Mission statements are awesome. They are noble and altruistic. Inscribed on the walls of the boardroom, written in the employee handbook, and stand front-and-center on the company website. Sometimes I think they are written to be a directive to all who board the ship as if that will ensure everyone is rowing in the same direction. Unfortunately, they frequently set an ambiguous bar that few know how to reach. Don’t get me wrong; they are entirely necessary. Good mission statements inspire people to think about their day and how their work aligns with the mission. For example, Google’s mission is to, “organize the world’s information.” A simple statement sets the course, inspires innovation, and focuses attention. Google’s Chief People Officer, Laszlo Bock, tells the story of how this focused mission inspired innovations like Street View. It was created by a team at Google simply trying to “organize the world’s information.”
So why do some mission statements work and others don’t?
The mission statements that work are for internal consumption. Inspiring and effective mission statements were born out of the passion a leader has to accomplish something they knew was impossible without a high performing team focused on a cause. Think about it this way; It is not a statement, It is a MISSION. Commanders do not inspire troops with a press conference. They inspire them with a well defined and simple to execute missions.
The statements that don’t work are created as an obligatory exercise to tell the world what you are trying to accomplish. They are the press conference mentioned above. Part of an exercise in the creation of a business plan or marketing material. We fail to inspire when we confuse Mission with Marketing. Or, perhaps the statement was short-sighted and not truly created out of the passion of the leader. Or, it was the leader that drifted off course, and the rest followed. And lastly, maybe the mission statement was too complex or too vague for it to work.
Five steps to an inspiring mission statement
1. Forget about the outside world. Your mission is intended to inspire your team.
2. Keep the mission simple. It should not take more than a single sentence to set the course for your team. More than two sentences create a complex mission and will sidetrack your team. Ask yourself if every team can aim at the same target.
3. Write your statement in a way that ensures your team knows when they are working towards it. Ambiguous terms like, “provide outstanding customer service.” are not as helpful as you think. What is outstanding customer service? How does that help?
4. Make sure your mission statement does not have a finish line or an expiration date. It must inspire teams to continue to work towards a goal.
5. Your mission should change the world. Make no mistake. Our organizations are not like national parks. Our goal should not be to “leave them as we found them.” We must aspire to change the world, and our missions must inspire our teams to do the heavy lifting.
**Bonus point: the mission statement should be something leadership frequently uses in setting (and resetting) the course for the team. Having a mission statement that is applicable as the vision evolves lets you know you are on the right path.