Getting mission statements right – MBA Learnings

We looked at a few mission statements in our Values Based Leadership class –

Wal-Mart: We save people money so they can live better.
Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad: Our vision is to realize the tremendous potential of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway by providing transportation services that consistently meet our customers’ expectations.
Dow Chemical: To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology

As we went through these statements, the comments that followed were around the following lines –
– The Wal-Mart mission is really concrete. It is the sort of statement that can be used whenever Wal-Mart faces a tough decision. Any product or personnel decision could be brought back to the fact that Wal-Mart exists to save people money.
– The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad mission felt like a non-mission statement. You could easily replace their name and industry with a different company and industry and it could still “work.” That’s a problem.
– Dow Chemical did very well on inspiration. But, how concrete is it? Can the mission statement actually be used in daily decision making?

Bringing it all together, we realized that great mission statements have 2 characteristics –
1. Inspiration. Some inspire with a transcendent purpose and others inspire with a bold goal. Regardless, the inspiration factor gives people a reason to come to work everyday.
2. Concreteness. Concreteness makes the vision easy to understand and apply to daily decisions.

Mission statements, as a result, are an important and, yet, often neglected resource for building culture, improving employee motivation and decision making. What is an example of a great mission statement? I love Amazon’s statement – “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online.” Really inspiring and, yet, very concrete. If there was ever a decision to be made, it is clear that the customer would be first priority.

(Note: I’ve used mission and vision statements interchangeably to convey the larger point)

Mission statements

This learning had immediate applicability for me. I thought of 3 teams I am working with and thought about the various levels of clarity in our purposes. And, voila, it turned out that the team where I felt most stuck was the one with the least clarity around the mission statement.

It is a relatively simple fix. And, it is one we ought to get right.