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Developing a Mission Statement

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A well-constructed mission statement guides your company: focusing each employee’s work, defining your customer image and steering you through tough choices. We’ll show you how to create a compelling, effective mission statement.

OVERVIEW [top]

There is much confusion about what constitutes a mission statement. While some of America’s most successful companies attribute a measure of their success to a compelling mission statement, creating the mission statement remains one of the toughest jobs you can tackle. Your mission statement defines your company’s primary goal. It is the most dramatic presentation of your company’s immediate-term organizational objectives, management philosophy and community-outreach goals. It captures the dreams and directs the energies of those people who are in the business. A mission statement can give your company the focus it needs for growth and for shaping the legacy you want to leave behind.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Steps for writing a creative, passionate, compelling and effective mission statement.

SOLUTION [top]

Part of the confusion about what a mission statement should be, comes from its similarity to the parent concept of vision. In this quick read we rely heavily on the work done by James Collins and William Lazier in their book Beyond Entrepreneurship to draw distinctions between mission and vision.

Understand the difference between your mission and your vision

Companies often use “vision statement” and “mission statement” interchangeably. There is a difference. Vision comprises three things: your core values, your purpose and your mission. Mission, therefore, is a derivative or subset of vision.

Vision comprises:

  • Core Values. Your core values and beliefs are your guiding philosophy; the fundamental tenets that shape what your business should be.
  • Purpose. Your purpose is tightly connected to the core values and is, basically, your company’s reason for existence.
  • Mission. Your mission is your company’s clear and compelling goal that serves as a focal point of effort.

The concept of core values is usually fairly easy to grasp. They come not from asking what core values should you hold, but what core values do you actually hold. The difference between purpose and mission is more elusive. Your purpose is like a guiding star, you always strive for it, fixate on it, but you never actually reach the star. It’s what you constantly strive to attain, your reason for being. Your mission is the mountain you are currently climbing to reach closer to the star. Once you get over the mountain you refocus on your guiding star, head toward it and choose another mountain to climb. Your mission is what you intend to become or accomplish; it should be challenging but achievable.

Examples of purpose:

  • “We’re providing tools that empower people to do their best.” (Microsoft)
  • “To enhance and disseminate knowledge that improves human kind.” (Stanford University)
  • “To make the world more secure.” (Schlage Lock Company)

A mission statement must be compelling and achievable.

Examples of mission:

  • “Crush Reebok.” (one of Nike’s mission statements)
  • “We’re going to democratize the automobile.” (Henry Ford, 1920s)
  • “We’re going to take a man to the moon and back again by the end of this decade.” (NASA, 1960s)

Every mission statement should be different. Although you may refer to other examples, avoid mimicking or regurgitating what another organization with a different purpose and culture has done. Use the tone that best reflects the culture of your company. Remember: Write a mission statement that reflects your individuality, creativity and uniqueness.

How to begin crafting your statement

Devote some serious thought and soul searching to your mission statement. Jot down the answers to these questions:

  • What are your core values and beliefs? What do you actually believe in your gut?
  • What’s your purpose for being? Why does your company exist? Ask “why” five times to get to your core purpose, your ultimate reason for being in business.
  • What is the immediate hurdle you must overcome to move you closer to your purpose?

The act of writing a mission statement can be difficult. You can approach the process from a few angles.

Pick a type

There are four basic types of mission statements to choose from:

  1. Target Mission: Set a clear, well-defined target, and aim for it. This approach can also be used to set a goal of taking a company to another level of dominance, success or industry position. Example: “To give unlimited opportunity to women.” (Mary Kay Cosmetics) or “Become the dominant player in commercial aircraft and bring the world into the jet age.” (Boeing, 1950).
  2. Common Enemy Mission: Set out to defeat a common enemy. This approach can appeal to people’s competitive instincts. It can be effective in rallying your internal troops and serve as a morale booster. Example: Just like Nike, Pepsi’s focus was to dominate its number one competitor. Pepsi’s mission at one point: “Beat Coke!” Just be prepared to set a new mission once you accomplish your goal, or you may find your company drifting after it achieves success.
  3. Role Model Mission: Use an organization that you admire as an image of what you want your company to become. Example: “…to become the Wal-Mart of banking” or “…to be the IBM of the real estate industry.”
  4. Internal Transformation Mission: Reinvent your organization. This approach is rare and usually best in organizations that need a dramatic restructuring.

Additional suggestions

  • The mission must be achievable. You have to know when you have completed the goal. You need to be able to measure how far along you are.
  • Make your mission come alive with vivid colorful language. Paint a picture with your words.
  • Be sincere. Your mission must be authentic for people to buy into it. If your mission is to create a world-class company, but you are secretly hoping to sell your shares and retire, your employees will catch on, and the mission will be ineffective.
  • The mission should be a stretch. There should be some risk of not being able to accomplish the mission. The challenge helps make it compelling.

Tap the creative genius inside

Capturing the essence of your business on paper will challenge your creative genius. The Small Business Development Center, Blue Mountain Community College, helps its clients through the process with a mission-statement-creation exercise. The client is asked questions that encourage an emotional response, for example, how do you feel?) The words and phrases generated tend to be more meaningful when they describe emotions. Questions from the brainstorming process include:

  • Imagine you are a customer who has just received service from your business. As you walk outside, a friend walks up to you and asks you about the business. What are the first words that come to mind?
  • You’re walking downtown — into your vision comes your business. It’s just as you always dreamed of it — it’s complete. You walk in the door. Describe what you see.
  • Giving a customer a product or service is like giving them a gift, even though they pay for it. What are you giving your customers — wha t’s the real gift?

