As we approach the fresh start of a new year, it’s a good idea to reconnect with the WHY of our organizations and recommit to using our mission to drive our strategy and culture.
I wonder: Can you explain your organization’s mission in thirty words or less? Can you articulate the broader impact you hope that mission will have? For many leaders, the answer might be “yes, as long as I have a few minutes to think about it first.” But if that’s the case, what hope is there for others within the organization to feel inspired and guided by it?
Lots of organizations have mission statements — some even have good ones. But unfortunately, most don’t. In many cases, this is because they tried to take a short cut and build their mission without a foundation.
Mission statement as a gateway to aligned strategy
When we work with an organization on clarifying their path forward, the mission statement isn’t the starting point — it’s the product of deeper foundational work as well as a gateway to an aligned strategy.
At the core of every organization — much like every individual — is a set of values. These are ultimately born out through our actions, but if we take the time to define them, we have a better chance of consistently aligning our actions to them. Organizational values reflect the beliefs of an organization — a kind of creed. They answer questions like:
- What are we for?
- What are we against?
- What character traits do we strive toward?
- How do we want to interact with the world beyond our walls?
These answers should go beyond the commonly accepted values of our society. They should reflect the particular beliefs of your particular organization. It often requires a number of thoughtful conversations with leaders to arrive at a set of values that feels right for an organization.
Develop the organization’s vision
We next need to understand the organization’s vision. This is meant to tell us what the world will look like in the future as a result of the organization’s work. It isn’t a vision of the organization itself, but rather a vision of the organization’s impact. This kind of outward gaze is much more inspiring than the inward-looking alternative, and can help us communicate why we do the work we do. As with our values, this vision should be specific to the organization, and should reflect a future that could not exist without the work we do. And like building blocks, this vision should rest on top of our values, reinforcing them and expressing them to the world in a way that only we can.
Putting the organization’s values and vision into action
Now that we know where we’re going, we can define how we’ll get there. Our mission is about what we do to reach the future we envision. It’s an action statement, and just like the two previous building blocks, it should be specific to our organization. Because we’ve laid out a vision no one else can arrive at, we must articulate a mission no one else can execute.
This work is not easy. It takes focused thought, collaborative discourse, and a respect for the exactitude of language. But through experience, we’ve arrived at a process for developing mission statements that is clarifying and easier to engage with. We do this by focusing on three specific kinds of phrases, which we color code. These don’t perfectly map onto specific parts of speech, but they are:
- Subject/Object phrases (who/what)
- Action phrases (any “doing” that takes place)
- Descriptor phrases (qualifies the action and describes “how”)
Our goal is to articulate our mission succinctly and memorably, so we want to use as few of these phrases as possible to fully articulate it. In other words, no extraneous phrases or filler. Let’s look at an example to help illustrate this. Here is the Starbucks mission statement:
To inspire and nurture the human spirit —
one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
We immediately get a window into the mindset of the organization. They want to have an impact at the level of the human spirit. Their top priorities are to inspire and to nurture — not just one or the other, but specifically both. And how will they do it? They’ll do it one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time. As a coffee company, they could have just said “one cup at a time,” but they clearly value their role as a neighbor, and their focus on people.
Let’s look at one more example. The mission statement for IKEA is a bit different:
To 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.
This is obviously a longer statement, but we should assume this is the most succinct way IKEA could express their mission. Notice the four green descriptors. Would this statement truly reflect the IKEA mission if any one of them were omitted? I’d say no.
Values + Vision + Action = Mission
It can be deeply challenging to engage in the process of developing our values, vision, and mission. But their usefulness goes well beyond a symbolic masthead. When they are developed thoughtfully, they can truly act as a north star for decision-makers. When we have the confidence that comes with knowing what we believe, where we’re going, and what we do, it’s easier to cut through the fog blanketing a constantly changing business landscape.
Consider recent developments at WeightWatchers. New weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy could represent existential threats to the company’s future. But after a previous failed pivot toward holistic wellness, CEO Sima Sistani — who took control in March 2022 — realized it was time to reconnect with the company’s values. Here she is in a recent CNN story:
“Part of the reason the wellness pivot didn’t work is because it was a marketing move. It wasn’t a product, and we didn’t change enough of how we showed up to really be a wellness company… What we do best is help people with weight management. That is the anchor. I think we have to be true and authentic to that and who we are.”
Because Sistani understands what her company’s “anchor” is, she is free to view new weight loss breakthroughs as useful tools to be leveraged rather than as threats. Consequently, she is joining forces with new weight-management drugs like Wegovy, and has led the acquisition of a telehealth business that can issue virtual prescriptions for these new drugs. Decisions like that reflect a leader who has thought deeply about the values, vision, and mission of her organization, and has the courage to maintain an outward gaze onto the world she hopes her organization can help to build.
Reconnect to your mission statement
If you’re finding your connection to your organization’s mission a bit tenuous, consider taking these steps to get reacquainted and reconnected:
1. Define your particular, specific values.
2. Define your vision by painting a picture of a future world impacted by your work in a way that only you can impact it.
3. Define your mission by clarifying how you’ll bring your vision to life. Because words matter a great deal, consider working with a professional writer or copywriter who can guide you toward a unique and powerful statement that doesn’t waste a single word.
When you understand these three things deeply, there is no decision you can face that won’t be positively impacted by the clarity of purpose they provide. Wishing you all the best in the new year.