The Dreaded Mission Statement

Posted by Trevor on 11 May 2012 | 1 Comment

California sunsetA mission statement: every company has one. Usually it involves a vague definition of the organization’s purpose, direction of growth and internal cultural values. But too often, mission statements provide little benefit to anyone involved with the company. Of equally little value is the process executives negotiate to create the statement.

I have a strong opinion about mission statements because I have lost too many days of my life to the tortuous exercise of defining a company’s mission, vision and values. I have never enjoyed the process, nor been convinced that the end result is worthwhile.

When I started my own company, I was delighted to avoid the dreaded mission statement. But I didn’t quite escape the process entirely. While presenting an opportunity to a group of investors, my partners and I were asked about our company mission statement. The investors were impressed with our business plan and even more impressed with our proven profitability over the prior few years, but they still wanted to know our mission, vision and values. What could we do?  We made one up on the spot, and it is the best mission statement I have ever been involved in creating, because it came naturally. We said: “Make a positive difference in people’s lives, have fun doing it and share the financial rewards of that success.”  The investors thought it was great, and we thought it was great too, because it was the truth.

Where I think most companies go wrong is that they approach the mission statement process backwards. You can’t have a group of executives sit in splendid isolation to define the mission of the company and then pass it down to everyone below and expect people to embrace it or customers to be impressed; the mission statement should begin with the customer.

Most MBA courses view corporate structure as an equilateral triangle with the CEO at the apex, her executive team below, followed by layers of middle management, and the workers at the base. Then their diagram has an arrow pointing to the word customer that lies some distance from the triangle. (In reality this triangle sags like a middle-age paunch because most corporations suffer from a bloated middle management bureaucracy that Green And Berry (2004) estimated cost consumers over $900 billion a year in corporate wastefulness. Many of them, I am sure, spend a large percentage of their time defining mission, vision, and values.) I have always viewed company structures differently with the customer at the apex, and the CEO below that, closely in touch with the customer and totally responsible for his or her satisfaction. Many CEOs I know look down their noses at that diagram.

The customer is the reason you are in business. How do your customers benefit from the service you provide?  What is their impression of you and your company? It is the customer who sets your mission, vision and values.

I have encountered too many executives who have distanced themselves from their customer. These executives hire others to talk to customers for them, and generate market research reports that become sanitized to impress the boss. These executives think that this is sufficient. It’s not. That attitude is what creates a distance between what the company was set up to do and what it evolves into. Setting a mission, vision and values without the customer’s involvement and input sets the entire process on the wrong path. If I was a management consultant and I was brought in to help a company create a mission statement, I would stop the meeting, grab everyone by the scruff of the neck and drag them out to talk to customers, because listening to customers is what we’re supposed to do in business.

In my never humble opinion, the purpose of being in business is to make a positive difference with your product or your service, to have fun while you are doing that (otherwise why else are you doing it) and to make some profit for everybody involved. Everybody wins, and that’s a worthwhile mission, vision and set of values.

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