Do your eyes roll when you hear the words “mission statement?” You are not alone.
Many of you work at organizations with a mission statement that is now gathering dust on a shelf, framed on a wall or, even worse, carved in stone above your portal. If the following sounds familiar, you’re in trouble: “Our mission is to be the number one (fill-in-the-blank), while driving customer satisfaction, engaging our employees in meaningful relationships and synergizing with our partners and suppliers.” Sounds like a line straight from Alec Baldwin’s character on “30 Rock.”
Employees and leaders alike are burnt out on mission statements and, frankly, customers don’t believe them. It is time — past time — to rethink the whole mission statement concept.
Mission or Purpose?
The idea of defining your mission is valid and necessary, because it determines the direction of your organization. But the process is flawed from the outset. So get past the eye-rolling, rethink your motivation and switch up your process. Follow these three keys to creating an authentic mission statement, by first focusing on your deeper purpose.
Your purpose is your own and — let’s be real — comes before satisfying customers or providing a pleasant working environment.
- Start at the beginning: Before you can start out on your mission — and way before you can recruit others to join you — you need to identify and share your primary motivation. What is really at the foundation of your business or, in fact, your life? Identify that motivation, then label it. Call it your purpose. Your prime mover. Your “why.” Or: that thing more important to you than making money. Understanding this primal urge for why your company exists must come before any mission or call to action.
- Try not to be overly altruistic: Your purpose is your own and — let’s be real — comes before satisfying customers or providing a pleasant working environment. Traditional mission statements such as these are, at best, inadequate to understanding the real reason for your work and, at worst, transparent pandering to employees and customers. Come to terms with the real reason for your organization.
- Keep it simple: Too many organizations try to please all of their stakeholders, which results in a droning run-on sentence. The most effective mission statements I have seen are eight words long (really six is ideal, but hard to do). Get to the point.
Time for a Revamp
If you think your mission statement is old, tired and ineffective, then it may be time for a revamp. Here is a step-by-step process to do things right this time.
- Turn your management team into a leadership team. Meet with them. Make sure they have 100 percent buy-in, so they will understand your purpose and be its advocates. If not, your mission statement will surely end up on a dusty shelf.
- Select a diverse group of employees from all ranks of the company to be part of the process. Try to build a culturally diverse team of new and tenured employees, young and old, senior and entry-level, male and female, field employees and administrative. The more diverse the team, the more likely your mission statement will reflect your organization’s culture.
- Set up individual interviews — this is where a consultant comes in handy. You will need someone firmly outside business politics to complete this step, or your employees will give the answers they think the leader wants to hear. Specifically, strategic planning consultants have a necessary role to play, as they are trained and experienced in their role as objective resources who have the skills to keep your team focused.
- Ask your consultant to aggregate the information and clearly present it, visually, to the group. This should be the beginning of an off-site meeting. Disaster awaits if the group walks into an off-site without preparation — i.e. no interviews, no aggregate information and no emergent themes. Brainstorming in a void will, at worse, lead to discord and, at best, be a waste of valuable time that should be spent on moving forward.
- Discuss the results of the interviews. Where is there agreement? Where is there consensus? Are we creative enough? Where can we improve? What are we doing right? Refine the data into one comprehensive but simple mission statement as a team. Peter Drucker, the father of management theory, said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. This process allows the team culture to drive strategy, and not the other way around.
- Cascade the mission statement to the rest of the team. This is the hardest and most important step, requiring time and commitment. Frankly, most people fail at this step, which is why people hate mission statements — they do not resonate with employees at an individual level. Not only do leaders need to share the mission statement with the team, but each employee should understand how their role and objectives tie to the mission statement, and in fact the entire organization’s strategy. This is done on a one-on-one level with managers and in group conversations as a team.
Finding your purpose is a solitary endeavor. Creating a mission requires a team. A successful organization requires both.