If you peruse the websites of most companies today, you’ll likely see an elaborate description of their vision and mission, and perhaps even a listing of their core values. It will probably say something about “exceeding customer expectations,” “taking care of all our stakeholders,” and creating a culture that promotes “respect and dignity for all.” In my experience, most of these statements are usually meaningless drivel that have little to no relevance to how the company operates. So is it really necessary to go through the motions of creating these documents, and if so, how do you do it in a more meaningful way? Let’s examine those questions more closely.
Vision and mission statements are often confused with each other. Here’s the difference: A properly written vision statement is a description of where you want the organization to be at some future point. If done well, it should be both aspirational and inspirational. It’s an explanation of what you aspire to create, and it should inspire your people to want to go there.
A mission statement, on the other hand, describes the organization’s purpose. It answers the question of why the organization exists in the first place. Ideally, the organization exists for some greater purpose than only to make money. While there’s no reason to apologize for making money, financial reward is usually a byproduct of successfully serving some greater need.
When used effectively, these statements help to create organizational clarity and a sense of purpose. Without these, many companies simply wander aimlessly from opportunity to opportunity. They react and respond to whatever fires need to be put out or whatever opportunities happen to show up in their world. A strong mission can be used as a guide for determining which opportunities should be pursued — only those that further the organization’s purpose.
The problem with most vision and mission statements is that they’re too often written as marketing pieces that the CEO (or sometimes a consultant) thought would look/sound good on the company website or in a marketing brochure. They lack passion and emotional commitment. Unless the CEO is deeply passionate about what he/she is calling out, it will never be used as a practical tool to guide company direction and strategy.
Let me share with you the vision and mission that I created when I was running my former company, an employee benefits consulting firm. Our vision, quite simply, was:
To be the best run small business in America
We were dead serious in our pursuit of this goal, with the national Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award as the target indicator of success. This vision played a significant role in how and why we worked to optimize every aspect of our operation — sales, service, finance, HR, leadership, etc. It was an accurate description of what we wanted to become.
Our mission was:
To help small and mid-size businesses to be more successful by:
This mission was important for us because it set forth the reasons why we did what we did. Our overall purpose was to help small and mid-size businesses to be more successful. We did this through two different, but equally important, avenues. The first was our traditional business model of helping make their benefits (which were usually pretty dysfunctional) work better. All of our strategies served to do just that. But at the same time, we were interested in more than just their benefits. We truly wanted to inspire them to greater heights by their experience of our extraordinary service and performance excellence. We frequently held seminars and spoke with senior leadership teams from our customers to teach them how we did the things we did. This was not a distraction for us. It was a core part of our mission.
Making their benefits work, and by
Inspiring them through extraordinary service and performance excellence
The Role of Values
The purpose of identifying core values is to outline the principles, beliefs, and behaviors that we want to govern how we live our lives as members of the organization. They are the very foundation of our organization’s culture. While rules may tell us what we can or cannot do, our values tell us what we should do.
As with vision and mission, the primary shortcoming of most values statements is that they lack passionate commitment. They’re often watered-down generic concepts like respect and integrity and quality, with little definition or utility. Too often they’re the result of a collaborative process that seeks to appease a variety of constituents.
The establishment of the organization’s core values is one of the principal responsibilities of a leader. As such, the values should be ones that he/she believes in passionately, for how else will they be able to be driven throughout the organization? The leader needs to be a primary example of the values in action, and this can only happen if they come straight from his/her heart.
Beyond making sure that the values reflect the leader’s most important beliefs, it’s critical they be described in behavioral terms. This is another place where most statements of values fall short. It’s fine to say that respect is a core value, but how I think of respect may be quite different from how you think of it. Unless we define it, and do so by describing the observable behaviors, it’s not particularly helpful as a prescription for performance.
Let me share just a couple of examples from my former company’s core values to help you see what I mean.
Value: Do what’s best for the client
Explanation: In all situations, act in the best interests of our client, even if it’s to our own detriment. Our reputation for integrity is one of our greatest assets.
Value: Practice blameless problem solving
Explanation: Treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Focus on the following questions: What are our best options to solve the problem? What have we learned that can help keep us from repeating the mistake? How will we integrate that learning into new behaviors or practices?
Value: Practice A+ness as a way of life.
Explanation: Regard everything you touch as a personal statement bearing your signature. Take pride in the quality of what you produce, for excellence matters as a deeply personal value in and of itself, above and beyond the probable business result of such excellence.
When described clearly, employees can better understand exactly what behavior is expected of them. And this is the first step in making the values relevant.
Vision, mission, and values all play an important role in creating a consistent and clear message about why an organization exists, what it’s trying to accomplish, and how it intends to get there. This clarity is vital to creating organizational alignment, and ultimately, dramatically increased effectiveness. Here’s the simplest thing to remember about creating useful statements: Keep it real.
David Friedman is the former President of RSI, an award-winning employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. The author of Fundamentally Different: building a culture of success through organizational values, Friedman is a sought-after consultant, guest speaker and seminar leader on organizational culture, leadership, and values.