Category Archives: Vision, Mission & Values

Are you on a Mission Statement, Part Two

Part One was simple. Sometimes there is more enthusiasm for writing a great mission statement than passion for actually achieving anything of substance. Without real purpose—without actually being on a mission—you’re probably just another run-of-the-mill brand at the mercy of the simplest competitive forces.

So if Part One is about a lack of real conviction to something greater, Part Two is about too much. So much passion, in fact, that the clear purpose of the organization is lost in translation. This time, ‘Are you on a Mission Statement’ is about the consequence of living your mission in passionate isolation.

Very often—and perhaps more so in the social change community—organizations use their mission statement to show heightened conviction and sophistication. Eloquent mission statements are a strategic badge of honour—rising above the riff-raff and outpacing their peers—elevating the organization above anything conventional or corporate. Mission statements become a passion filled, jargon laced, verbal vomit of words peppered with a secret code of industry rhetoric. Only those who already share in the passion and knowledge will even remotely understand the purpose, let alone its capacity to deliver on the promise. People are so deeply entrenched in their passion they are only preaching to the converted; anything less feels too pedestrian.

A good Mission Statement is not just for us; a mission statement should help everyone else understand what to expect. No one should hear your mission statement and think, “…so what do you actually do?”

If people are still unclear about what your organization does—the tangible value it brings—upon hearing your mission statement, then it’s time to let go of the words and dig back into the purpose.

A good mission statement—an effective statement—should be inspirational, of course. More importantly, though, it should also be clear, persuasive, and action-oriented. A good mission statement should provide outsiders—yes, outsiders—with enough information to be motivated to support your cause. They should want to join with you (or be competitively concerned about your arrival), be clear on what will probably come next, and how they can be part of that success.

It’s easy to get excited about mission statements, especially when the mission is something deeply important. The mission statement is a cultural and communication anchor—an vitally important part of any strong brand strategy. But it is just a tool to use—it’s of no value if it doesn’t first inform and persuade.

A great mission should inspire a great Brand Strategy. A great mission statement should simply inform people of your mission.

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The Brand and the Apology Strategy

When a brand makes a public apology, we are sure of one thing: the story that people are talking about makes the brand’s leadership uncomfortable.

Whether it’s a gross error in judgement, negligence or corruption that is exposed, an apology is a clear sign that change is forthcoming.

But in this fast paced world of instant, permanent and amplified communication, brand apologies have taken on a new form; a knee-jerk reaction to the slightest ruffled emotions, or actually part of the (terribly misguided) strategy.

“Do it, and ask for forgiveness after” might be good wisdom for an innovative culture. And it’s a great tactic for breaking through red tape rules that get in the way of progress. Lately, though, it seems this mindset is also used as a lazy fall back when a sloppy attempt at awareness generates the wrong kind of attention.

Brand leadership is about honouring your stakeholders—the employees, customers and communities that support your brand.

As individuals, we align with brands that take a stand on issues and lifestyles. So it makes sense we’d rather see a brand accept that it might offend some people and not feign an apology after just to appease those who don’t understand or share the culture or sentiment in the first place. Show those that love your brand—and everything you stand for—that you are connected and understand them; that’s what deepens the brand relationship.

A little controversy—a difference of taste, opinion or attitude—is at the root of a great brand strategy. But when something appears to go sideways, and those differences show up as very public rage, brand leaders need to anchor back to the core of the brand promise.

If the action/message is inconsistent with your brand, you apologize and take action to change it.

It’s good to apologize for true mistakes; errors that occur when systems break and products fail. There is tremendous value in being accountable to your stakeholders and honouring your side of the brand promise.

However, if the action/message is consistent with your brand—perhaps just a little bolder than people are familiar, or more revealing to the uninformed—you’re likely apologizing to make amends with the wrong audience. Or worse, you’re apologizing because you really didn’t believe in your brand.

When you apologize to the rage of those who were never aligned in the first place, you reveal weak positioning and undermine your entire brand strategy, and all your efforts outside of this one controversy come under scrutiny. You’re apologizing for being who you promised you were going to be, but only apologizing because it got a little uncomfortable.

Brand strength is about honouring your attitude and culture. It’s about being proud of your values and how they manifest in the world. That’s authenticity showing up and adding value when it matters. That is brand strategy.

Understanding Vision, Mission and Values.

The best vision, mission or values statements are the ones that work for you. The best ones answer the right questions, without confusing anyone.

