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Posted: December 11, 2013

Trash that mission statement

You need something memorable and inspiring

Bob and Gregg Vanourek

Most mission statements are terrible. They are vapid, unmemorable, uninspiring--platitudes that generate cynicism among employees.

Example: “We are committed to achieving new standards of excellence by providing superior human capital management services and maximizing the potential of all stakeholders – clients, candidates, and employees – through the delivery of the most reliable, responsive, flexible, and cost-effective services possible.”


Think it’s an isolated problem? Check out the mission (and vision) statements of the Fortune 100. 

Most are poor because they are not memorable or uninspiring.

No wonder employee engagement is abysmal. The latest Gallup surveys indicate only 29 percent of employees are actively engaged in an organization’s work, while 54 percent are neutral, and 17 percent are actively disengaged.

Most people hunger for meaning in their work. A 2004 study concluded 70 percent of people desire more meaning in their work. Of course people want fair pay and benefits, a sense of accomplishment, fair treatment, and respect at work. But they also hunger for something more. The best organizations give people a sense of meaning and purpose, regardless of the line of business. Zappos does it selling shoes and a range of other products online. Whole Foods does it with groceries. Clif Bar does it with energy bars.

Note that meaning in work does not lead to: “Our mission is to maximize our shareholders’ return on their invested capital.” That inspires no one.

As an alternative, we recommend that leaders collaboratively fashion a purpose statement for their organization.

A purpose statement should indicate why an organization exists. It should apply over a very long term and be memorable and short (fewer than eight words). If you currently have a longer mission statement, ask a random sample of people in your organization to recite it. You’re likely to get silence and blank stares.

We like Aravind’s purpose statement: “Eliminate curable blindness.” For years Disney used: “Make people happy,” and Harley-Davidson used “Fulfill dreams.”  Mary Kay’s is “Give unlimited opportunities to women.” Nothing about cosmetics, or direct sales. Merck: “Preserve and improve human life.”

Note the ideal purpose statement does not tell what an organization does. That is important too but doesn’t belong in the purpose. As soon as your purpose statement uses the word “by” or “through,” you have ventured into what you do or how you do it. Put those words somewhere else, not in your purpose statement.

Some people confuse a purpose statement with a tagline. Taglines are more marketing oriented. Nike’s tagline is “Just do it.” (Internally, they have used “Crush Adidas.”) Catchy, but not why the organization exists. Perkins School for the Blind has a great tagline: “All we see is possibility.”

A purpose statement is not just the purview of a CEO. Do you lead a team, department, or division? Why not collaboratively develop a purpose for your group? You’ll engage the team, generate fascinating dialogue, and perhaps even enhance your relationship with internal or external stakeholders.

Core Concept: Trash that jargon-filled mission statement. Craft a short, memorable, and inspiring purpose statement. Supplement it if you wish by a sticky tagline. Save the “what we do here” for some other document (that no one will remember).

Practical Applications

  1. Can you state your company mission statement by heart?
  2. How many words are in it?
  3. Does it contain the words “by” or “through”?
  4. Does it inspire you?
  5. If not, why not start a collaborative campaign to develop a great purpose statement?

Contact us in the next ninety days if you would like some free counsel on crafting a great purpose statement:

Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, current and former Colorado residents, are co-authors of "Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations," a 2013 International Book Awards winner. Bob is the former CEO of five companies and was recently designated as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior 2013. Gregg has co-authored three books and teaches entrepreneurship at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship. Web: Twitter: @TripleCrownLead

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