Why Most Mission Statements Suck
Let me be clear at the outset; 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 a corporation’s guiding principle is expressed. Generally, it is verbose, convoluted and incapable of resonating with employees. So how in the world can it inspire them? I’m certainly not the first person to make this proclamation. 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.”
Exxon Mobil seems to think their unwavering expectations provide the foundation for their commitments to those with whom they interact. They don’t. How many of their 77,000 employees will respond to a statement like that? Exxon Mobil might as well have said, “We want to make tons of money, honestly.” This, of course, is the truth, but it sure as hell isn’t motivating.
My beef is with the way a corporation’s guiding principle is expressed. Generally, it is verbose, convoluted and incapable of resonating with employees. So how in the world can it inspire them?
Then there’s Barnes & Noble, which seems 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 . . .”
That’s just the preamble to another 100 words of blah, blah, blah.
Now for some 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 2,000 stores up and running by the new millennium. Starbucks achieved that goal two years early. Every employee knew the purpose and they worked hard as a team to achieve it.
I also like this simple mission: “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 those particular customers are living better.
Some people think mission statements have to define what the company does, how they do it, and what value is added and for whom. In Wal-Mart’s case, everyone knows what the company does. The rest of the company’s story tells us the target (anyone looking for a good deal) and the value Wal-Mart brings to the customers.
“How they do it” doesn’t seem to matter to this retailer’s loyal customers. For the record, “scale economies” tops the list, but Wal-Mart is also awfully good at sourcing and accepting lower unit margins than its competition.
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 engage employees and customers.
They don’t have to suck.
Image credit: chrisdorney / 123RF Stock Photo