Svyatoslav Biryulin
Mission statement – typical mistakes
Does your mission statement do its job?
Many years ago, I was a relatively young CEO of a large company manufacturing exterior wall cladding materials. Once (it was the end of December), I was preparing for the annual Christmas party, where I, as the company's leader, had to deliver a speech. I intended to say something inspiring and aspirational, considering that the outgoing year was exceptionally successful for the firm. But inspiration abandoned me – all I could come up with were banalities such as "we have worked hard, and that's why we succeeded." It sounded boring and primitive.

Then I remembered that our marketing department had run an advertising campaign during the summer season that year. Customers who used our materials to decorate their houses' walls were invited to send us pictures of themselves taken in front of the houses. We received many photos with our end customers' smiling faces but didn't use them for internal communications. So I decided to employ them to illustrate and reinforce my speech.

While I was standing on a stage, these pictures appeared on the screen behind my back as a slide show. I was talking about the numbers, the records we broke that year, and the contribution all the employees made, but nobody in the hall was looking at me. Instead, all the eyes were on the screen, and I saw astonishment in them - most people in the hall had never seen end consumers before. And this minute became a lightbulb moment for me.
Help as an evolutionary need

As a species, human beings were not ideally equipped to live and thrive on the Earth thousands of years ago. So, there was the only way to survive for them – to form groups and stick together. This solution predefined our nature forever – we are social creatures. But what does it mean – social? It means that evolution helped us overcome, at least to the extent, a natural egoistic need to focus on our own survival and prosperity. As a result, we are trained to help others even without visible benefit to ourselves.

What do you like more – giving presents or receiving them? I asked many people this question, and all said the former brings them more pleasure and joy (when we don't make stupid mistakes by giving friends or family members something they don't need at all). This lovely feeling when we see a friend's or a partner's face glowing with delight is nothing but an injection of hormones of happiness to our brain. It is a part of the so-called "reward system," a phenomenon discovered in the second part of the XX century. Nature uses this reward system to motivate us to do things that help us survive.

Helping others helps us survive as a species.
Why do you work?

Imagine an ordinary employee in your company, a mid-level manager, or a common worker. Even if she works eight hours per day only, five days per week (which is not the case in many cultures), and has to commute, she spends ten or more hours per working day or 50+ hours per week at work or on the road. If she sleeps eight hours every night, it steals 56 hours every week from her life. Considering that a week equals 168 hours, and she needs some time for herself and also for shopping, jogging, visiting doctors, reading, going on business trips, etc., she spends much more hours doing her work than she can devote to people she loves. Is this work meaningful and rewarding?

According to Gallup, a mission statement is essential from the point of view of employee engagement, but leaders, on average, are not very good at doing this job. But how a decent mission statement can help employees feel that their work is meaningful? It provides them with the answer to the question: "Whom do I help by doing my job well?". It helps them satisfy their natural need to help others. If a company doesn't have a mission statement, or if it doesn't work properly, employees feel that they waste their precious time on something worthless and futile.

Mission statement as a slogan

Two years ago, I joined a company manufacturing devices and liquids for cancer screening as an independent board member and a strategy committee chairman. The mission statement they had sounded as "Life-saving diagnostics."

We carried out an internal survey and discovered that:

1. Every employee knew the mission statement and could recall it without a hint

2. Most employees found it difficult to answer the question: "Does the mission statement inspire you?"

3. Most employees didn't see a clear connection between their labor and the mission statement

So, a catchy, bright slogan was easy to remember but didn't work as a mission statement, meaning that it didn't help workers see that their work helps other people. A short, eye-catching slogan is suitable for corporate websites or customer presentations. But a mission statement is an internal communication tool aiming to explain to employees that their work is meaningful.

As a lecturer, I am always searching for good examples of mission statements, and it is hard to find good examples. Most statements sound like "we are for good and against evil," but they are not specified enough to inspire somebody. Ancient people lived in small groups, around 150 individuals, and it is hard for us, their descendants, to be inspired by helping "humanity" or "save the planet." Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize winner, mentioned in his book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economy that advertisements encouraging people to donate money to save, say, South American jungle work worse than the ones calling for help for an individual. Put a face of a sick child in an ad, and it will help collect more funds than one of a charity organization helping many children, even if the latter is obviously higher.
Mission statement - typical mistakes

Here is my personal list of typical mistakes leaders make while formulating the mission statements for their organizations:

1. A company doesn't have a mission statement (MS) at all

2. A company has a slogan instead of MS

3. An MS is not specified

4. An MS tells employees that they help "organizations" or "companies" by doing their job well. People can't feel inspired by helping abstract entities such as "companies"; they may be encouraged by helping people only

5. An MS contains the goals, for example: "our mission is to become a largest company in the market". There are other strategic tools used to set goals, such as vision. Mission provides employees with the meaning of their work, here and now, every day.

While giving that Christmas party speech, I realized that my subordinates were so excited by seeing customers' smiling faces because they had no idea that their work made so many ordinary people, like themselves, happy. It was my mistake, but correcting it became an opportunity. Soon after the party, we created a new mission statement, bright and inspiring.

An MS does its job properly if the employees use it when answering their children's questions about what they do at work. If the workers don't have a clear and crisp answer, MS must be improved or reformulated.

I will give you some tips on creating a decent mission statement next time. Subscribe to this blog in order not to miss the article. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Watch the video versions of these articles on YouTube.

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