Why Most Mission Statements Suck

Mission Statement

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

John Bell

John Bell is the author of Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. A retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations, his periodic musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in various journals including Fortune and Forbes. John has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. He can be reached at his blog http://www.ceoafterlife.com/

  • richardwnewton

    A key way of ensuring that employees connect with the mission is to
    involve them in it’s creation rather than forcing it on them as a ‘this
    is what/who we are now’. In my experience this can lead to a much higher
    uptake of employees who connect with and work towards it, fulfilling
    organizational as well as personal objectives. Employees who live the
    mission will also obviously assist the organization in ensuring that it
    is not just a nice poster covering the cracks in the wall (and in the

  • Gil Broza

    As part of my work coaching teams and departments, we craft mission statements for them. It’s sometimes like pulling teeth, but well worth the effort. (And there’s always a naysayer who just want to get on with the work :-))

    I used to like YouTube’s “Broadcast Yourself”, until it turned into “Rebroadcast anything you find on TV”.

  • JohnRichardBell

    Thanks Gil and Richard for your comments. For the record, I’m always wary of involving employees in the creation of the Mission/Vision. No question, “buy-in” is critical. Yet having employees creating the mission at the outset can back-fire when their vision differs from that of the leaders. I prefer to see top management doing the ground work first, gauging response, refining, improving, inspiring. In the final analysis, the CEO defines which mountain in the range the team will climb.

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