Tag Archives: Transparency

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.

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Authenticity is.

Authenticity is a pretty big buzzword in the world of branding. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and it even gets written into strategic documents as a goal. Organizations of all kinds are striving to be more authentic. That’s right—they set a goal of being “authentic”.

So how does your organization become authentic?

Actually, you don’t. Or rather, you already are. The brand you have today—the story that people believe about you—is authentic. Authenticity isn’t something you can choose to do or not do. It’s not something to strive for. Authenticity is revealed as a result of your actions, not the intent.

Each time people experience your organization (through product experiences, advertising, word-of-mouth, …everything) a consistent story is communicated, a little bit at a time. The more experiences, the richer your story becomes.  With each experience, your story—what people believe about your organization—continues to evolve into a concise promise. This is where people discover authenticity. This is your brand.

It’s impossible to behave inauthentically. If people in your organization behave in a manner that is inconsistent with how the world perceives your brand, your story shifts. Through their actions people on your team have simply revealed more of what is authentic.

If an experience is in conflict with your promise, that experience (and your lack of ability to deliver the original promise) becomes part of your authentic brand. Do this enough times, or the first time someone experiences your brand, and ‘failure’—making promises you aren’t prepared keep—becomes part of your authentic brand.

Authenticity is a result, not an intent.

Consider the implications of this when recruiting employees, communicating with stakeholders, selecting vendors and engaging in the community.

Where authenticity matters for your brand strategy is to make sure that the promise you make can be sustained. You need to make sure the story you are telling is the story that will be experienced. You need to manage the actions, not the intent. And not just through the good times (that’s too easy), but through the challenging times. Through grumpy customers and failed suppliers; through economic distress and unforeseen disruptions; through personal issues and nasty competition. These are the moments that our behaviours will be tested, and our true brand—the promises we keep—will be revealed.

That is authenticity.

Follow-up: (Nov 5, 2012) Read The Authenticity Myths for more insights.

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.