Many branding experts are happy to share a ‘best practice’ format—a template for crafting the perfect Vision, Mission and Values statements. (No more than eight words; keep it to three sentences; must include “To be the…” and then list an audience and region; narrow it to only three values; one single phrase to capture your essence; etc…)

Style doesn’t lead to substance, nor does a focus on style inspire real meaning. Instead of trying to fit into a predetermined format, I suggest the only requirement for your statements is that they work for you and the people who share your passion.

That’s not to say the meaning of these statements isn’t important to your organization. Each one serves a critical function of your strategy, anchoring your brand and framing a community of support. But instead of a preferred style, let’s understand why each one works, why they work together, and what you need to know before you wordsmith your way into success.

Vision—This is your purpose beyond profit. It’s a simple statement that describes a better world as you want to see it. The best ones are something that you can achieve today, and continue to aspire towards tomorrow—both attainable and aspirational every day. Your vision is why you exist.

Your vision statement captures the deeper human motivation—the reason you get out of bed every day—and it inspires people to act. Let your vision be unreasonable but not unrealistic. Let the competition be intimidated by your authentic ambition. Let people dream.  

Mission—This is the plan for how you will achieve your vision. Your mission is a call to action. Some reference to a business model would be appropriate. You need not include every detail—it will only handcuff you later—but it’s through your mission statement that people will be able to understand how they are going to share your vision with you.

Be bold and be a leader. Make no compromises in your conviction to your cause, and your belief that this is how you will achieve your vision. Be clear with you plan and your actions. Don’t hide behind ambiguity or catch phrases—this is where people are going to decide if they share your passions and support your cause.

Values—These are the benchmarks of behaviour that will guide your decisions. The best ones are options—behaviours that have an acceptable alternative—so that people can understand their choice to align with your brand vs your competition. Your values should inspire pride, conviction and confidence.

Your values are non-negotiable. Your values are characteristics that you will defend, even when it might be to your competitive disadvantage, because to compromise your values would be a contradiction to everything you believe is important. (I need you to really think about that, because the values that you claim to hold true may come under fire—from shareholders, customers, or the community—and you will have to defend your beliefs. If you give in, even once, it’s not really a value, and they will question everything you stand for.)

Your vision motivates people involved; it’s why you exist. Your mission is the activity people share; it’s how you promise to pursue your vision. Your values guide your behaviour and the behaviour of those who share your mission;  it’s a commitment to stakeholders.

With these statements you’ve answered everything; why; what & where; and how. (‘Who” and “when”—you and now—should be implied. If they aren’t, these statements are not your biggest worry.)

How you choose to articulate these is entirely up to you. You’re the one who needs to connect your organization with your stakeholders. It doesn’t matter if it takes a single sentence mission statement that is clear and bold, or if you need a couple of sentences to effectively make your point.

Like any strategist, I have style preferences for statements that work for me. But if your version breaks from conventional standards yet honestly inspires, motivates and guides your stakeholders—all your stakeholders—you’re on the right track.

If you want to add a brand mantra and a brand essence and a brand statement, or any other ‘theme-du-jour’—and it makes sense to you—have fun with it. Sometimes these are helpful in communicating with different audiences. These tactics aren’t wrong if they add value; but just be sure of the value they add.

Vision Mission and Values are at the foundation of your Brand Strategy. You may notice that nowhere in this list is a reference to your competitors. Do not build your brand story in the context of competition. Build it for your own success, answering only to your passion and your vision, and leave the competitive points for messaging later on.

Update: Read more at “Are you on a Mission Statement”.

You’ll miss your Mission when it’s gone.

A few weeks ago I was challenged to defend the need for Vision, Mission or Value statements for organizations. Since I believe such statements—or at least the context that supports them—are fundamental to any organization, I’ll admit the simplicity of the question caught me off guard.

Their argument is as follows: “How is a statement supposed to change or guide my behaviour? It is silly to think that a frivolous collection of words would somehow inspire me to do better—or do different things—than I currently do. I know my job and my goals; a fluffy mission statement doesn’t affect it at all! A mission statement absolutely doesn’t make a difference, ever.”

The tone was confrontational, and their reluctance to listen to reason bordered on disrespectful. I’ve heard it before, but this time it also got me thinking.

His cynicism had me questioning the deeper value of the work I believe is important. Are Vision, Mission and Value statements so vital to the success of an organization that the absence of such statements would be noticed, or have a negative impact? Is there a risk for an organization to ignore the process of defining clear, compelling and authentic statements—an often difficult process—and conduct business anyway?

Let’s be clear; this person was exceptionally skilled at their profession, and very likely considered an asset to the large organization. Though retired now, they performed their job honourably for decades. The organization was successful during their career, and had been successful for decades before they arrived. This wasn’t a bitter employee simply being critical of management activity.

