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What's a Mission Statement and Honestly, Why Should I Care?

First, let’s establish a mutual understanding of terms. People often find themselves in a conversation, debating what they think are different sides of an issue, only to realize they agree in principle and are arguing terminology. Below is an understanding of common terms that don’t always have common meaning:

Values – The basic principle-centered ideals from which an individual measures the worth of actions, interactions, and outcomes. Examples: loyalty, honesty, fidelity, compassion, etc.

Vision – What a person sees as a desired reality to come. What one wants to be or become as an individual or an organization. Examples: “I would like to be wise and kind”. Or, “Our Company will be a place where people enjoy their work and others value the work we do.”

Mission – What will it take to accomplish the vision? What do we all want to accomplish? How will we meet the needs and expectations of our stakeholders? Examples: “I will facilitate the success of others.” Or, “We will provide quality responsible services, which will provide security and fulfillment to employees; win/win partnerships with our vendors; profitable return on investment for owners; and positive contribution to our community.”

Plan – The strategic plan developed and written to accomplish specific stakeholder outcomes

Practices – Systems implemented and actions taken to follow through on the plan

What a Mission Statement is Not

A mission statement is not a few magic words that inspire the otherwise confused masses to greatness. Nor is it orders from the boss to tell employees what’s really important around here.

No, there is nothing intrinsically magical about a mission statement. A mission statement in which employees have no ownership or put no value is more likely to motivate negatively than positively. One of the major benefits of mission statements also happens to be what creates great risk. A mission statement serves to help judge the integrity of actions and decisions with the stated values of the company. Therefore, if actions or decisions are consistently considered to not be in line with stated values, the integrity of the actor(s) or decision maker(s) is suspect, maybe even ridiculed. After all, nobody likes a hypocrite.

Though no one intends to act in ways that encourage others to label them harshly, negative conclusions do commonly occur when others can’t see the connection between what is said and done. It’s that if-I-don’t-know-I’ll-make-it-up thing. When we do make it up, for some reason it’s seldom pretty. In other words, if we’re not walking the talk, what we say will come back to hurt us.

Understanding even some of the risk, why would anyone ever want to invest time and money in developing a mission statement?

What a Mission Statement Is

A mission statement reflects a deep understanding of mutual purpose, giving all actions taken on behalf of the company united value and direction. It can serve as a gauge – even a lodestar – by which the value of actions and decisions can be measured. To each individual, a mission statement can provide a sense of personal direction and orientation within the company. “I get the big picture and know how I can contribute.”

According to Stephen Covey, trust is the highest form of human motivation. Though most of us readily acknowledge the value of a high-trust environment, we often feel the negative results of violated trust and don’t even know how we got there. For many of us, trust is either there or it isn’t. What value, then, would we put on being able to deliberately create the conditions of trust?

The ability to identify or create mutual purpose is essential in establishing conditions of trust. If I know that you want what I want, I don’t have to worry about manipulation or hidden agendas. A mission statement that is well conceived, written, communicated and integrated into the company’s culture can provide the basis of trust to help an organization move forward. Of course, that’s only the beginning. Good leadership and management require using this focal point to measure the worth of ongoing behaviors and doing so in a way that is motivating and logical.

In the development of a mission statement, process is more important than product. Experience has taught that involvement is a major factor in commitment. If you want employees to be committed to the interests of the company, they need to be significantly involved in the process. “I am more willing to commit to ‘our’ cause than ‘your’ cause.”

An effective mission statement acknowledges consideration of all of the stakeholders of the company. If we truly believe “the customer is always right,” we may soon find we are unable to meet customer demands. Without the commitment of investors, employees, vendors, and the community, we will find the resources required to meet our obligations are lacking or not there at all. Likewise, focusing only on any one of the stakeholders and/or neglecting any of the other stakeholders exposes an Achilles heel. This vulnerability can often prove to be an unexpected setback or downfall just when we’re moving full speed ahead and we think the world is our oyster. With this in mind, a balanced mission can create a solid foundation upon which lasting success can be built. Having clearly identified and articulated the needs of each stakeholder group provides the basis for a relevant strategic plan. This same sense of mission will allow the organization to measure the success of that plan.

In the final analysis, it comes down to what we want and what we’re willing to do about it. Developing a mission statement isn’t a quick and easy process; not if we want to do it right. If done poorly or we’re not willing to commit to it, it may even do more harm than good. And yet, if we want to be a great company and not just good, the process of developing a mission statement can be an essential contribution to a company of qualified, committed people working together to accomplish mutual purpose.

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