Fox, J. (2014, November 13). Why Twitter’s mission statement matters. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/11/why-twitters-mission-statement-matters
[ix] Purpose (2016). The Life Is Good Company. Retrieved from http://content.lifeisgood.com/purpose/
[x] About Amazon.com. (n.d.). Facebook.com/Amazon Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/Amazon/about?tab=page_info
[xi] FAQ. (n.d.). Twitter, Inc. Retrieved from https://investor.twitterinc.com/faq.cfm
[xii] Our mission. (2016). Universal Health Services, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.uhsinc.com/about-us/mission-statement/
[xiii] The Peace Corps Mission. (n. d.). Peace Corps. Retrieved from https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/
[xiv] National Security Act of 1947, amended in 1952. As cited in the Marine Corps Common Skills Handbook. United States Marine Corps. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/pdfy-acFq1arNpBF2V3Cr/Marine%20Corps%20Common%20Skills%20Handbook%20Book%201A_djvu.txt
[xv] Our Purpose. (n. d.). U. S. Marine Corps. Retrieved from http://www.marines.com/history-heritage/our-purpose
[xvi] The Laws of the Public Policy Process (n.d.). The Leadership Institute. Retrieved from https://www.leadershipinstitute.org/writings/?ID=30
[xvii] Spreitzer, G. M., & Pertulla, K. H. (2004). Leadership: Wiley Fast Company Reader Series. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.