Mission statements: Lofty inspiration, or contrived claptrap?

Here’s a novel idea: Start with the truth, and avoid four banal, annoying phrases.

I’ve written my share of mission statements.

I’ve lauded the “commitment to diversity” at companies where fewer than 10 percent of the managers were “diverse”—one had a gay, female, Puerto Rican director and counted her three times—and talked up “ongoing initiatives” with no budget, staffing or deliverables.

I’ve done mission-statement cute, writing snappy one-liners like, “We sell good stuff cheap.” My Wall of Shame includes enough corporate visions to qualify for sainthood.

With this in mind, here are my nominees for the emptiest, most irritating phrases in current use.

1. Creating an environment of…. Brings to mind terraria and zoo enclosures.

2. Corporate values/goals. These terms are interchangeable and cancel each other out. For instance, “Our corporate values of inclusion and mutual respect will achieve our corporate goal of $50 million in profits this year—or you’re all fired.”

3. The next level.We are afraid to put a number on this, because we think it’s going to fail.

4. Bring it back full circle. Start over without admitting we screwed up.

Another pet peeve is the flowery title. Johnson & Johnson’s Credo reads like a bad poem:

We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients,
to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.
In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.
We must constantly strive to reduce our costs
in order to maintain reasonable prices.

Then there are the touchingly selfless entries, such as Kraft’s “Helping People Around the World Eat and Live Better.” No sleazy profit motive there.

My favorite example of this genre comes from that corporate good Samaritan, BP:

“In all our activities we seek to display some unchanging, fundamental qualities—integrity, honest dealing, treating everyone with respect and dignity, striving for mutual advantage and contributing to human progress.”

So, what makes a good mission statement? First and foremost, remember whom you’re addressing. Unlike tag lines, mission statements are meant to motivate internal constituents—employees and investors—by clearly communicating the company’s philosophy.

Stephen Covey puts this concept nicely in his book First Things First: An empowering mission statement “is written to inspire you—not to impress anyone else. It communicates to you and inspires you on the most essential level.”

In his book “Winning,” Jack Welch adds a second dimension to the successful mission statement: It should “not only describe what the company is in business to do, but how they are going to succeed at it.” By this definition, Microsoft’s mission—”To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential” —is missing an important piece (“…by forcing them to use our products.”)

Welch’s ideal statement might read something like this:

“Our mission is to build unrivaled partnerships with and value for our clients, through the knowledge, creativity, and dedication of our people, leading to superior results for our shareholders.”

I’ll bet the thought leaders at Lehman Brothers really felt good about that one when they wrote it.

Another adherent of the Welch approach is Merck, which tries to be all things to all people:

“The mission of Merck is to provide society with superior products and services by developing innovations and solutions that improve the quality of life and satisfy customer needs, and to provide employees with meaningful work and advancement opportunities, and investors with a superior rate of return.”

Though this certainly covers all the bases (I can see anxious marketing staffers tacking on the last clause as they rush to the approval meeting), it lacks the firm direction of Google’s single line:

“Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

I like Google’s approach because it gives everyone a sense of purpose without inflating either language or egos. Compare it with Dow Chemical’s, the mission-statement equivalent of a full orchestra swelling to a crescendo:

“To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology.”

Google also wins out over Amazon’s folksy, grammatically embarrassing mission statement:

“To be Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online.”

No matter what the style, mission statements can be effective if they reflect not only the philosophy of a company’s leaders, but also the day-to-day experience of its employees. In other words, they should tell the truth. Not the truth as expounded by the CEO in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, but the truth as perceived by bookkeepers, secretaries and workers in the company cafeteria.

Take this strong statement: “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.” I don’t know about you, but I’d be proud to work for a company like that.

Too bad it was Enron.

Deborah Gaines is a business writer and former law firm CMO who blogs as The Corporate Writer.

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