State Your Business

Too many mission statements are loaded with fatheaded jargon. Play it straight

Like most startups, we launched with a big mission that was going to change the game. Now, several years out, it appears our mission isn't going to deliver to the extent we had hoped. How do we come up with another? — Gerald McLaughlin, Shanghai

What an honest and admirable question. First, because so few leaders have the candor to admit: "Our approach to the market seems to be tanking. We need to change direction." And second, because few leaders actually get the point of forging a mission with real grit and meaning. Even fewer work with their people to come up with a short list of values that will make their mission come alive. We just don't get it! Sure, as your case seems to suggest, having a mission doesn't guarantee winning. But not having one invariably spurs the opposite.

Sound obvious? We would have thought so, too, except that for each of the past three years, we've conducted a two-day seminar with about 100 CEOs. The first year we thought we would breeze through mission and values in about a half-hour before moving on to matters more pertinent to top executives, like M&A. To our shock, more than 60% of the CEOs in the room did not have a company mission, and 80% had no explicit set of company values describing how employees should behave in order to achieve the mission. The second and third years were basically no different except that we were prepared for several hours of discussion on these two messy topics.

Messy because the terms mission and values, hijacked by business school professors and consultants, have largely devolved into fatheaded jargon. Almost no one can figure out what they mean. And so, like the CEOs we've worked with, they sort of ignore them or gussy up a vague package deal along the lines of: "Our mission is to be the best fill-in-the-blank company in our industry" and "Our values are excellence, integrity, and customer service."

In other words, "Business as usual."

To answer your question, then, here's how we'd suggest you create a new mission for your company, and just as important, a new set of values.

Basically, the mission starts with you, the leader, since you'll be held accountable for it. Yes, listen to everyone with something smart to say about your market and product— especially contrarians and customers. Gather and grok data galore. But then make a choice about how your company will win. Don't mince words! Remember Nike's (NKE) old mission, "Crush Reebok"? That's directionally correct. And Google's (GOOG) mission statement isn't something namby-pamby like "To be the world's best search engine." It's "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." That's simultaneously inspirational, achievable, and completely graspable.

With your mission set, more of your team must get involved in establishing values. After all, you are trying to describe the best behaviors of your best employees on their best days with enough clarity to make those behaviors easy to emulate, measure, and reward. Consider some of the best values we've heard: Never lose a superstar. Communicate bad news quickly. Take personal ownership of results, not process. Unlike the usual drivel, those mean something. They compel action.

And that's what you want, both with your mission and your values—especially as you change course. Good luck setting sail again.

Would you hire someone with an online business degree? — Robert Rodriguez, Chicago

Sure, if the person was smart and talented enough. That's our answer today. If you'd asked us a year ago, we would have hesitated. But recently we've met people with online degrees, and they tend to have a few traits in common. They're older, working, and are unable financially to pause for two years. Yet they're hungry to break open new possibilities in their careers. An MBA from a top school will always have cachet. And attending a campus program has inimitable virtues. But to count out a candidate based on an online degree may be shortsighted. People working all day and studying online all night have the kind of "grrr" most companies could use.

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