Mission statements that don’t suck

I have four mission statements to share with you. Two come from real organisations and two I made up in the shower. Can you guess which are which1?

  1. Our mission is to design world-class products and produce people-centred solutions that meet our customers’ needs.
  2. To deliver commercially sustainable world-class services in South Africa and Africa
  3. We improve lives by mobilising our country’s communities
  4. Our mission is to build unrivalled partnerships with and value for our clients, through the knowledge, creativity, and dedication of our people, leading to superior results for our shareholders.

The answer appears at the end of this column. (Skip ahead if you must.) Why the subterfuge? To illustrate that most mission statements totally suck.

In the main, they say nothing meaningful and lull the company into a false sense of having offered insight. No one reads them. In fact, websites — where I spend the bulk of my working life as a copywriter — are where mission statements go to die.

You could give mission statements even the most dramatic vocal effect — say, David Attenborough in a jungle, Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Barack Obama at his most oratorial, or Morgan Freeman pretty much anytime — and they’d still be “jargony quasi-poetry” (per the eloquent Nancy Lublin, for Fast Company, 2009).

And yet, I once found a 2018 Bain & Company study showing that an organisation with a clearly defined mission will usually outperform an organisation without one, if said mission is closely aligned with a strategic plan. So, instead of whining, I’ve made it my mission (pun half-intended) to share some info that may help you craft a company mission statement that doesn’t totally suck.

A quick definition

A mission statement is not a vision. A vision answers the question, “Why are we here?” Your vision is, in essence, where you want the company to go in future and who you want to be when you get there. It’s not current but rather aspirational.

Your company’s mission is what you feel you contribute to your industry, community or the world. It answers the question, “What do we do?”

There’s an up side

If your company’s mission statement makes clear what your company actually exists to do, it can help guide decision-making and keep your business on track in the long term. But it must be linked to your big-picture strategy, tactics, and goals.

As we all now know, micro- and macro-environmental factors can make it easy to veer off-course. Yet a solid, authentic, and deeply entrenched mission statement can bring you back — especially if your marketing messages, brand image and product development are a) derived from it and b) complement it.

Quantify the goal

Want to know what “good” looks like in Mission World?

Tesla has a good one:

“To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”

And here’s Spotify’s:

“To give a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it”

Both of these do something critical: They quantify the goal. There’s detail. (Compare these to the four mission statements with which I started this column.)

When it comes to your mission statement, you want one containing a goal that’s an action, not a sentiment; that is measurable, not hazy. If you’re trying to sell a product, how and how many? If you’re trying to change lives, how and whose?

Make ’em specific

A mission statement that’s too generalised sucks because it could apply to just about any company in the world, like this pearl:

“Guided by a relentless focus on agility and innovation, we strive to be the leading service provider in our industry — delivering world-class solutions to both internal and external stakeholders”

Seriously? In what sector does this company work? In which industry? Where in the world? What does it make, sell or offer? Who does it serve? How does it know what “good” looks like? What are its metrics for success?

Your mission statement must be tailored, otherwise it’s useless. So be ruthless about vagueness, hyperbole, jargon, buzzwords or corporate speak — even if your management loves nonsense like ‘unique’, ‘quality’, ‘best of breed’ and ‘solutions’.

Exciting & outsourced

Your mission statement can’t afford to be boring. If it is, rather don’t bother.

Here’s a challenge: You should be able to ask 10 strangers if it makes sense to them and gets them thinking/wondering about how your company does what it claims to do. If the majority is underwhelmed, your mission probably sucks.

Also, you may want to bring in a professional, to help you articulate your mission into a simple, specific, easy-to-remember-and-repeat statement. This service provider should be able to act as devil’s advocate: asking tough questions and pushing you further than “customer-centricity” and “excellence”.

Here’s Ikea’s:

“Offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.” It’s a bit long for my taste. But it works. It’s quantifiable.

Here’s TED’s:

“Everything we do is driven by this goal: How can we best spread great ideas?” It’s beautifully worded. It also matches its slogan, “Spread ideas.”

Neither of these were written by the owner’s teenage daughter or by the post-grad nephew of someone on the board, I can promise you.

Some final tips

Feel free to sense-check your mission statement, whether existing or new, against the following parameters:

  1. Does it answer what — not whyor how?
  2. Does it quantify the goal, providing action rather than sentiment?
  3. Is it specific, rather than vague?
  4. Is it measured, rather than boastful?
  5. Is it simple, rather than jargony?
  6. Does it feel authentic, rather than contrived?
  7. Does it feel human, rather than robotic?
  8. Is it two lines or fewer?
  9. Is it easy to remember and repeat?
  10. Does it tie in with any of your other wording?

Got eight or more yeses? Great! Present it to 10 strangers and see what they think.

Oh, and by the way, I made up #1 and #3 above in the intro. #2 comes from South African Airways and #4 is from Lehman Brothers.

1 This idea was entirely inspired by Nancy Lublin’s 2009 article in Fast Company’s “Getting Funded” section.

This article first appeared in my #WritersBlock column on MarkLives.

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on words and writing. Want some?

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