To show the value of Vision, Mission and Value statements I often tell stories of successful, famous brands—the classic stories that all brand strategy people tell—such as Disney, Starbucks, Apple, etc, and how a shared connection to something more important than cartoons, coffee or computers was actually the driving force behind their success. It’s relatively easy to anchor the brand in a statement, and then fast forward a few dozen years and see the messages, concepts and choices that prove the point.

It’s much harder to show stories of failed brands, and link their failure to a lack of a cohesive, shared purpose.  Until now, I didn’t have any examples of failure in action; the inconceivable crumbling of something iconic and powerful linked directly to a breakdown of the Vision, Mission and Values.

The recent op-ed in the NYTimes from Greg Smith, an employee of Goldman Sachs on his last day of work, has sparked a storm of comments. His claim is clear: Leadership at Goldman Sachs is no longer connected to the mission as he understood it when he started 12 years earlier.

According to Greg, the true values of the organization—the behaviours that get rewarded, recognized and supported—are not aligned with what the company claims. Worse, the things that get rewarded are in conflict with their promise to their customers.

Vision, Mission and Value statements are how every stakeholder can hold an organization—and especially leadership—accountable for delivering the brand as promised.

Anchoring organization’s culture, the statements are non-negotiable—invincible to market pressures, timely promotional slogans or even changes in leadership—because they represent the core beliefs and choices that hold everyone together. Vision, Mission and Value statements, in whatever form, define an organization’s culture, rooting a shared trust that such behaviours and focus will drive mutual success.

From the organization’s culture comes activities and communications to engage people. From the culture emerges relevant products or services or experiences or ideas that people align with and desire. From the culture rises a legacy that transcends one person, creating a community to carry forward new ideas, all in service of the shared vision.

A breakdown in the culture of the organization—being disconnected from a shared purpose beyond profit—is the first sign of failure. Trust in leadership fades, and survival instincts kick in. (Justin Fox with HBR writes an interesting analysis of what happened with Goldman Sachs. Creating shareholder value replaces creating customer value.)

Trust is at the foundation of any successful organization; trust in your team; trust between you and those you serve; trust in the community; trust in mutual success; trust that everyone shares and supports the same values.

Leadership’s role is to give people a cause to believe in, and give them permission—to trust them—to advance that cause. Vision, Mission and Value statements are the touchstone of trust.

You may not care about having the statements, but you’ll miss the trust when it’s gone.

Everything matters.

You’ve probably heard many times that your brand experience is the result of everything. Of course, that means absolutely everything. All of the good things, all the not-quite-as-good things, and all the things you’d rather forget. Your organization’s brand experience even includes things you are probably not even aware of.

Admittedly, this can feel a little overwhelming at times. With everything we have to do each day just to operate, we simply don’t have the time or attention to spend on the tiniest of details. Ignoring the issues, though, is reckless.

A brand strategy anchored by a compelling vision, a clear mission and spirited values is how you ensure that everything—absolutely everything—tells your story.

Every instance that is recognized as connected to the brand will have some amount of impact on the perception of the brand. And it all adds up.

As a leader, your role is to set the vision in motion, and then build a skilled team that will act upon your mission. A trusted team—guided by clear values—will ensure every detail of the brand experience is in line with a consistent story. Every experience; every message; every sight, sound and texture; every interaction; conscious or sub-conscious; everything.

The reason we document our vision, mission and values is to ensure that everyone we’ve hired—everyone responsible for delivering the brand experience—is connected to the exact same goals. We give people a cause to belong to, and then give them permission to find all the different ways to advance that cause. They will face choices that may be critical, opportunistic or simply functional, but when we are confident they share our story and a commitment to the vision, we can trust our team to make choices—big or little choices—that matter.

True values are a choice.

Being in the business of understanding and defining the cultures that drive organizations, I always take particular interest in what companies state as their “core values”.

I know organizations spend a considerable amount of time defining and articulating values that they hold true. In fact, it’s not rare to hear that a company has spent 12 months or more working through these values, often following long retreats or creative working sessions. Company leaders emerge with a list of words or phrases that are intended to anchor the culture of the organization and inspire their teams. Words like Service, Integrity and Quality flow forth. The marketing department gets excited while the rest of the company reads the list–and goes back to work.

And for the most part, the values are true. In fact, why wouldn’t they be?

Repeatedly going through this process I have come to realize that there are some universal truths in almost any organization. These truths can feel powerful in light of the chaos that we typically experience. But as statements of purpose—the very definition of the organization’s culture—there are some values that are essentially the basis of normal business practices.

Consider the following and very familiar list of corporate values; Integrity / Honesty; Service; Innovation; People; Quality.

