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.