Leading With Purpose



“If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

                                                                      — Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

Many people (certainly anyone who has received a business degree) have been taught to create vision and mission statements.  I know I was.  But I don’t think I really grasped the idea of why.

I have the impression than I am not unique in that regard, at least given the vast number of poor mission statements I have read, and also from the companies I have encountered that don’t see a compelling reason to have one.

If you need further evidence about the importance of them, just walk through the halls of any company (including your own) and ask random people to tell you what the company mission statement is and what it means in their own words.    My bet is that often times you will see people give you a blank stare, or they will make up something on the spot.  The wide variation in responses leads you to the conclusion that it is not well understood.

Go ahead.  Try it.

So why do we need one?

Principally, it is an alignment tool.   As your organization grows in size and you can no longer make all of the decisions by yourself, getting your teammates to act in similar ways can be challenging.  Think about it. What percent of all the decisions made in your organization every day are completely black or white, based on a formal written policy or procedure manual?  Every email, every interaction between a supervisor and an employee, every conversation between your sales people and your customers, and every transaction between your purchasing department and your suppliers.   What do you think?  Thirty percent are covered?  Twenty percent ?  Less?

So then, how is it that your employees are making their decisions?  Many of them are, after all, important ones that impact your brand image, your reputation and employee morale.  Let’s also assume that your decision makers are good employees who are really trying to make good decisions that are in the best interest of the company.

When I ask this question in the workshops I teach, the most common conclusion is that we all make decisions based on what WE think is best . . . based on our own beliefs, values, company culture and sense of purpose.

Don’t we as leaders want all of our decision makers to make choices that are aligned around OUR intentions or  what they would call at West Point – commander’s intent?  Seems right.

So the mission statement is a way of communicating a sense of purpose in a clear, easy to understand way so that everyone can grasp it similarly.   This increases the likelihood that everyone is at least “leaning in the same direction.”

So here is one from General Motors

G.M. is a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our stock-holders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment.”

How does this one strike you?   Is it inspiring? Would that help you make better decisions? What is “quality” what does” superior value” look like?  Does it seem that their main goal is to simply make money?  Would this be what would likely propel you to jump out of bed each morning to go to work?

So what makes a Mission Statement good?

Well here are my suggestions. It should:

  1. Represent not your product, but the idea behind it.  Google sells advertising connected with its search engine.   Their mission is to organize information, making it universally accessible and useful.  Disney sells hotel rooms, park passes, food and souvenirs, but they are really designing and delivering an experience.
  2. Excite.  Are the ideas represented ones that would inspire and energize a certain class of people to want to work for you?  Think about it as if you were writing it only for a certain sub-segment of the job-seeking population who share your values, beliefs and world-view.  It would be great if some people saw it and felt instinctively, “this is not for me.”
  3. Provide clarity. Simpler is better.   Ideally, you could give that mission statement to any employee and they should be able to  describe what that means to him or her.   Avoid ambiguous wording.
  4. Share something about what you believe. Some people are drawn to a job because they need a paycheck.   The people you want should be drawn to you not because of the salary or benefits, but to the idea of what you represent.
  5. It should help you make decisions.  At work, we are always trying to manage between two opposing goals – cost vs. quality, customer satisfaction vs. profit, short-term vs. long-term, price vs. performance, etc.   If done well your mission statement and related company values should help employees find the right balance; to decide what things you should spend money on, or not; to decide which of three acquisition targets make the most business sense, and so forth.

So, what if you could elevate your organization’s sense of purpose to one that moved past simply making money to something that was actually inspiring?  That after all is the key to tapping the amazing human energy that we all are capable of delivering.   Define your mission as something that matters to a certain category of people who CHOOSE to work for you because they think the mission is worthy of their dedication and effort.

Here are some examples:

The mission of the Walt Disney Company (as initially articulated by Walt)

“To Make People Happy”

This is the idea behind the products of WD.  If they don’t delight people, make them laugh or feel good, then they go back to the drawing  board.

 Wal-Mart?

“To help ordinary people save money so they can live better lives”

If you work for Wal-Mart you learn early on that if you want your proposal approved, you need to demonstrate how it saves money.  Would you think they would be more likely to spend money on new merchandising technology that helps them stock their shelves more effectively or one that enhances the cosmetic appeal of the store decor?  This mission helps WM employees keep focused making decisions that move them toward enabling customers to save.

 Columbia Southern University

“To change and improve lives through higher education enabling a global student body to maximize their professional and personal potential and better serve the communities in which they live and work”

This is a good example of a noble purpose.  It begs you to ask what kinds of curriculum would actually help people be better community servers, or how the university might instill a service value system among its students.

 Starbucks

To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time

The pharma company AMGEN

“To serve patients by transforming the promise of science and biotechnology into therapies that have the power to restore health or even save lives”

In one division of AMGEN, employees speak about their team mission as “we are curing cancer” something I imagine many ambitious young biochem grads would get pretty excited about.

Internet commerce giant, Zappos

“To provide the best customer service possible”

This means that Zappos does not see itself as a shoe store.  In fact, the products are irrelevant.  They have driven their $1.5 billion sales level mainly by word of mouth energized by the WOW service experience they provide.   All employees face two interviews, one for technical skill and the other for culture fit, around this idea of WOW.  You have to pass both interviews to be hired.

And finally this one from Xavier University

“To educate each student intellectually, morally, and spiritually for a world that is increasingly diverse, complex and interdependent.  Driven by our commitment to the common good and to the education of the whole person, the Xavier community challenges and supports students as they cultivate lives of reflection, compassion and informed action.”

Xavier has an entire department working on conveying its own mission and identity.  It is taught to all students and employees through our “indoctrination” experience called Manresa.  Almost every student on campus (and many faculty and staff) are encouraged to engage in it off campus.   Living the mission is a category in performance appraisals, and it is a criteria used for selecting projects to fund.

Do you see how these are different from the one by GM?  They are much more statements of BELIEF, about what matters.  In all these cases, making profit is the CONSEQUENCE of doing these things right, but never the PURPOSE of it.

When you are defining yourself (and your business) as being about something really worthwhile, your employees are more likely to be committed, to act with enthusiastic energy, to be less likely to leave and be more satisfied.

Related thoughts

Click on this link on “leading with purpose.”  Also, here is a great related TED talk video by Simon Sinek on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”

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Filed under Leading, Strategy

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