UK: MISSION IMPROVABLE - CORPORATE MISSION STATEMENTS. - For cliched syntactically-challenged copy mission statements are hard to beat.

by Martin Vander Weyer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For cliched syntactically-challenged copy mission statements are hard to beat.

'Three people were at work on a construction site. All were doing the same job, but when each was asked what his job was, the answers varied. "Breaking rocks", replied the first. "Earning a living", answered the second. "Helping to build a cathedral", said the third.' This homily (from a speech by Peter Schultz, chief executive of Porsche in the US) provides a helpful introduction to the uses and abuses of mission statements, those much-chiselled sentences to be found somewhere near the front of most companies' annual reports, and occasionally framed and emblazoned in their lobbies and canteens. 'We aim to build a splendid cathedral' would be a perfectly serviceable mission statement.

'We aim to build the most splendid cathedral in Christendom, to the greater glory of God,' would be better: more resonant, more aspirational. 'By striving to be Europe's most focused and innovative rock-breaking gang, we aim to build a cathedral which offers value for money as well as spiritual enhancement to worshippers, is environmentally positive, and generates sustainable returns for our shareholders as well as industry-competitive, performance-led remuneration reflecting the dedication of our workforce,' sounds more like the real thing.

That's the trouble with mission statements. The idea - of boiling down a company's essential purpose and character into a short paragraph which can be instantly understood by shareholders, workers and customers - sounds like a useful one. In a world plagued by words and images, the simplest communications have the strongest chance of getting through. And the internal process of self-definition, the senior management's weekend with a whiteboard of which the mission statement is the end-result, clearly has a value all of its own.

But what emerges on to page one of the annual statement is all too often the worst kind of committee drafting, topped and tailed by syntactically-challenged PR copywriters. Phrases such as 'harnessing synergy' are almost beaten to death, split infinitives abound, and words like 'sustainable' and 'organic' creep into sentences about dividend policy purely to create subliminal suggestions of environmental awareness. The typical British mission statement crams so many power-words into one sentence as to be at best inelegant, at worst virtually unreadable. Glaxo, for instance '... is an integrated research-based group of companies whose corporate purpose is to create, discover, develop, manufacture and market throughout the world, safe, effective medicines of the highest quality which will bring benefit to patients through improved longevity and quality of life, and to society in general through economic value'.

Or Pearson plc which, despite all the journalists of the Financial Times and the editors of Penguin at its disposal, aspires to be '... a major international provider of media content, renowned for distinctive products that deliver information, education and entertainment in ways that people want them'.

What an ugly phrase; but substance is more important than form, and Pearson's at least has the virtue of being plain and to the point. When the thinking becomes more convoluted, mission statements reveal more to the world than their collective authors ever intend. Here, for example, is IBM, at the height of its quasi-religious self-importance in 1987: '... guided by three basic beliefs: respect for the individual, the pursuit of excellence and service to the customer. These form the foundation for our five corporate goals for the future: to enhance our customer partnerships; to be the leader in products and services; to grow with the industry; to be the most efficient in everything we do; and to sustain profitability, which funds growth.'

'So what?' we may wonder, stifling a yawn. You IBM-ers better take a look over your shoulder, because here comes Steve Jobs at Apple:

'Our goal has always been to create the world's friendliest, most understandable, most useable computers - computers that empower the individual ... Our mission is to transform the way people do things by focusing on their experience with our computers. We believe the innovation and creativity of a person's work depends directly on the quality of his or her total experience, not just the speed of a microprocessor.'

And sure enough, three years later, IBM (UK)'s mission statement seems to have got the message:

'We shall increase the pace of change. Market-driven quality is our aim. It means listening and responding more sensitively to our customers. It means eliminating defects and errors, speeding up all our processes, measuring everything we do against a common standard, and it means involving employees totally in our aims.'

Why give such hostages to fortune in the first place? Mission statements originated in America in the 1980s: Americans have always loved baring their souls in a way which the British naturally recoil from. Why say 'we believe that success will be built on focus, not diversity' when diversification is always an option? Why claim to be committed to 'social responsibility and integrity' when your customer-base thinks of you as a shark in a panic?

Part of the answer is that good, established businesses with strong cultures and charismatic leaders really don't need to say any of these things. The Lords Weinstock and Hanson, in their different ways, communicate their aims in the clearest possible terms without seeking to distil them into neat little formulae. Richard Branson lives and breathes his personal mission - 'To take amazing risks without ever wearing a tie' might come close to capturing it. But for companies which have changed their top management, or shifted their make-up away from the activities with which they are popularly associated, or are in the process of recovering from a downturn in fortunes, a thorough exercise in self-definition can be genuinely productive, both internally and - if done with real originality - as a message to the outside world.

