Over the past several decades, organizational leaders have grown to appreciate the role of purpose in building a thriving company. A strong sense of purpose attracts great talent, keeps them motivated and engaged, and bonds them together with coworkers to increase collaboration. For many senior leaders, however, organizational purpose begins and ends with a few flowery words written on a plaque or on the front page of annual report.
Of course, we’re talking about the mission statement.
The committee-crafted, jargon laden paragraph (or hopefully less) that gets quoted every so often in speeches and referenced in most printed documents. It’s important to give credit for trying where its due: there are few organizations where leaders haven’t given thought to answering the question of what we’re working toward. That’s great. But it’s also important to point out the flaws in the status quo:
Most mission statements aren’t all that inspiring.
They lack power either because they’re wordy and complicated, or because they’re written in an attempt to satisfy every stakeholder…which usually ends up inspiring none of them. Fortunately, there is an easy way to know whether or not your organization’s mission statement inspires, or merely satisfies. In this article, we’ll review the four elements of a powerful mission statement and offer some powerful examples as well.
The first element of a powerful mission statement is that it needs to be meaningful. It needs to be easy to tell from the words in the mission statement how the organization is making the world a better place or making people’s lives better. It can’t just be different. You may want to cram a mission statement full of language about how disruptive and innovative you are to the industry. But unless that innovation is also making things better (and lets face it…a lot of innovative organizations right now are not) then it’s not a meaningful mission statement.
Consider electric car manufacturer Tesla. Telsa is most certainly innovative and is disrupting the automotive industry. But that’s not its mission. Tesla’s stated mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” You see this in the car, but in the mission statement you see so much more good that will happen the closer we get to sustainable energy. That’s what makes the mission of making cars so meaningful.
The second element of a powerful mission statement is that it needs to be believable. When people read it, and understand the meaning behind it, they need to also believe it is what the organization is focused on and can achieve. In other words, there can’t be a mismatch between what the company does and what the mission statement says it does. And this is where a lot of mission statements go wrong. Not because they’re not well-meaning, but because they’re so vague that it’s hard to connect the statement to the work being done. So, they’re not believable.
A standout example is the mission statement for home improvement superstore The Home Depot. Their mission statement reads “The Home Depot is in the home improvement business and our goal is to provide the highest level of service, the broadest selection of products and the most competitive prices.” It must have sounded nice in committee, but if you remove the two words “home improvement” it could be a mission statement for just about any store. It could be an auto parts store or a cannabis dispensary. And because of its vagueness—it’s lack of believability—it lacks power.
The third element of a powerful mission statement is that it needs to be powerful—and I realize it’s a huge error to say powerful is an element of being powerful, but there is just not a better word to use. We could try a few others. It needs to be big. It needs to be audacious. It needs to be a sizeable challenge. It needs to be something more than increasing “shareholder value.”
Consider the startup Péla. Péla started as company making cell phone and other device accessories out of a new type of plastic that was biodegradable. Their mission isn’t to sell more cell phone cases, it’s to use their technology to end single use plastic and other environmentally damaging waste products. Their mission is to work toward a “waste-free future.” It’s a powerful mission, and it explains why their product lines seem to defy convention. After producing device cases, they started producing sunglasses (a massive source of single-use plastic) and their most recent product is a home composting device. It seems illogical, until you remember the power behind their mission statement. These products move us closer to a waste free future.
The last element of a powerful mission statement is that it needs to be credible. It needs to be easy to understand how the organization can actually achieve the mission based on its existing assets, core competency, and industry. It needs to make sense to employees how their day-to-day actions are actually helping accomplish the stated mission.
A great example of how a credible mission affects the day-to-day motivation of people is the company Ellevest. Ellevest was founded after Sallie Krawcheck’s shocking discovery that every roboadvisor investment firm on the market was programmed to assume its clients were male—with male earnings, male risk tolerance, and male life expectancy. So, Krawcheck and others started a roboadvisor specifically for females with the mission to “close the gender investing gap.” And every new client who joins, and every existing client they help, moves Ellevest closer to closing the gender investment gap. It’s simple to see how their work makes the vision a reality, and that’s what makes it so credible.
If you’re in a senior leadership role, and your mission statement lacks one of these four elements, you should consider revising or rewording it. But if you’re not able to change it, you’re not out of luck. Instead, take on the role of helping reframe the existing mission statement into one your team sees as meaningful, believable, powerful, and credible. Talk about how the existing mission plays into the projects your team works on. In doing so, you’ll add a little power to their perspective on the mission, and a little more motivation to their work. Through reframing, you’ll have gotten the team one step closer to a purpose that brings out the team’s best work ever.
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