Leadership

Is your business’ mission statement a complete waste of wall space?

Steve Stanley /

mission statement

The CEO Institute director Steve Stanley. Source: Supplied.

A great deal of attention is paid to the importance of any business, large or small, having a vision, and the subsequent mission statement.

Many hours and, on occasions, thousands upon thousands of dollars, are spent on consultants, retreats and workshops to produce the right vision.

Why then, do some appear to have a significance, and others are words on the wall?

A picture’s worth

In essence, a vision is exactly that, a picture of what it is to be like. As humans, we operate on images. Why do we watch movies? What does a good novel generate in your mind? A picture of what is described.

We don’t dream in text, we dream imagery.

Therefore, if you have a mission statement that does not generate a clear and exciting picture in the minds of every employee, that they buy into, it’s a waste of words and will achieve nothing.

Well, it will create dissatisfaction in everyone’s minds as they have no idea where they are headed.

The Lehman Brothers’ mission statement was: “We are one firm, defined by our unwavering commitment to our clients, our shareholders, and each other. Our mission is to build unrivalled partnerships with and value for our clients, through the knowledge, creativity, and dedication of our people, leading to superior returns to our shareholders.”

Can anyone, in all honesty, say this statement forms a clear picture in their mind that creates a level of excitement and causes staff to act accordingly?

It led to Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy, with Lehman holding more than US$600 billion ($852 million) in assets. Clearly, the mission of building ‘unrivalled partnerships with and value for our clients’ was missed.

Volkswagen’s mission statement had two parts: “We assume responsibility regarding the environment, safety and social issues” and “we act with integrity and build on reliability, quality and passion as the foundation of our work”. That led to a good outcome. As a business consistently cheating emission tests, you wonder how they ‘act with integrity’, and ‘assume responsibility regarding the environment’. Why then have a set of statements outlining behaviours expected, and pay no attention to those values at the highest levels?

Actions speak louder

If culture can be defined as the behaviours that take place when no-one is looking, then changing those behaviours is the key.

Is this done with words? Never.

This can only be done when the vision, the image (of what it needs to be like), is stronger than the current reality (what it’s like now).

According to Robert Fritz, as soon as you have a vision that is different from reality, you create structural tension. If the vision is strong, energy is generated, and actions move to the vision. If it is weak, negative energy is generated, complaints increase and productivity decreases.

Producing a vision that is clear and creates a picture of how it could be, and then aligning behaviours that need to change, has real power.

As Simon Sinek says: “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” You can’t love a company if the vision isn’t the same as the reality, or if the vision is too weak to enact change.

Compare the examples of poor implementation to IKEA — its vision is “to create a better everyday life for many people”. Or, TED, to “spread ideas”.

I’m not advocating for short, catchy mission statements, but both of these evoke a picture. I can see myself working for Ikea and telling people my job is to create a better life, or at TED, telling people who ask that every day I contribute to the spread of ideas across the world.

Many people will know the story of the janitor at NASA and JFK. It is summarised like this. President John F Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” The janitor got it. He understood the vision, his part in it, and he had a purpose. He behaved accordingly.

So, is your vision a waste of time? 

If it doesn’t inspire a picture of where you want to be, cause your staff to behave differently, and translate into action, then it is.

Be real. Leadership is simple. It requires you to have a vision and inspire your team to work towards it.

You can’t do that if you have uninspiring words on the wall that no-one pays attention to.

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Steve Stanley

Steve is the director of The CEO Institute.