Mark Lee, a corporate image strategist with The Partners design group in London, says that mission statements are all too often bland, over-complicated and hypocritical when they should be practicable, easy to identify with and easy to remember. Most importantly, they have to 'come from the heart' to be effective.

He quotes the slightly bizarre example of Crown Zellerbach ('... committed to leapfrogging competition within 1,000 days by unleashing the constructive and creative abilities of each of its employees.') and two from Japan - where English catchphrases have long been used as fashion accessories everywhere from cigarette ads to the backs of ski-suits. Earth-moving equipment manufacturer Komatsu's aggressive but honest slogan 'Encircle Caterpillar' makes a lot more sense than this alternative offering from the electronics giant Matsushita: 'The duty of the manufacturer is to serve the foundation of man's happiness by making man's life affluent with an inexpensive and inexhaustible supply of life's necessities.'

Lee also provides a 'before and after' sample of his own advisory work which actually makes use of the word 'heart'. With his guidance, one international banking group decided to abandon its conventional mission '... to be a premier financial services organisation capable of competing worldwide, by consistently delivering high-quality service on a competitive basis to our customers at home and throughout the world'. Instead, the frontispiece now says: 'Value and service are at the heart of our business. We aim to provide real value to every one of our customers and to deliver the highest standards of service in banking and financial services.'

Willingness to change the mission statement in response to advice or market research shows a rare degree of flexibility. Another design consultant, Gill Davies of Tatham Pearce, says that many companies find the composition of the mission statement so incredibly painful that, 'once they have got one, they never want to change it'. But from the point of view of corporate psychologists, that defeats the whole object.

To management gurus such as Dr Grant Levitan of RHR International, the most important function of the mission statement is the possibility it creates for managers to discuss what their purpose really is and how it is evolving - whether or not the answer to that question eventually gets printed in the annual report. If the mission statement is produced by a perfunctory, PR-led exercise and then set in stone - as seems to be the case in so many British companies - managers at the departmental level have been cheated of a rewarding opportunity for self-analysis. A well-developed mission statement, according to Levitan, should 'link the head to the heart' (there's that word again) of the company, and 'it should not take meaning away from experience. Staff at all levels should be able to derive the same meaning from it, otherwise it's not worth putting up on the wall.'

One of Levitan's favourite examples of this process taken to its logical extreme is that of ITW (formerly Illinois Tool Works), a conglomerate which manufactures a vast range of components and gadgets and holds 4,000 patents in 35 countries. ITW came to value the mission statement process so highly that it decided no longer to publish any central statement at all, but rather to encourage each operating unit to compose its own slogan in response to local problems and customer responses, and to use it purely for internal communication.

Something similar has been happening at Mercury Communications, where chief executive Mike Harris has done away with the old, standardised mission statement and instituted instead a 'cultural change programme' called Imagine - Mercury '97. This is an attempt to 'manage from the future' by encouraging groups at all levels of the company to think about the implications of new technology, deregulation and rapidly increasing market share in order to imagine where the company should be by 1997 and to work out how to get there.

The programme is the ultimate in New Age management tools, complete with 'empowerment, opening up and sharing', according to Mercury spokesman Emma Tarring. It involves a 'statement of strategic intent' which is used as an internal focus for discussion but deliberately not printed in the annual report, nor even pinned on the wall: '... to inspire open communications to match your imagination, bringing the people, information and entertainment of the world into the palm of your hand'.

We may wonder, at this point, what the difference is between 'mission' and 'strategic intent', and whether too much navel-gazing leads more to semantic confusion than it does to clarity of purpose. But Mercury, ITW and Dr Levitan seem to be on to something interesting: the mission statement concept, whatever we happen to call it, certainly has more utility as a vehicle for brainstorming corporate therapy than it does as a means of inventing sexier descriptions of the company for external consumption. Sadly this approach remains far ahead for most British companies.

Despite all the efforts of sophisticated graphic designers, the standard mission statement cliches have become so ubiquitous in most British companies' annual reports as to have largely lost their impact, whether on shareholders, staff or customers. Most companies might just as well fill in the blanks in this splendidly adaptable example:

'... will be the most highly focused, the most skilled and the most technologically advanced company in ... worldwide. We will provide the highest quality of products and services for customers; deliver consistently good financial results for share-holders; enable employees to realise their full potential; and ensure a positive impact on the communities we serve.'

That one actually belongs to North West Water, but it is hard to imagine the typical shareholder or customer leaping out of his bath shouting, 'Eureka, so that's what they're up to'. The managers (there and elsewhere) should go back to the whiteboard and come up with something original, memorable and inspiring, which helps them all to understand the uniqueness of their company and to agree on where it is going. But when they do come up with it, they might as well keep it to themselves, because it is much more useful to them than it is to the rest of the world.

Martin Vander Weyer is an associate editor of The Spectator.

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