UK: Mission statements.

UK: Mission statements. - They can be dynamic, they can be trite, but what exactly are they?

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

They can be dynamic, they can be trite, but what exactly are they?

'Probably the best mission statement ever', muses J Walter Thompson's UK chief executive, Stephen Carter, 'was the American Declaration of Independence.' Sadly, things have gone downhill since the colonials got unruly back in 1776. The intervening centuries have seen the mission statement become a bit of a joke. There are a some pretty good reasons for this, but looking back at the original thinking behind these PR-polished, consultant-mangled gobbets of corporbabble, they actually seem like rather a good idea.

All a mission statement should do is communicate to what are coyly referred to as the company's key constituents (shareholders, employees, suppliers and the like), what it is that the company is doing and what it ought to be doing. This should then be presented in as clear, concise and memorable a way as possible. The Chrysler Corporation of America, for instance, states: 'To produce cars and trucks that people will want to buy, will enjoy driving and will want to buy again.' Brilliant - in one succinct, memorable sentence the company has told us what it does and what it wants to do. Others would do well to emulate this clarity and directness.

Regrettably few do. A lot of companies wind up with something more akin to the kind of statements described in Scott Adams' seminal office satire, The Dilbert Principle. Adams defines a mission statement as 'a long awkward sentence that demonstrates management's inability to think clearly'. Naturally enough, he surmises, 'Every good company should have one'. And with businesses spouting such corporate nonsense as 'to be better than the best', it's easy to see where he's coming from.

So, if mission statements are apt to become so much managerial hot air, why bother with one at all? Surely it is enough for a business to know what it does, have an idea of where it's going, treat those it has dealings with fairly and - with any luck - turn in a decent profit. To some extent this holds true and, for a reasonably small or young business, the corporate 'mission and vision thing' should present no real problem. If the company in question makes widgets and employs 50 people, then all the employees should know exactly what the business does - and have a fair idea of what its goals are. Equally, a young business - even if it has grown pretty quickly - is likely to still have some its founders and their ethos on board; again it is likely that the employees know the score. As Carter points out, 'With a smaller company, everyone's near the coalface - with a hundred people you're OK but with a thousand or ten thousand it becomes progressively more difficult.' It's a good point. Say the organisation is a large, quoted affair with a diverse portfolio of businesses, many of which are sited far from head office. Here, there is no reason that a line manager from the chemicals division in Northumberland should share a sense of mission with the board who are hundreds of miles away ensconced in their wood-panelled London office.

For the larger, diversified company then, a mission statement could well be a handy thing to have. Explains Jeremy Bullmore, a non-executive director of WPP and the Guardian media group: 'If you take them seriously they're a very good discipline to go by and define what you're trying to do in way that staff can understand.' Bullmore cites the advertising agency, Olgilvy and Mather as a good example - their diktat is 'To be most valued by people who value brands'. 'It doesn't say that they'll be best,' he explains, 'but it does say what they'll be good at. It's used internally and externally and has been tremendously valuable.' Carter, similarly, believes that a decent mission statement provides a clear summation of what the business is; he's particularly fond of a lift manufacturer's three-word offering: 'To rise unnoticed'. 'What a great description - that's what the company was there for.'

But for every eagle, there are a dozen groundbound turkeys: 'It's amazing how few companies actually have insight into what they're for,' admonishes Bullmore, 'Many of them are typical American flatulence.' A quick look at the frequency of words like 'quality', 'values' and 'caring' soon bears this out. Nor is a mission statement necessarily appropriate for even a large company with a basket of interests. As Jonathan Russell, group director of public relations at PPP Healthcare explains, even then, it may not be the way forward: 'We did a lot of work on mission, vision and values during early 1996 just after PPP relaunched.' This involved a top-down approach, a bottom-up approach and a 'staff-and-management together approach.' But the conclusion reached, Russell says, was 'that we were in a highly complex marketplace and what we were trying to arrive at would either be very complicated or trite'. Moreover, he continues, 'If everyone has a (pretty similar) mission statement, they become meaningless - they're no source of competitive advantage.' So PPP decided instead to emphasise service values and work 'on bringing these to life'. Russell also warns that companies may not be able to live up to vague, all-encompassing mission statements. 'When we first relaunched,' he says, 'our advertising slogan was "There to support you at every step" but then we realised that we were in danger of overclaiming - what is "every step"?'

Hilary Scarlett, a director at communications consultants, Smythe Dorland Lambert is a little more upbeat, but concedes that mission statements have a bad name for being trite. 'Senior managers,' says Scarlett, 'tend to spend a lot of time on these things because they feel they have to - but there is a need for companies to be clear about overall achievement.' A good mission statement, she continues, should be distinctive, relevant and memorable, preferably 'a few words that capture the company's spirit'.

