So Many Wasted Mission Statements

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman says most mission statements miss this key ingredient: something that can inspire stakeholders.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

According to a survey from LinkedIn, about one in four professionals say they would be willing to take a pay cut in order to work for a company whose mission and values they believe in.

But how many employees even know what their employer’s mission and values are?

Last year, professors from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University observed that, since 2010, the word “purpose” has appeared in the titles of more than 400 new business and leadership books and has become a management watchword. They also reported that one of the challenges that many companies face in distilling their purpose for their employees is the variety of “statements” that they issue.

This is where a singular, well-written mission statement becomes so important. While mission statements differ from firm to firm, they are designed to do two things. First, they communicate the organization’s strategy, giving stakeholders a rough idea of an organization’s overarching direction. Second, they communicate the organization’s purpose, making clear how the firm helps, inspires, or improves the lives of others.

Still, of the companies who have a mission statement, how many leverage its power to unite employees, customers, vendors, and their other stakeholders around a clear and singular purpose?

Look at a variety of mission statements and you’ll notice many companies don’t even articulate their “why.” Instead, they use the mission statement as a place to zero in on the “what.” They share what they do, make, or sell, not how their services or products impact something bigger.

When it comes to the line between a mission statement and a purpose, Korn Ferry’s CEO Gary Burnison puts it well. The difference between a company with a mission statement and a company with a purpose, he says, is the difference between the 31 other quarterbacks in the NFL and Tom Brady.

Aside from focusing on the “why,” effective mission statements have a few traits in common. They are specific, clear, concise, and realistic. Statements that are too general, broad, obscure, or confusing fail to give stakeholders something they can understand well-enough to latch on to. In order for stakeholders to see themselves in the statement, they must feel like the purpose is as compelling as it is possible - that it is inspiring without being overly idealistic.

A recent survey found that, while 82% of U.S. workers affirmed the importance of purpose, only 42% said their company’s stated “purpose” had any real impact. When asked by Inc. why so many purpose statements fall short of making a difference, Jason Korman, CEO of the organizational culture consultancy Gapingvoid, shared that “vagueness is the enemy,” reinforcing that “few purpose statements are explicit enough to drive behavior.” He suggested that anyone developing a purpose or mission statement should ask themselves what that statement actually means in terms of people’s day-to-day jobs. "If people show up each day believing this purpose statement, will it guide the execution of their roles?"

This touches on purpose washing, what happens when an organization declares a purpose but doesn’t live into it. In contrast, interviews with 30 founders, CEOs, and senior executives at consumer companies with visible and authentic purposes—including Chobani, TOMS, Warby Parker, Etsy, KIND Healthy Snacks, and West Elm—Korn Ferry identified this key insight: “Although these brands are celebrated for their external images, customer engagement, and positive impact in the world, their commitments to people and purpose inside their companies fuel their success.”

While a powerful mission statement is the beginning of helping people understand and commit to a purpose, it’s by no means an endpoint. Yes, stakeholders need to know what the mission and values are. But to believe in them, they need to see them in every corner of the organization.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.