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Mission Impossible ? - Make Your Mission Work for You

In the many, many meetings that I have had with business owners, entrepreneurs, managers, company boards, department heads and, just as importantly, those key individuals working in the operational activities of a business one of the issues that generated the widest spectrum of response from participants was that of Mission Statements.

In order to clarify why mission statement have become so important, I first sought out a description of the word “mission” and differentiate between this and “Vision Statements” that also appear in many company profiles.

Vision –“ the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be: prophetic vision; the vision of an entrepreneur”; that is more prophetic, less specific and somewhat tenuous. ( I do recommend that you take a brief excursion to The Body Shop website and click “About” where a perfect example of Anita Roddick’s vision can be found.

After excluding all those definitions of “mission” relating to missionary work, armed forces operations and some rather obscure references to “personal relationships” I decided that this one was probably the most appropriate and the most relevant source for further development in this article;

Mission - “an assigned or self-imposed duty or task; calling; vocation”.

So this is the “mission” in our “mission statements”.

During the “fact-finding” phase of my consultancy projects I interview from all levels of the business (if it is an ongoing concern) and/or with the key decision makers and directors as possible. Their respective position regarding their company mission statement is about as varied and unique as the fingerprints of those individuals with whom I am interviewing. How long should they be? What are the key elements that need to be expressed and what, if any, can be implied? Who has input into the wording? Who is responsible for communicating and measuring the results? Should it be an internally constructed document or is it worth investing in savvy marketing and business agencies?

“Mission statement? It’s one of those marketing things isn’t it?”

“What’s that?”

Oh yes, my boss told us about that in the annual department review.”

“Is that Tom Cruise’s latest film?”

You get the picture.

I have seen mission statements that read like the blueprints for Napolean’s march on Stalingrad (and proved to be as effective!) and those which seemed to have been scribbled hastility on the back of an envelope whilst waiting in the rain for a cab.

So, thought I, what is the point of a mission statement?

Who should participate in it’s formulation?

How relevant is it to the actual daily workings of a business?

How, if at all, should it be communicated?

Is there a way to construct an effective statement and how best to ensure that it is relevant to the business and, in my opinion more importantly, its staff?

The following examples a typical specimen and highlights my point perfectly; and, for all you budding company lawyers out there, the names have been changed to protect the innocent!

Company 1

Original statement:

“To be the best seller of teddy bears in the country” Well, that’s straight-forward enough, you may say, clear, memorable and, assuming that they sell teddy bears, appropriate; but let me expand a little by breaking down the statement;

“To be” ….. well, so far so good. It states that the company is focussed on “becoming” something; a statement of intent on improving, or retaining their position in the teddy bear market. Ok – let’s move on.

…. “the best” ….. Well, not quite so good here – the best at what? Number of teddy bear sales?; the nicest to deal with?; the largest mark up?; the strongest brand?; the highest customer satisfaction results?; who measures and decides “the best”?; - you see my point?

… “seller of teddy bears” … what type of teddy bear?; what if they want to branch out into other cuddly, furry animals?; what about what about product reliability/returns?; where is the after-sales service?;

… “in the country”. Fairly straightforward here you may think but does this mean the they will never sell abroad?; is “the country” England, the UK, Great Britain? And finally, over what period is the measurement going to take place? Over a sales year or on that 3rd Thursday in June last year, you remember, following the Great teddy bear plague of old London town.

So, whilst I have not exhausted all of the potential weaknesses in the statement I am sure that you see my point. Now onto who should be aware of this mysterious mission statement? Is it just something on the management To Do List and tucked away in the board room with the original business plan and the pile of pens that came back from the printers with the wrong coloured logo?

In my opinion, whether you are writing a mission statement or a shopping list, if you aren’t going to use it, don’t bother writing it out in the first place. If it suits your business to slowly meander down the aisles browsing at the latest exotic products, picking something from here, something else from there and hoping that there is enough money in your purse to pay for it all when you are done then so be it; but I think we all know the folly of that method. In which case, let’s revisit the above statement so that I may present you with some alternative thoughts;

“To be ….” – all OK here for now so let’s move on.

… “the best” … - say’s who? It could be more specific. The number of items sold; the value of total sales; incorporate some customer satisfaction feedback; consider all aspects of the sale so that stakeholders, managers and staff all understand what and how they become “the best”.

… “seller of teddy bears” …. Maybe expand seller to include distribution, service and maintenance, industry measurements; product development; other products and supplementary/complimentary product revenues.

… “in the country”. This may be enough but the more specific the target market then the more easily achievements can be monitored, measured and communicated.

Next I considered the range of responses that I received regarding who should be aware of the statement. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, the mission statement seemed to be something that senior management and company directors were aware of (although an embarrassing number could not accurately recite to me their own company statement word for word and some hardly even had the gyst of it!) and the more I discussed it with line and operational staff, the less there was any awareness and even less association of and with it. It struck me then, and more so now, that the directors/board were missing a massive opportunity. That of not only being clear and precise about the direction, values and performance criteria of the company but also that unless some, if not all, of the key measures incorporated into the mission statement were filtered down throughout the whole organisation then the chance of actually achieving the required results were far less likely. Incorporating statement values into management objectives and staff targets, whether qualitative or quantitative, invariably improved results at an individual, departmental and company level.

