Don't Forget the "Why" in Your Mission Statement

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A colleague of mine, Gwen Kinsey, led a crisp, interactive presentation at a recent leadership breakfast event. The topic was about how mission statements engage (or not) your employees. Gwen’s session drove home a point for me and I’d like to share it here.

She put us in small groups and handed out two mission statements, one to half the groups, the other to the other half. Our task was to read the mission we were given and find connections between it and what we value highly. It turned out that one statement (from Whole Foods) was a lot easier to connect with personally than the other one (from chemical company ICI). My group, unbeknownst to us, had the ICI one. It read as follows:

“Be the industry leader in creating value for customers and shareholders
through market leadership, technological edge, and a world competitive price.”

All four us in my group struggled to find something that made our hearts go “pitty-pat,” some element which genuinely engaged us. We did not succeed. I worked hard with the phrase “creating value” but it was too fuzzy a concept to engage me. Engagement is an emotional state. It’s feeling positive about something, caring about it, and wanting to be involved with it.

The other mission talked about “making a difference in the lives of team members and the customers we serve and in the communities in which we operate.” This one provides an easier reason to believe in it and contribute my ideas and effort to it. It suggests the why behind the enterprise, in this case high quality grocery retail service (Whole Foods). We are about impacting people’s lives…we happen to do it through groceries.

Here’s what I picked up:

If you want your mission statement to have any impact on the contribution of your employees, if you want the mission to be the idea around which they rally and align their efforts, you must include a compelling why.

Up to now I have said a mission statement answers just three questions:

  1. What do we do?
  2. How do we do it?
  3. For whom do we do it?

But none of these three generate emotional engagement. What’s still missing are the core values of the organization, the reason the enterprise exists at all, the why.

And I’m sorry but “adding to shareholder value,” while absolutely necessary, doesn’t engage the hearts of your staff, at least all of those below C-level.