Disney's vision statement (in practice mission and vision statements are often pretty much interlinked or interchangeable) is a favourite of hers.

It is 'To make people happy'. It may be rather touchy-feely, but even those who find this particular precept a bit anodyne and doubt the company really cares about the sum of human happiness would have to admit it has a certain ring to it. Perversely though, it is probably those companies in the greatest need of mission statements who find the things most difficult to come up with.

'You fall between the twin evils of avoiding endless platitudes which sound pompous and worthy and/or ignoring parts of the business. It can be very difficult to synthesise a one-liner about the essence of a company,' says Carter. And, although sprawling conglomerates have fallen out of fashion, difficult cases still abound. How, for instance, do you squash the mission of a supermarket that is also a bank into 10 words? Companies as far apart as the Body Shop and Imperial Tobacco have redressed this problem by producing a sort of mission list. Others like such as Abbey National go one better and actually produce cute little mission booklets.

But, while these tend to cover all a company's bases they are rather less memorable than a single sentence.

If, however, you can devise a snappy, pithy one-liner that is by no means the end of it (though from watching various companies in action one could easily be forgiven for thinking it was). 'A lot of companies,' says Bullmore, 'just bang them out and forget about them.' And this lack of follow-through, agrees Scarlett, is the downfall of many perfectly good mission statements: 'Companies tend to be very good at launching these things - that's the exciting bit - but much weaker in the long run. Senior management tends to lose interest afterwards,' she explains. Ideally a company should start from the top and get everyone involved in thinking about what the statement's going to be: 'Even if it's about no change it's a healthy thing to do.' Once the statement is defined and understood by the top brass, it needs to be effectively disseminated to the next layer of management - who are, after all, the ones who pass it down to the lower echelons. 'You must,' stresses Scarlett, 'spend time with these people - the people who will see it through. It's not about the launch - it's not about dry ice and lasers - it's about three months on, six months on.' Nonetheless many companies still think its enough to roll out the things with a fanfare, 'just shove 'em on a credit card' and leave their employees to draw what conclusions they will. 'That,' she says, 'is why they have a bad reputation and a lot of people think they're rubbish.'

And, even once a company has agonised over, written and effectively communicated its mission statement, the fun doesn't stop: 'They need to be living, breathing things,' says Carter. When Charles E Merrill of Merrill Lynch fame set up shop in 1914, he said he was taking Wall Street to Main Street.

Merrill Lynch's original activities now account for around a fifth of their business. In a rather more compressed timescale, the Microsoft of fifteen years ago supplied the operating system for a major mainframe provider - it's early vision was 'a computer in every desk and in every home'.

Nowadays it looks likely to take over the world and its remit has grown to encompass the internet and related technologies. Clearly a business can outgrow its mission statement and needs to pay attention to ensure that its goals aren't already behind it. And, finally, a word of caution.

Whatever happens, anyone who thinks they've come up with a good mission statement must go over it with a fine-tooth comb for any hidden meanings or negative implications - and after that they should get everyone they know to do the same. Only then should it be allowed out into the public domain. As British Rail found out with its 'We're getting there' howler, a bad mission statement isn't just for Christmas.

IT'S ONLY WORDS ... OR IS IT?

The good ...

The Girl Guides Association: To help a girl reach her highest potential

Management Today comment: Some may view the Guides as a little dated but there's certainly nothing anachronistic about their mission statement.

In eight easily recalled words it gets straight to the heart of the movement.

While the statement itself may not be particularly clever or flashy, the clarity and directness of the message it delivers prove that good mission statements aren't just for big business.

The bad ...

Past mission statement of Cadbury-Schweppes Beverages:

To be the biggest non-cola company in the world

Management Today comment: This statement was axed for a couple of reasons.

First, there is that rather ugly and negative sounding 'non-cola company' construction slap-bang in the middle. Better to define yourselves in terms of what you are, not what you aren't. Then Cadbury-Schweppes realised that Coke, itself a cola company, also happened to be the world's biggest non-cola company.

This mission statement has since been replaced by one emphasising shareholder value.

And the downright ugly

Virgin Atlantic Airways: As the UK's second long-haul carrier, to build an intercontinental network concentrating on those routes with a substantial established market and clear indication of growth potential, by offering the highest possible service at the lowest possible cost

Management Today comment: For a company as lucid as Virgin, this is something of a disappointment - it is waffle, pure and simple. Try reading it aloud without pausing to draw breath and you'll quickly realise it is also far too long. But the last clause does offer a ray of hope; it is easy to understand and states an intention that has a ring of truth and realism about it. A loser, but with redeeming qualities.

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