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Why Mission Statements Suck

I’m not arguing against a clear definition of where a company is going and what sets it apart. My beef is with the way the particular corporation’s guiding principle is expressed; it is generally verbose, convoluted and incapable of resonating with employees or inspiring them. I’m not the first person to say this. Yet, companies large and small from start-ups to blue chippers continue to err in crafting compelling, single-minded mantras.

Exxon Mobil Corporation’s mission is an example of a poor statement. “We are committed to being the world’s premier petroleum and petrochemical company. To that end, we must continuously achieve superior financial and operating results while adhering to the highest standards of business conduct. These unwavering expectations provide the foundation for our commitments to those with whom we interact.” How many of their 86,000 employees will remember something like that? Exxon Mobil might as well have said, “We want to make tons of money, honestly.” The statement may be true, but it sure as hell isn’t motivating.

Then there’s the Barnes & Noble statement from a few years ago. They seem to know what they are selling but are unsure how to express their differentiation. “Our mission is to operate the best specialty retail business in America, regardless of the product we sell. Because the product we sell is books, our aspirations must be consistent with the promise and the ideals of the volumes which line our shelves. To say that our mission exists independent of the product we sell is to demean the importance and the distinction of being booksellers . . .” From there, another 100 words of blah, blah, blah.

Now for three good ones: Brothers First, Business Second is the caption under a faded framed wall photo of two youngsters who look to be six or seven years old. The picture hangs in one of my favorite Italian eateries run by the now-adult brothers. Instantly, I feel good about the proprietors and their food. 2000 by 2000 was Starbucks’ mission twenty years ago. CEO Howard Schultz wanted 2000 stores up and running by the new millennium. Starbucks achieved the target two years early. Every employee knew the purpose and they worked hard as a team to reach the goal. I also like, Saving People Money So They Can Live Better. Who better than Wal-Mart to make this claim, although a Google image search for “People of Wal-Mart” makes me wonder if these particular customers are living better.

A tip on writing good missions is to limit the statement to no more than ten words. Do that and you will have made the tough decision about what the company really stands for. Strategic sacrifice brings clarity and focus. Simple, single-minded missions bring results.

Share the best and worst you’ve encountered.

  1. tabula rasa

    I worked for a large telecom company for 25 years, some of them during the years when “mission statements” became fashionable. We had a mission statement (actually, several of them). I’d like to tell you what they were, but they were so vague, so banal that I can’t remember a single word of any of them, except “stakeholders” (a word that should be drummed out of the language).

    I’m certain that less than one percent of employees could have told you the mission statement.

    Here’s one I like:  “Our mission is to be profitable by providing valuable products (or services), to make our shareholders wealthier, and and to employ good people.”

    But, then, isn’t that sort of obvious.

  2. flownover

    Tabula is spot-on ( as usual). The worst thing was having to chair the meetings and actually paying some rah-rah consultant to “guide the group” .  The late 70s and early 80s gave rise to these fumbling thought games.  In the end it was just some silly game to remind people that they were engaged in selling something to someone else and that there might be something else to the process that would enrich their lives. Argh ! How about working hard, having fun, and getting paid ? Emotional rewards should be gained at home, perhaps it was the beginning of the bowling alone thing.

  3. Bryan G. Stephens

    One I heard from a MD for Behavioral Health that I liked. We did not adopt it but it is perfect:

    Do Good. Get Paid. Do More Good.

    That is my mission boiled down for my line of work.

    For a vision, this one is mine:

    Make the World a better place one person at a time.

  4. Mel Foil

    The mission goes in stages. Once you have surviving week to week handled, then you can worry about month to month, and then year to year, decade to decade. Beyond decade to decade, you’re kind of just dreaming.

  5. Jager

    When working with consultants on Strategic Planning it always started with the mission statement. The statement meant nothing and was something that we had to get through so that we could get to the actual work setting our future plans.  

  6. John Bell
    C
    Bryan G. Stephens: One I heard from a MD for Behavioral Health that I liked. We did not adopt it but it is perfect:

    Do Good. Get Paid. Do More Good.

    That is my mission boiled down for my line of work.

    For a vision, this one is mine:

    Make the World a better place one person at a time.

    6 minutes ago

    You nailed it, Byan. So much to take from both of those mantra’s. The first suggests the company is a no BS, straight-shooter who wants to be finanically rewarded in a “higher purpose” business. As for the second one .. hard to top that personal vision statement. Something tells me it’s working for you.

  7. Dean Murphy

    the Purple Promise:

    “I Promise to be Purple”

    or

    “I Promise to make every FedEx Experience Outstanding!”

  8. Diane Ellis
    C

    I really like the mission statement of my church in San Francisco:

    City Church exists to follow Christ to renew the city.

    Short, simple, and tells a new visitor that this is a church that a) isn’t bashful about actually confessing that we believe in Jesus (you’d be surprised at how many churches never mention Jesus Christ in weekly sermons); and b) that the church is mission oriented and involved in serving the poor and downtrodden of San Francisco.