On the surface, these values are important. It is only in our jaded and critical mindset that we can hear these as values and assume that they offer any differentiation. But when we look deeper we realize just how hollow these values are at accurately defining a culture.

Hollow not because they aren’t important or lack authenticity; they are hollow because they should be assumed. These values aren’t really a choice. There is no realistic alternative. By simply existing one would expect any organization to have such values, and a contrary position would be unacceptable, or worse; illegal. To make my point, consider values that contradict these;

Integrity / Honesty = Dishonesty. No business would ever claim that dishonesty is a value that they hold dear. Service = Disconnection. No business could ever succeed if it aspired to ignore its customers. Innovation = Stale. No business would ever claim to not look for new products, standards or opportunities. People = No Conscience. No business could succeed if it claimed to treat its employees with the ruthlessness of a machine. Quality = Inconsistency. No business would ever claim that a shoddy product is their goal.

We quickly realize that EVERY organization holds a set of values that are simply part of operating a business. Or being a not for profit, or a social cause, or a service agency, etc… Imagine what would happen if a company said that honesty wasn’t one of its values? Seriously—think about it.

For a stated value to have any real meaning to an organization, it must have an alternative that would be equally valued for someone else.

Stated values are what the company has put forward as the most important characteristics of the organization. They define the culture and the expectations of leadership. Companies put core value out front for employees and customers to share and understand.

So what else can we define? Where can we make choices that will define us? Social values; Political values; Environmental values; Financial values; Cultural values. What are the benchmarks for success and appropriate behaviour in your organization? These values are the ones that people get excited about.

I call these values Drivers, and they are powerful.

Why are they so powerful? Well, first of all they are a choice. Drivers convey a particular attitude that allows—or rather encourages—your company to remain distinct and competitive. Secondly, they generally have an equally valuable contradiction. This contradiction is what allows people to truly understand and align themselves with the brand. And finally—and most importantly—these values are the behaviours that your organization will demonstrate when the going gets tough. When put to the test, your true drivers are your instincts, and you will always live up to these expectations.

Consider a personal example. One of my core values is Laughter. I am lucky enough to work in a creative field that gets away with exploring absurdity at times, and a healthy dose of laughter is not only good, I believe it actually makes the work better. I take my client’s challenges very seriously, but we can share a laugh and still get great work done.

I have met potential clients who aren’t as impressed with life’s quirkiness. They view the nuances of business a little more seriously than I feel comfortable with, and we don’t connect. Frankly, I am okay with that, because I choose not to work with someone who won’t take a moment to laugh. It’s their choice, and plenty of businesses survive without a daily giggle. However, for me it’s not a good project. And it’s not worth it.

Values without valid contradictions have no merit.

So what are your Drivers? What gets you out of bed everyday and what is it that pulls all of your team together? What is it about your organization that truly aligns your stakeholders? I challenge you to examine the values you have defined against the question of options.

Be comfortable in the common values every company shares, but challenge yourself (and your team) to uncover and articulate a deeper motivation. Be proud of your choices, and never compromise.

Are you on a mission statement?

Most companies have mission statements. Some are inspirational, some are mediocre, and a few are utterly pointless. Most are carefully worded statements aimed to capture the activities of the organization in a concise way.

My work brings me face to face with mission statements (and vision statements, and values statements, and mantras, etc…) all the time. Such statements are important for setting a solid foundation for a brand, but too many leaders mistake having a mission statement with actually being on a mission.

Do you get the difference?

Take a moment and dig deep down. Are you truly on a mission? Are you really compelled in the core of your being to pursue the activities of your organization in pursuit of something bigger than just a transaction?

The statement isn’t really the important part. The important part is to understand the mission that you are on, regardless of how you articulate it for everyone else. The important part is that you are doing something that is meaningful to you. Something non-negotiable. Something worth doing.

Too often leaders spend more time debating the wording of the mission statement than they do exploring and confronting their true motivations for action. The effort is based more on sounding valuable rather than being authentic, while not offending anyone and trying to inspire everyone. Instead of being on a mission, organizations end up being on a mission statement. And we all know how well that works.

This is why most mission statements fall flat when shared, even with people who align closely with the organization.

When we think of brands that capture our imagination and thrive, from famous brands to local community brands, it becomes clear that these brands represent the few leaders that are actually on a mission. These leaders have a purpose beyond profit, and they are compelled to act on it. Their mission statement—the collection of words that articulate their mission for everyone else—is really just a simple way to share the their plan with others.

Having a mission statement without being on a mission is the equivalent of having a mug with “World’s Greatest Dad” written on it. It’s not the mug that makes you a great dad, and you can be a great dad without the mug.

You don’t need a mission statement; you need to be on a mission.