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Mission Statements- Hang on. What Does This Mean?

At a branding rescue workshop with a national fintech company, we were updating a mission statement that had been used for ten years. In an effort to craft something meaningful and full of pith, the leadership long ago came up with a mission statement that sounded like it was created by accountants and vetted through legal. The key phrase of the statement declared that we would become “the undisputed value-based finance company in America.”

Sadly, it took ten years for leadership to realize that no customer, partner, or even internal stakeholders were ever going to know what was meant by “undisputed value-based finance company.”  

I have told this story to countless companies that are struggling to develop internal and external messaging.  

In addition to hard-to-understand mission statements, I often encounter others that are crammed with elevating virtue and the buzzwords of the time (check your own mission/vision/values. I’ll bet “relentless” is in there). I’ve read hundreds of positioning statements that convey lofty levels of integrity and the conviction to remake the world. 

The unfortunate byproduct of trying to activate elevated or aspirational language in a mission statement is that inevitably the reader or customer comes away thinking that it’s squishy, irrelevant, and unrelatable. Mission statements written with industry lexicon or lofty aspirations tend to engender suspicion rather than understanding and acceptance.

So how do you do it?

Keep in mind that the purpose of a mission statement should summarize what business a company is in, and why it exists, or what purpose it serves. Yet, a great mission statement is clear and concise, and thus many statements only call out one or two of these points. 

A few points of guidance

This process is often not easy. Senior leadership consistently struggles to define the nature of their company. Yet, the effort spent pursuing a distilled version of who you are is worth the effort. Here are a few tips and guidelines to get you started.

  • It’s not quick, don’t force it. 
  • Involve stakeholders across the span of the org chart.
  • Ask the three big questions: Who are we as a company? Why do we exist? What purpose do we serve?
  • Collect big concepts and don’t try to wordsmith. This will be done later by wordsmiths.
  • Don’t solve the world’s problems. Solve your client’s problems.
  • “How” you accomplish your mission statement is not part of this process
  • …and for the wordsmith, use pithy and concise everyday language. 

Identifying that you’ve successfully written an impactful mission statement is evidenced by how well your stakeholders receive it. Do you employees smile and say, “yup, that’s us!”? Do your clients nod in agreement? You’ll know you’ve got it when your audience tells you so.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity; but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

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