  9. flownover

    Or there’s this take on an old one:

    “You know how to make God laugh ?

    Show him your mission statement .”

    Seeing Diane’s post reminds me of another SF church, whose mission statement is:

    to create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.
  10. Greg Cook

    When I worked at an electric utility company back when mission statements were all the rage, we were all required to attend a series of meetings to brainstorm.  First we were each told to say what we thought the most important goal of the company was.  Thinking that they were serious, I said “to make money for the stockholders.”  Silly me.  I wasn’t invited back to the next meeting.

  11. AIG

    But why should a mission statement “motivate” anyone? It’s intent is to express the reason for the company’s existence in order to drive everyone’s behavior towards contributing to that mission. In most (if not all) businesses, that mission does boil down to “make more money”. If it’s anything else, you might not be doing it right. Wal-mart’s mission statement, and others which are designed to ‘feel good”, are mainly marketing tools. But even they boil down to “make more money”. That may be a reason why “mission statements” are so dull.

  12. Aaron Miller

    There’s a brewery in Texas that has a billboard saying: “Our beer goes through 30 Czechs per day.”

    It’s an advertisement, but it serves well as a mission statement as well. Translation: We have so much faith in our product, we use it ourselves.

  13. John Bell
    C
    AIG: But why should a mission statement “motivate” anyone? It’s intent is to express the reason for the company’s existence in order to drive everyone’s behavior towards contributing to that mission. In most (if not all) businesses, that mission does boil down to “make more money”. If it’s anything else, you might not be doing it right. Wal-mart’s mission statement, and others which are designed to ‘feel good”, are mainly marketing tools. But even they boil down to “make more money”. That may be a reason why “mission statements” are so dull. · 2 minutes ago

    If it was this simple, everyone would work at the place that paid the most money. If there wasn’t something more to motivate an individual to work harders, they’d underperform. Steve Jobs landed John Scully by saying, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life (Pepsi) or change the world?” Scully tried to change the world and failed. Jobs and Woz changed the world. The money was a bonus for doing so.

  14. AIG

    John Bell, I agree with that. People chose to work in one place or another on more than just money. After all, we don’t all have the same capabilities, and therefore we have to work in different fields to take full advantage of our differences.

    But I don’t think the mission statement of a business deals directly with that. Vision, objectives and goals may at some point, but the reason I think that the mission statement ought to be “make more money”, is because no matter what your desired reward is, in business it is measured through money. Steve Jobs etc also had as their mission statement “be rewarded as much as possible”. Whether that was through monetary means or not is not very important. Money is just the motivation of business, even if not of people.

    I think over the decades of this trend of building mission statements, somewhere along the line the exercise lost its meaning and turned into one of the two examples given here; either too broad, or focused on motivation.

  15. John Bell
    C

    AIG – You know, it might come down to this: those of us who worked for companies with genuine, purposeful and honest missions, and saw the results in motivated people and healthy bottom lines are the proponents of meaningful missions. When I was a CEO, my mantra was employees first, customers second, shareholders third – the theory being that happy employees make happy customers and happy customers make happy shareholders. Sure, if I didnt’ provide an acceptable ROI there was going to be trouble. One key to success in the corner office is managing shareholder expectations.

  16. Percival

    @flownover, the “radically inclusive” part is a little troubling.

    The British Royal Navy was being “radically inclusive” when they ran press  gangs.

  17. paulebe

    The mission statement is one of a thousand (or more) favors of the week/year/decade that breeze in and out of business, often at the hand of ardent consultants who ask lots of (stupid) questions, create reports with charts based on their findings, and deliver absolutely nothing. I met with one just the other day that had sold my firm on a multi year plan for a technology that will likely not even exist 2 years from now. The plan began with: Anyone? Anyone? A mission statement. Oh, and the “People of WalMart” video is horrifyingly funny!

  18. SMG

    I like Scott Adams’ mission statement myself (paraphrasing): “Rub my bald spot once a day.”  More measurable than any other mission statement ever devised, and I’d suggest more meaningful as well.

  19. wilber forge

    As an IT fellow, found myself with a large Insurance Co. for some years.

    Not only was the Mission Statement rather gaseous, the mandatory employee meetings were costly and wastefull. When one was held in Home Office, videos were produced and distributed . All had to signoff, literaly, that they had been viewed.

    An example of very old concepts.

  20. Indaba

    Most mission statements are all statement and no mission, the Steve Jobs example is about what would make you breathless if you achieved it? The whole point is to say why you’re doing what you’re doing. What makes you care? Look at the start of Johnson & Johson’s famous credo: “Our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, and patients, mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” That is very clear about their priorities. Also, putting employees first, over clients, would set the team on fire to do their best. So I also like missions that use quirky, non jargon language. Break china to help the customer, that is for a high growth bank who did end up going international. If you put it next to other banks’ mission statements, you could tell the difference.

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