Mission Statements: Do You Need Them?
Do mission statements want to make you puke? In part, this is because it has become established doctrine that every company should have one but many are simply platitudes about being the best blah blah blah. But a proper mission statement signals exactly what a company wants to achieve, and in that sense should define the purpose for every employee to turn up to work every day. Jack Welch, legendary business leader even suggests:
a mission is the defining moment for a company's leadership
Indeed, Jack makes it very clear that the Board are responsible for the mission:
Setting the mission is top management's responsibility. A mission cannot, and must not, be delegated to anyone except the people ultimately held accountable for it.
Indeed, just considering it as the 'mission' rather than the 'mission statement' seems to elevate its status and makes it clear that it's the organisational purpose. Consider some of the most famous mission statements out there:
Microsoft in the 1990s: A PC in every household and every home
Google: to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful
Elon Musk's SpaceX: To enable the space flight capabilities necessary to make human life multiplanetary - or more specifically enable a self sustaining human civilization on Mars
As Jack notes, the mission statement gives people
...the inspiration to feel they are part of something big and important
And it should never be just words and filed away in a draw or simply framed and put on the wall (and then ignored). Again Jack Welch and the mission at GE:
we harped on the mission constantly, at every meeting large and small. Every decision or initiative was linked to the mission. We publicly rewarded people who drove the mission and let go of people who couldn't deal with it for whatever reason.
In Ashley Vance's book on Elon Musk in reference to the mission, literally a mission to put a man on Mars he notes:
While the "putting man on Mars" talk can strike some people as loopy, it gave Musk a unique rallying cry for his companies. It's the sweeping goal that forms a unifying principle over everything he does. Employees at all three companies are well aware of this and well aware that they're trying to achieve the impossible day in day out. When Musk sets unrealistic goals, verbally abuses employees, and works them to the bone, it's understood to be - on some level - part of the Mars agenda.
Musk's employees live the mission every minute of every day.
Sir Alex Ferguson has an interesting take on the over arching mission from his time at Manchester United:
Part of the way you develop excellence in an organisation is to be careful about the way you define success. I was always careful about setting specific long range targets. I would never say, 'We expect to win the League and two pieces of silverware this season.' First, it conveys the wrong message, because it sounds cocky and arrogant. Second, it applies a lot of additional pressure on everyone without any real benefit. Third, it sets everyone up for disappointment. It was much easier to say, 'At United, we expect to win every game,' because that was the case from about 1993 and it also conveyed the spirit of the club. Making sure everyone understood that we expected to triumph in every game set an agenda of excellence.
Manchester United's mission then was to win very game. Again, the mission didn't just exist in itself in a vacuum, as the last sentence makes clear, everyone needed to understand the mission. If people don't understand the purpose of the organisation, how can they fully contribute to the organisation achieving that purpose?
Perhaps the most famous story in area (and quite possibly untrue) relates to President John F Kennedy's visit to NASA in 1962 when he saw a janitor and said to him, 'Hi, I am Jack Kennedy, what are you doing?' and the janitor replied 'I'm helping put a man on the moon.' His job might have been to sweep the floor, but the janitor was living the mission.
Every organisation should have a purpose and the mission (statement) should communicate that purpose. Every employee should know what that purpose is. Management's every decision should be made with a view to achieving that purpose. Accordingly, the mission statement should not be in a drawer, or on the wall, it should be the very DNA of the organisation.
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