These exercise questions prod you as though you’re the customer because this is consistent with the market theory that encourages businesses to tune into the emotions of the customer. You can also ask yourself these questions in terms of the marketplace or industry, your community or your employees.

Write down all the words and phrases that come to mind, so you can use them to begin constructing a mission statement.

  • Use descriptive, powerful and active words. Avoid formulaic, jargon-heavy language.
  • Be clear and concise.
  • Be honest and realistic.
  • Communicate expectations and ethics.

From conception to completion

Your statement may go through several stages of revision. After each work session, put it away for a few hours or days. Tweak it as necessary, incorporating appropriate feedback from internal and external staffers, colleagues or advisers.

Finally, be prepared to create a new mission when the current mission is nearly accomplished. This can help prevent the “we’ve arrived syndrome.” This is where your company achieves its goal, and then your organization fractures into factions — each trying to go in a different direction. Putting a new compelling goal in place before the completion of the current goal will make sure your company keeps moving forward toward your purpose, that guiding star on the horizon.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., the Vermont-based manufacturer of ice cream, frozen yogurt and sorbet, was founded in 1978 by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. In 1988 Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. created a document called the Statement of Mission.

Ben & Jerry’s is dedicated to the creation and demonstration of a new corporate concept of linked prosperity. Our mission consists of three interrelated parts: product, economic and social.

Underlying the mission is the determination to seek new and creative ways of addressing all three parts, while holding a deep respect for individuals inside and outside the company, and for the communities of which they are a part.

Product — To make, distribute and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and related products in a wide variety of innovative flavors made from Vermont dairy products.

Economic — To operate the Company on a sound financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our shareholders, and creating career opportunities and financial rewards for our employees.

Social— To operate the Company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in the structure of society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life of a broad community— local, national, and international.

Underlying the mission of Ben & Jerry’s is the determination to seek new and creative ways of addressing all three parts, while holding a deep respect for individuals inside and outside the Company and for the communities of which they are a part.

(© Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc.; www.benjerry.com/mission.html)

Other favorite missions:

“Our whole people and empire have vowed themselves to the single task of cleansing Europe of the Nazi pestilence and saving the world from the new dark ages. We seek to beat the life and soul out of Hitler and Hitlerism. That alone. That all the time. That to the end.” (Winston Churchill, 1940)

“This nation should dedicate itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” This mission, as spoken by President Kennedy in 1961, is exact, clear, exciting, and compelling — it’s achievable and once you have finished it, you return to your purpose and create a new mission.

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces. The horse will have disappeared from our highways, the automobile will be taken for granted.” This mission by Henry Ford illustrates the descriptive colorful language that helps communicate the vision.

“Put a PC on every desk and in every home.” (Bill Gates, 1975) This mission still guides Microsoft today.

DO IT [top]

  1. Make a commitment to write a mission statement. Set a date to begin the creative process. Don’t rush through the project. Remember: Writing a statement is a challenging task.
  2. Identify a circle of crucial people associated with your company who can help contribute to the creation of your mission statement. Consider including valued employees and managers and people from your board of directors, advisory board, vendors, strategic partners, investors, or financial and legal advisers.
  3. Provide each person with how-to information on creating a mission statement. Take the ideas, questions, examples and exercises presented above and compile them into a written questionnaire for each person to complete.
  4. Compile the questionnaire responses to be used as the framework for a creation session. From the circle of crucial people, select a formalized working committee of up to seven people to participate in a mission-statement-creation session(s). Schedule the session(s) off-site.
  5. In the session, encourage people to think aloud about what the statement should say. Have the participants write on cards and post their thoughts and concepts on a board. Rework and combine statements. The “best” mission should emerge and become apparent to everyone if it truly represents the shared core beliefs and purpose held by the organization. If you aren’t clear on your core beliefs and your purpose, work on those first.
  6. Host an event to formally unveil the mission statement.
  7. Post the statement on the workplace walls and Web site, insert it in employee handbooks and print it on business cards. Everyone needs to know what mountain they should be climbing.
  8. Make it a policy that the mission statement should be the first consideration for any employee who is evaluating a strategic decision.
  9. Annually have your employees grade the company in the areas covered in the mission statement to ensure that your company is on track.
  10. Update your mission when you get close to completion. Your purpose should last for 100 years, but your mission will probably change every 5 to 10 years. Your strategy will change yearly.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Beyond Entrepreneurship: Turning Your Business Into an Enduring Great Company by James C. Collins and William C. Lazier (Prentice Hall, 1995).

The Mission Statement Book: 301 Corporate Mission Statements from America’s Top Companies by Jeffrey Abrahams (Ten Speed Press, 1999).

Say It & Live It: 50 Corporate Mission Statements That Hit the Mark by Patricia Jones and Larry Kahner (Doubleday, 1995).

Internet Sites

How to Create and Use a Mission Statement. Jack Deal, 1997.

Build the Perfect Mission, by Mary Campbell. ABCNews.com.

How to Write a Mission Statement. Grantsmanship Center Magazine (Fall 1 998). Excerpted from Strategic Communications for Nonprofit Organizations: Seven Steps to Creating a Successful Plan, by Janet M. Radtke. (Wiley, 1998).

How Do You Bring the Vision Statement to Life? Ivy Sea Online.

Article Contributors

Writers: Kimberly Stans

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