Four Steps to Create an Inspiring Mission Statement That Drives Results

July 23, 2014

How finding the right words in the right way provides sustainable advantage

Do you know your organization’s mission statement? Could you come close to writing it down verbatim? No? Join the club!  

While the mission statement may well be the workhorse of any effective business strategy or improvement process, it is too rarely memorable or motivating, as evidenced by the deer-in-the-headlight looks I routinely see when I inquire about it during organizational assessments. Frequently, a focus group participant will offer to walk me down the hall where the statement hangs in a conference room. Or a manager will fumble through the cards on a lanyard in search of a laminated version the CEO distributed. “I know I have it here somewhere,” he’ll say apologetically.

It’s no wonder mission statements often fall short, considering what a tall order it is to come up with the perfect phrase that’s to-the-point, memorable, and sums up in a few words the organization’s core purpose in a fashion that’s inspiring. In my experience working with companies, non-profits and government agencies over the past 25 years, there are a variety of reasons for this malady of mediocrity: group over-think, word-smithing by committee; over-complication; lack of clarity; and an abundant lack of inspiration.

"A well-crafted mission statement describes WHY the organization exists... It captures the essence of why employees come to work for the company; why consumers gravitate to the enterprise’s products or services; why shareholders, or donors, or the public choose to support and invest in the cause.”

All of these factors stem from well-intentioned efforts to “get it right,” to be inclusive, to cultivate broad support and ownership for the statement. But in trying to be all things to all people and to encompass every intricate part of organizational purpose, mission statements routinely fail to represent the simple elegance of why the organization exists to begin with.

As Columbia University professor Simon Sinek explains in his book “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” Apple Inc. has remained one of the most successful and innovative companies year after year because it focuses first on WHY it is in business to begin with, and only then on WHAT it does and HOW. Why the firm exists, he asserts, is to challenge the status quo. HOW it does that is by making products that are beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. WHAT Apple does is to make great computers. Had the firm started with WHAT and remained focused on being a great computer manufacturer, it may never have brought iTunes to market and revolutionized the way people listen to music, or it may never have invented the iPhone, the penultimate game-changer in the telecommunication sector.

By the same token, a well-crafted mission statement describes WHY an organization exists and embodies its beliefs and unique value. It captures the essence of why employees come to work for the company; why consumers gravitate to the enterprise’s products or services; why shareholders, or donors, or the public choose to support and invest in “the cause.”

Here’s how I knew I had found a profoundly effective mission statement when my colleagues and I from Overland Resource Group began consulting in the Federal Aviation Administration. Through dozens of interviews with employees ranging from C-suite executives to air traffic controllers; from supervisors to admin assistants; from inspectors to mechanics, every agency employee I talked with could articulate the mission: To provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. There it was in 11 words: short, to the point, memorable and inspiring. In fact, in many cases, employees talked about the mission before I could even ask the question. It is central to the reason they came to work for the agency, whether it was last week or three decades ago.

Engendering that level of commitment from employees, or building high levels of loyalty from customers, and affinity from the public at large requires re-thinking the approach used to establish or refine the organizational mission. It needn’t be a difficult, time-intensive or cumbersome process. Here are four steps:

Step 1: Start at the Top. Because the mission statement is the critical jumping off point for strategy, ultimate responsibility for its development should reside with senior-level organizational leaders. Heading up the effort should be the CEO or president, who champions the creation or revision of the mission.

Step 2: Solicit Involvement from Key Stakeholders. He or she should invite people into the process who bring a unique perspective or vantage point, other than strictly operational. This could include a Chair of the Board; head of an employee association or if unionized, a labor leader; a key supplier or client; the director of a relevant advocacy or community group. The role of this team is to guide the mission development process. In small organizations, it may do the work; in larger organizations, it may delegate some of the “doing” work to designees from each stakeholder group.

Step 3: Ask the WHY Questions. The “doing” work begins with asking “Why” to representatives from the stakeholder groups. This requires active listening for WHAT answers, which are a cue to ask a follow-up WHY question. For example, if an employee responded by saying he came to the agency “to control air traffic,” the questioner would need to recognize that as a WHAT response. It is a task, not a reason. Therefore the follow-on question would be, “Why do you want to control traffic?” If the response is “To keep planes from colliding,” which is also a WHAT answer, it would be followed with another WHY question: “Why do you want to keep them from colliding?” And that line of questioning will ultimately lead to the essential reason that employee finds value in his or her work; it will get at the elegant core belief that inspires: “To protect human life.” It is that connection that leads employees in the FAA to speak about their work as if it were a calling.

Step 4. Tease Out Recurring Key Words and Themes. By utilizing a facilitated affinity process, members of the CEO-chartered team will begin to see key phrases repeatedly and consistently across all stakeholder groups. And that’s where the inner beauty of this simple process shows itself: through inclusion of diverse stakeholders, commonality emerges. Through directive questioning, answers surface that may not have been readily apparent or consciously considered. Effectively peeling back the layers brings light to the seed that has been there all along: the essence of why the enterprise got started in the beginning; its reasons for being.

And when the stakeholders most critical to organizational success can declare “That’s a mission I believe in; a purpose bigger than me,” you will have landed on a mission statement that resonates and inspires; that drives results; that will hang in people’s memory, not merely on a conference room wall.

Cathy Wright is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group. She is president of New Ground Consulting Group, Inc., which focuses on cultivating the potential in leaders and organizations to achieve transformative results. Cathy can be reached at [email protected]. For more about Sinek’s “Start with Why” proposition, view an edited You Tube video of his TED Talk on the topic.

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