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Company Mission Statements: Why They Fail and How to Fix Them

Aug 24, 2020

Mission - Business Concept. Golden Compass Needle on a Black Field Pointing to the Word Mission.I like company mission statements. A good company mission statement provides purpose, direction and inspiration at work -- three must-haves if you want to increase employee engagement. 

By letting the world know what you're about, an effective company mission statement can also help you attract your ideal clients.

Then why do so many company mission statements fail miserably? Why do they breed cynicism, distrust and disengagement instead of their opposites? It doesn't have to be that way. Here's a quick primer on 

  • what a company mission statement is
  • purpose of a mission statement
  • a few pointers for writing a mission statement
  • the most common mission-statement pitfalls and how to fix them.

What is a company mission statement? 

A company mission statement is a brief expression of why your company exists. It's the reason you and your employees get out of bed in the morning. 

For example, if your company mission statement is to "survive" -- and I have seen this suggested -- it may pass the first test (why your company exists). But it probably won't light a fire under your team. 

The best company mission statements focus inward and outward. They inspire the team to give their best toward your company's cause. Example: "To reinvent how people share knowledge, tell stories, and inspire their audiences to act." (Prezi)

Purpose of a mission statement

The purpose of a mission statement is to summarize the following:

  • What business you are in
  • Why you do what you do
  • What you plan to accomplish for your employees and those you serve

For the sake of clarity and brevity, you may choose to spell out only one or two of these points. But it's hard to imagine a good company mission statement that doesn't at least answer the question, "What business are you in?"

Writing a mission statement: 11 quick pointers

  1. Treat it as an opportunity (not simply a problem to be solved)
  2. Don't try to get it right on the first try
  3. Tell yourself it may take more than an afternoon ("Great things have no fear of time" - Pablo Picasso)
  4. Get input from every level of your company 
  5. Ask yourself and your team the big questions: Who are we as a company? What do we stand for? What is our ultimate purpose?
  6. Write the first draft(s) with no limitation at all -- just get the ideas down
  7. Edit later, maybe even as a separate activity
  8. Use clear, compelling everyday language (when in doubt, read it out loud)
  9. Don't try to be all things to all people
  10. Save the strategy piece (the "how") for a separate statement
  11. Trim and tighten your company mission statement until it blasts you and your entire team out of bed

Mission statement flaws (and how to fix them)

With the purpose of mission statements in mind, check your own company mission statement to make sure it is free of these all-too-common flaws: 

Too vague

For example, what exactly does "We enable greatness ..." mean? This is the mission of the great FranklinCovey, whose products I once used religiously and still enjoy using occasionally. 

As you may recall, Stephen R. Covey helped make company mission statements a household term with his 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. So I was hoping for something more exciting than "We enable greatness in people and organizations everywhere." 

In all fairness, everyone at FranklinCovey may know exactly what that means. If so, more power to them. But especially for companies that are less well known, it pays to make the mission more readily understood. 

Not rooted in reality

Here's an example of misplaced company values, which may shed light on company mission statements.

If your company values are respect, integrity, communication and excellence, that's beautiful. But if your company is Enron, maybe not.

Lesson learned: Any time your company conduct runs egregiously counter to your stated values, mission or identity, be prepared for bad press and a giant wave of cynicism.

Incidentally, Enron also called itself a "global corporate citizen."

Too many words, not enough meaning

The problem with company mission statements is not that they were written by a committee, though they often are. The problem is they sound that way. For example, they often include words such as ...

  • strive
  • facilitate
  • world-class
  • synergistic
  • alignment

You get the idea. The problem with these words? They're either "hedge" words or words that have lost their meaning through overuse. 

For a fun exercise, visit Andrew Davidson's Corporate Gibberish Generator, type your company name into the field shown, and enjoy. The results will not only give you a good laugh, they will show you how not to write your company mission statement. 

IMG_2398By contrast, the best company mission statements are pithy and inspiring. Examples

  • “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” (Tesla)
  • "To spread the power of optimism." (Life Is Good)
  • "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." (Google)

But what if your company is in a less-than-exciting industry? Here's a recently spotted example from Old Dominion Freight Line: "Helping the world keep promises." Bottom line: Make your company mission brief and inspiring.

"Wait, what was our mission?" 

Of what value is your company mission if no one remembers or cares what it is? Instead, get together with your team to come up with a mission that does the following:

  • Inspires greater commitment
  • Leads to better decisions and conduct 
  • Has a chance of being remembered
  • Passes the "So what?" test

As you may have noticed, I mentioned coming up with a mission. That's because a mission is more compelling than a "mission statement." If you have to choose between the two, choose to be on a mission.

Company missions aren't always set in stone

Especially in the midst of a pandemic. As your company continues to grow and the world continues to change, revisit your mission to make sure it still reflects reality. Make sure it also inspires the employees who will make the mission happen.

P.S. My own mission is to help company leaders transform their culture so employees engage, office drama disappears, and company culture becomes a competitive advantage. As you revise your own mission statement, please get in touch if I can be of service. Rumor has it I am a formidable (and friendly) editor.

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