Employment Today - August 2000                                              back to articles menu


A Bit of a Mission



Mission Statements hang around in reception areas, Conference rooms and elevator foyers, and often lurk in Company Profiles and Annual Reports. Sometimes they mean something to the people who also traverse these areas or read the publications, but often as not they blend in to their surroundings in spite of the concealed down-lighting and gold frame, forgotten and forlorn. For such a powerful tool to languish unused and unremarked seems criminal. Why does it happen? How can we prevent it?


A bit of a Mission, and usually that’s all it amounts to, sadly. A ‘bit’, that is. Generally speaking of course – there are exceptions. Does anybody really take mission statements (MS) seriously? According to Punter’s mini-surveys, only a hardy few ‘born again’ types actually know what’s in them, and of those few, only one or two actually attach some kind of belief or ownership to what is written there. 

So why the Apathy? There seems to be two archenemies of the MS – one being a lack of ownership of the words and meaning, and the other being the simple passage of time.

In a nutshell, it seems that MS’s are the preserve of Senior Management who create and then distribute from the mountain-top after taking a weekend at a thousand-dollar-per-person-per-night cult Lodge, in between skeet shooting, imbibing, white-water rafting, eating, a little shared navel-gazing, jet-boating and some more imbibing. Hence the ownership problem. As to the passage of time, if you have a hundred staff and a staff turnover of say 12% (deemed the lower end of healthy) and your MS is five years old, then 60% of your current staff were employed after the MS was written and therefore had no involvement, and the other 40% are probably suffering from MS Amnesia.

I suppose I should start by finding out how many of you agree with me that the MS is a powerful tool, and even then I’m assuming you know what an MS is. For those greybeards who’ve forgotten and the new entrants who’ve never found out, the MS is a simple, short, nuggetty statement that tells anyone who reads it ‘why your organization exists’ and adds some illustrator of quality and/or scope. It’s supposed to be specific, relevant to the reader, easily understood by the widest audience (no jargon or management-speak) and avoids using non-specific superlatives like ‘the best’ or ‘the biggest’.

Its power comes from the ability to inspire, educate and focus the efforts of team members, but the output of its existence is only part of the benefit. There is a positive effect to be had just through the manner of its creation, and subsequent re-visiting.


Some time ago I was emailed from a colleague overseas who provided this MS created by the team at a certain house-of-ill-repute: “To relieve stress and provide enjoyment with security for both Clients and Staff in a safe, private, hygienic and structured environment, and in so doing provide gainful employment to those who might otherwise be at risk.” I can only imagine the environment of course, not having had the privilege of inspecting one of these fine emporiums in the course of my profession or even in an extra-curricular sense you understand, but it seems to fit the bill. It is short, uses plain language, the main client benefit and organization purpose is mentioned, as is a measure of quality and a dollop of social conscience thrown in for good measure.

So – now we agree what it is –


Who should have a MS?

Any organization or individual who sets out to achieve something. As we saw above, the oldest profession in the world uses one. A self-employed person would benefit from having one. An organization might have an overall MS that applies internationally, a local National MS, and possibly even Departmental MS’s. You can have more than one as long as they are not conflicting or mutually exclusive or indicating a totally different sense of purpose.

Who should create a MS?

The ideal is that everyone who has to ‘live’ it should have a part of creating it. Work back from that ideal, substituting ‘how can we include’ for ‘we can’t include’ all staff. Why should I necessarily attach any personal belief or commitment to an expression of purpose written by someone else? It is right and proper that Leaders should create Strategic Vision, define the Purpose of an organization and show the One Path of Truth and Light, but that doesn’t mean that the words used to express that Purpose and Path can only come from one mind.

The process seems daunting and fraught with difficulty, since how do you elicit, and then include, the comments and suggestions of 500 staff? Simple. You don’t. No one in his/her right mind would really expect their thoughts to be the ones selected. I’ve seen several ways of doing it – email surveys, whiteboards in the cafeteria for all to ‘make their mark’, suggestion boxes, climate surveys, in-house newsletters, central servers. I’ve even seen competitions run with quite big prizes for the ‘winning entry’, but what happens to the content of the 499 that didn’t win. Were they ‘wrong’? At some stage someone has to consider and evaluate the input – best done by a small team of ‘reviewers’ who will distil the feelings of all and come up with a few drafts, which can then be circulated back out again as ‘Key Phrases’ for final comment. Even though it may now be Senior Management who makes the final decision, people still feel that they had an involvement, and the ‘buy in’ will be maximised.

My new mobile phone beeps away in what I thought was simulated Morse Code whenever a text message comes through. I used to teach Morse years ago, and the other day – quite by chance – I actually listened to it. It says ‘Connecting People’ – Nokia’s slogan. Can a slogan be a MS? Well, that one’s a bit short, but as a statement of purpose, it’s not bad. What is interesting is that the sentiment has filtered right through the organization to the extent that it is designed-in to one of the products options…

Your average receptionist, technician or truck-driver can be forgiven for not knowing how to assist in the creation of a MS. Instead of excluding them, why not educate? Why not pull small groups of employees together, explain what a MS is and does, what it will mean to them, why they are being involved, and give them actual examples of other MS’s so they can see examples of good and bad.

Once a MS is created with input from all the players, another good strategy is to send it to some of your key clients for comment – let’s face it; they’re going to experience the output of it as well. You may get some interesting feedback!

Now you can hang it in reception (and in locations behind-the-scenes too) and publish it, and only now can you expect that staff will take some responsibility for meeting its expectations with something more that vagueness or open cynicism.

What of the Future? We know that Organisations are changing continually, to meet the ever changing needs of stakeholders and the Market. So what is the life of a MS? As a suggestion, the MS should be part of an induction programme so that new entrants get a chance to understand it and buy-in, and then the MS should be revisited annually as a matter of course, and at any time when a major shift in organisational purpose is required.  In the Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy, the super-computer ‘M’ was asked ‘The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It took a mere six million years to come up with the answer, which was ‘42’. But by then it had forgotten what the question was.

Now, let’s talk about Strategic Vision…



Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email: steve@sta.co.nz
© Steve Punter 2000 All rights reserved by the author

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                                   back to articles menu