Company Mission Statements Critiqued

Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted: 07/10/2011
Mission statements. Who needs them? Who reads them? What value do they have? Are they alive to change? Do they justify all the time and money spent on them? But purists quickly will respond "Absolutely!" and then claim that mission statements are indispensable. After all, can’t steer without a rudder, navigate without a GPS, explore without a map. Along with strategic plans and vision statements, they together constitute the holy trinity of business essentials.
But for how long? And for what ends? Strategic plans are constantly updated, company visions upgraded to global and ecological parameters; not so for our poor old mission statements, which generally remain fixed, constant, cast in concrete, and last forever. What a terrible mission!
But that is the least of it. The process itself has been found to be faulty and lame. Moreover, the often unhappy and pompous results have been turned back upon its hapless creators to question whether they do more harm than good. In any case what has become clear is before we can turn to the often unhappy results we need to examine first the process that created such inflated outcomes.
A number of flaws seem built in. The most obvious is that although mission statements are intended to speak and apply to all, relatively few are actually involved in the process itself. In addition, the members of the appointed task force often contain so many mostly familiar names and faces that the final outcome is predictably the same old, same old.
Then too those chosen for the task often do not reflect internal company demographics and variety; or more significant perhaps are not generally representative of customer diversity and cultures. Finally, the head of the task force is usually a reluctant leader, an old hand who has been around the block many times, and a seasoned professional who is known for his ability to complete tasks on time and within budget—all of which misses or falls short of catching the special dynamics of crafting statements of focus and force.

The lure and illusion of finality—the mission statement to end all mission statements-- belies the fact that this not an eternal but basically an historical document and as such captures organizational change only up to this point. To be sure, many statements are dreadful--old and dated and badly need to be revisited to remain vital.

Then too the time allowed for feedback is so short or regulated that the offer is a token gesture. Finally, the latest version is mounted and fixed on both the masthead and the website, and remains generally untapped except by CEOs usually only when first promulgated. It sits there severe and inanimate devoid of any vitality, excitement and ownership.

Although direct remedies quickly come to mind, perhaps more can be accomplished by a different approach of killing two birds with one stone. Namely to start with a sample of already crafted statements and have the end drive the beginning--the result, the process.

Here then is an instructive sample of what might be given to the task force. Other examples obviously could be selected but the ones below have worked for me as a coach. I sometimes have added a few snide observations to demonstrate that mission statements are not sacred cows. Here then is my sample:

General Motors Company Mission Statement

GM is a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share our success and our stockholders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment.

Commentary: Such mission statements are often excessive. Their claims are too good to be true; they operate on a check list mentality guaranteeing a share of success to every constituency; and they are unnecessarily defensive. Mission statements should not strain credibility. Oh, by the way, what does GM make?

Wal-Mart Company Mission Statement

Our mission is to enhance and integrate our supplier diversity programs into all of our procurement practices and to be an advocate for minority and women-owned businesses.

Commentary: Many would not know what they are talking about or recognize that this is how Wal-Mart sees itself in public but not how its customers or employees perceive them. Besides, what happened to the champion of low prices and rollbacks?

Walt Disney Company Mission Statement

The mission of the Walt Disney company is to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.

Commentary: Many years earlier before all this corporate gobbledygook took over, Walt Disney himself described his mission statement simply as: "To Make People Happy."

Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company Mission Statement

We will build great ships. At a profit if we can. At a loss if we must .But we will build great ships.
Commentary: What grit and determination! Not many companies have it; even fewer would claim it.

Columbia Southern University Mission Statement

To change lives through education, and to meet the needs of adult learners in a way unmatched in higher education.
Commentary: Clear cut decision to have its mission driven by its coupling of market segment to its electronic delivery system, and to change lives in the process. Smart and whole.

Starbucks Company Mission Statement

To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.

Commentary: This is an ambitious example of a mission statement trying to change our entire sense of a cup of coffee—to be uplifting and nurturing, to be a builder of neighborhoods, not to be frenzied about its all happening but gradual and caring. The clear suggestion is that a cup of Starbucks makes you a nicer person.

What general conclusions about the sampling above can we come to?

• One size does not fit all.
• The variety is startling and unpredictable.
• The display inhabits a range from the traditional stuffy versions to a midpoint of adjusted statements and finally to short, radical, forceful and direct versions that read like an assertive rallying cries.
• Stylistically they also range from long paragraphs to one sentence short statements; from ponderous, heavy and serious proclamations to shoot from the hip almost irreverent quips.
• Mission statements are supposed to model what business you are in, what competition you face, and your core values.
• The ultimate test is that it should serve as a recruiting device leading applicants to say" That is the kind of business I want to be in and that is the kind of company I want to work for!"
What remains then is to examine ways to improve the process and the product so that they are aligned and versions of each other—almost in a cause and effect partnership. Below are two sets of correctives for the flaws of the process and then of the product.

1. Leadership
Most heads of mission task forces as noted are either reluctant or habitual. If they have done it before their basic recommendation is to update and tweak. They do not understand that this is a team developmental process which will carry over to and shape the development of the final product.
The ideal is to employ a mission statement coach to run the show from the outset; but if an insider is politically necessary then to serve as his assistant. The earlier the better because like an attorney examining jurors, the coach favors those who will support the cause of diversity and ownership.
His first steps involve their writing down why we are here together (our goals) and what we hope to accomplish (outputs). Included here in what teams call a charter which records some professional activities and personal traits about you that have always made a difference in your work and life. And then each person shares those essentials with the group. The focus throughout is on difference, not sameness.

That leads to diversity and raises two questions: how has diversity affected company operations and its relationship to its customers? Gradually also sharing of differences embraces ownership and diversity and converges a larger commonality which they now all share.
That in fact is precisely what all effective team do: develop a comma Adie and a shared understanding of the process and its goals; and from that in turn will generate a mission statement that is unified and 360. But we still have to address form and style.

2. Samples

It is at this point that we distribute the sampling of mission statements without any commentary because that is what the team will be asked to do. In addition, they will be asked to search for other mission statements in their industry and comment on these.
Then a stylistic session is set up to review and salvage two statements plus the current one from the home company. Finally a list of dos and dont's is compiled and is used as a corrective overlay on what the group finally produces.

The net result is often surprising and obvious. It disciplined but stirring. In the process somehow the flaws of process have if not eliminated are at least muted. When the final draft is presented to the CEO he may be initially shocked by its reassuring nature.

But as he begins to imagine how all will respond to reading this new mission statement, he begins slowly to smile and even laughs loudly ever time he reads it over again: "This is it--a miniature of the whole. This is what we do—who we are--we should all be doing this!"
Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted: 07/10/2011

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