August 5, 2016
I’ve stated many opinions in this space, but few are as likely to trigger a violent reaction as the headline of this article. Among many executives, mission statements are a sacrosanct cornerstone of corporate governance. But I’ll stand by my statement.
Now, I’m not saying that your mission statement is unimportant. After all, a well-crafted mission statement can guide your operations, give your managers and employees a foundation on which to perform tasks, and define and differentiate your company.
What I am saying is that your mission statement is meaningless to the outside world. If you’re one of those companies that is so proud of its mission statement that it’s the first thing visitors to your website see, or that it takes up the first page of your printed literature, you’re making a serious mistake. Your customers and prospects just don’t care.
(Yes, there are exceptions. For example, if you’re working for a nonprofit organization that depends upon funding from grantors and similar groups, they’ll pay close attention to how closely you’re aligned to your mission.)
Businesses did just fine without mission statements for centuries. Then, in the last couple of decades, some well-publicized business gurus decreed that every company must author a statement summarizing its purpose. Within months, they were more popular than the latest teenage fad.
I firmly believe that a key reason mission statements caught on is that in many companies, they give top-level executives a sense of accomplishment. They go off to a weekend retreat and spend two intense days trying to come up with a pithy phrase they see as reflective of their goals. Then they foist that phrase on the company and insist that every aspect of the company’s operations be measured against the statement.
The problem is that most of those mission statements are just plain awful. They’re committee efforts, which makes them a stew of compromises and settlements, instead of powerful and meaningful messages. By the time the group comes up with language everyone doesn’t hate, the words typically become vague, innocuous, and meaningless. They may sound impressive, but do they really say anything of value?
Not to employees. While many executives believe that their pronouncements are stirring statements that motivate superior performance, I’ve talked to enough line employees at dozens of companies to know better. Most employees are far more cynical about what their company’s mission statements say than the executives realize.
That’s because most employees don’t operate in a world of lofty ideas and spectacular promises. They’re just expected to get more work done in less time at lower cost, cutting corners when supervisors demand it. They may feign enthusiasm in the presence of executives, and wear the cool new T-shirt bearing the mission like good workers, but their scorn for such statements is universal. They won’t tell you, but if they’re reading this, they’re nodding.
The bigger issue comes in when executives demand that those mission statements occupy prime real estate in websites and other marketing materials. They do that based upon the mistaken belief that their prospective customers and other audiences will swoon at those carefully chosen words. But that doesn’t happen. Customers — whether we’re talking about individual consumers or business-to-business customers — aren’t interested in grand declarations of your desire to pursue service excellence.
In fact, those big, fancy statements are often counterproductive, because prospects recognize them as empty, meaningless promises. Today’s cynical buyers won’t choose your product because you have a mission to achieve world-class quality or because you claim that your people are your greatest asset. Like it or not, they’ll assume those proclamations are just so much bovine byproduct.
Besides, your websites and marketing materials shouldn’t talk about you. They should talk about your customers and their needs. Instead of empty phrases about quality and service, they should offer solid evidence of what you’ve accomplished for people and companies similar to them. They should talk about the benefits of choosing you.
If you think a mission statement is going to be valuable for your company, go ahead and draft one. I’d recommend that you keep it simple and avoid words with four or more syllables. I’d further suggest that you make it short enough so that everyone can memorize it without too much effort. But even if you wind up with a mission statement that is truly brilliant, keep in mind that the only people who will deeply care about it are the people who drafted it.