Is your corporate mission statement bullshit?

The mere mention of core values and corporate mission and vision statements can cause eyes to roll, and for a good reason:

They are usually bullshit.

Not always, of course. Some satisfy the intended purpose of informing day-to-day behaviour and inspiring performance in the workplace.

But scan through the mission statements of the Fortune 500, and you’ll drown in a sea of uninspired promises of integrity and honesty and ethics and customer service.

All of these are, without question, critical (even if only tickets to the dance). And who would dispute the importance of the oft-vaunted maximized shareholder value, especially for publicly traded companies living and dying by the primacy of the quarterly report? When financial targets are missed, share prices tank and people lose jobs.

But many of the traits trotted out to differentiate organizations and lead to uncommon results are, in fact, strikingly familiar. Consider this gem from supermarket giant Albertsons Inc.:

“Guided by relentless focus on our five imperatives, we will constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives required to achieve our vision. In doing this, we will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve. All of our long-term strategies and short-term actions will be molded by a set of core values that are shared by each and every associate.”

A client of mine — the former company president — once quipped of his organization’s core values, “I think one of them is something like ‘be excellent in everything you do,’ or something like that.”

He wasn’t even close.

If leaders can’t even remember things like values and vision and mission, why would the rest of the organization remember them, much less care?

Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” put it thus: “If I read one more platitude-filled mission statement, I’ll scream.”

McKeown, listing a handful of recognized companies and a choice of mission and value statements, then challenges the reader to match the company to the mission. The results?

“The largely indistinguishable statements make the task almost impossible. Such statements may still be considered “best practice” in some quarters, but in so many cases, they do not achieve what they were intended to achieve. Ironically, many “directional documents” are not fit for purpose: they do not provide direction.”

So what do you do instead if you want to create more resonant messaging? Start here:

Keep it Simple.

McKeown (borrowing from Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad in the Harvard Business Review) advocates for “essential intent.” Essential intent is “both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable…(It) is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions.”

In his study of over 1000 organizations, McKeown determined, “When there is a serious lack of clarity…people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, people thrive.”

Essential intent starts not with a debate over individual words but by asking, “If we only get one thing, would we want X or Y?”

Herb Kelleher, the late, legendary CEO of Southwest Airlines, wanted Southwest to be “THE low-fare airline.” To explain it, Kelleher reportedly once told someone to imagine that the marketing department suggested, instead of just peanuts, they offer a chicken Caesar salad as part of Southwest’s service on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. His response, Kelleher said, would be to ask, “(Will) adding that chicken salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.”*

Give it a Higher Purpose.

Outdoor apparel leader Patagonia abides by a mission to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm (and) use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Warby Parker “offer(s) designer eyewear at a revolutionary price while leading the way for socially conscious business.”

Cradles to Crayons, a Massachusetts-based not-for-profit, “provides low-income children with the essential items they need to thrive — at home, school, and play — by connecting communities that have with communities that need.”

Statements with clear purpose create a foundation for behaviour that lends itself to success.

Be Inclusive

If not everyone in an organization can get behind the message practically, the statement is faulty. Involving as many employees as possible in developing values, mission, and vision creates enthusiasm and accountability for the final result.

In the meantime, Dean Foods might learn a thing or two. Their mission?

“The Company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term stockholder value while adhering to the laws of the jurisdictions in which it operates and at all times observing the highest ethical standards.”

Translation: Raise the stock price without breaking the law.

We can all do better.

* SOURCE: Chip and Dan Heath (2007): Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, New York

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Freelance writer in North Vancouver. aaronbernardi.com writer@aaronbernardi.com

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Aaron Bernardi

Aaron Bernardi

Freelance writer in North Vancouver. aaronbernardi.com writer@aaronbernardi.com

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