I wish to expand on the principle a little further and maybe make something of a bold statement;

Vision statements and Mission statements ARE NOT THE EXCLUSIVE territory of businesses. There, I have said it! You can come up with your own. In my dealings with personal development coaches as well as many business coaches it is clear that the principles to improvement and achievement are similar. They require clarity and focus; intent and commitment. Also a method of measurement and a timeframe in which to gauge the results.

Try it for yourself. It does not have to be overly sophisticated but you DO have to be honest and realistic with yourself (and/or your fellow business/life partners) which is frequently a larger stumbling block than first anticipated!

I am pretty certain that Napolean did not stand upon a hilltop on the Russian border and recite his mission statement to the troops but maybe if he had done they would have given him direct and relevant feedback about the Russian winter, supply and logistics issues, ammunition supplies and the tactics of the opposition – all vital elements indeed in a campaign to expand his unique “product” into an unknown but attractive new market.

I have unfortunately witnessed the pain of businesses that start with the best intentions, products and energy only to flounder because they were not actually sure what they wished to achieve. Market share, most sales, better work/life balance, locations abroad etc etc – all admirable and valid hopes but without a co-ordinated, defined and specific mission they lost their way. Sad but true. I will close by loosely para-phrasing a well known but under-deployed saying by Mark Twain;

“if you don’t know where you are going, how do you know when you get there?

Think about it – for yourself AND your business.

  • What is the point of a mission statement?

Your mission statement should be just that !! It is a description of EXACTLY what you wish to achieve, how you are going to achieve it, what resources are required, the timescale and an appropriate series of measurements/performance indicators.

  • How long should the mission statement be?

Clearly there is no absolute and definitive answer here as it very much depends upon the size and scope of your (business or personal) mission !!; but that said, I have found that as independent business owners and SME management teams start to truly focus on their mission (and have sorted the “would likes” from the “must haves” and the “vision” from the “mission”) that the average size is usually between 1500 and 2000 words; half to a full size A4 sheet in other words.

  • What are the key elements that need to be expressed and what, if any, can be implied?

Again this is personal/business specific BUT key elements that typically create the most effective statements include;

Product/service revenue and/or profits

Quantity measures (of volume)


Reference to Return on Investment

Brand awareness

Customer feedback/satisfaction

Market share

Corporate Social Responsibility/Environmental issues

Product development/investment

Corporate values


Fixed measurement criteria

Staff development/satisfaction

Stakeholder satisfaction

The important issue really is to be clear, honest and realistic!

  • Who should participate in it's formulation?

Simply, the key decision makers MUST be the key delivery mechanism and vice versa. The mission must be CREATED AND OWNED by the people/person/team that will be responsible for delivering it. Inclusion in the creation process of your mission ensures a mission that is clear, comprehensive and relevant.

  • How relevant is it to the actual daily workings of a business?

In a word, vital. Integral to your daily activities, your resource and time planning, your measurements and reports, the mission should be behind every objective, strategy and task – from the Chairman to the trainee, from the field to the desk, first thing in the morning to last thing at night. It IS that important if you want it to work. And why would you not ??

  • How, if at all, should it be communicated?

This is more sensitive. Some of the mission MAY include sensitive activities, data or targets and discretion is required but as a general comment, open and clear communication usually encourages support and understanding which, in my experience, is the best way to deal with people. If you are completing a “personal” mission then who you tell is clearly up to you but generally, if you need support then tell those who you may require to help why you are doing it and what you hope to achieve. In a business environment, keep it visible wherever reasonable and possible.

  • Is there a way to construct an effective statement and how best to ensure that it is relevant to the business and, in my opinion more importantly, its staff?

Typically, involve the “key players”. Inclusion invites support. Brainstorm. Detach and review. Filter out the generalizations and exploit the creativity of the participants. Word and re-word but BE SPECIFIC and clear. It is not always possible nor is it realistic to include everyone but if a person or team or department is vital to the business, and therefore to the mission, then their inclusion in the process usually ensures their support of its delivery. Imposition is possible but incorporation is preferred.

  • Should it be an internally constructed document or is it worth investing in savvy marketing and business agencies?

Honestly? – both!!! There are excellent resources out there but I have found that generally, once the creative ball is rolling, the momentum is from the owners and not the agency. Good coaches/consultants bring independence and detachment. They do not get hooked up on “restrictions” such as people, politics or internal point scoring. They bring calm to the creative storm BUT the business/person owns the mission and I have seen too many times money wasted on savvy marketing agencies that steer the decisions or delay and extend the process for their own goals. Also, ensure that when you engage a consultant that they are capable and available to move the mission statement to the next level – how can you deliver it ???

It is an essential phase of business development and direction; don’t invest time and energy into something that sits in a drawer.

Your mission is the starting point – making it work is the next step !!!!!

About the Author

Phil Birch
Business Editor
the 3rd i

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