Mission Statements are Meaning(ful/less)



There’s an adage that says if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up anywhere. In order to combat this tendency, companies design compasses and maps to inform them of who they want to be in the world. We know these navigation devices as mission, vision, purpose and/or values statements. Every company should have a mission statement that clearly explains its reason for existence and alludes to its definition of success. The best companies on the planet also recognize that, as conditions change, their navigational aids should, too, to reflect their (revised) reasons for being, and must be update when necessary. But what does it take to write a good mission statement? Let’s take a look at a couple of mission statements from major corporations:


BD Worldwide:  “To help all people live healthy lives.”

CVS:  “We will be the easiest pharmacy retailer for customers to use.”

Micron:  “Be the most efficient and innovative global provider of semiconductor solutions.”

Here are examples of mission statements that attempt to be timeless but don’t say much. The top belongs to a healthcare company, and the bottom to a technology company that does, indeed, manufacture semiconductor solutions. And CVS – easiest? Really? What does that mean? Reflecting on these mission statements will yield about as much as reading them. No respectable business would take an opposing stance to these mission statements. Everyone in their respective industries will likely be trying for the same goals.


Conoco Phillips: “Use our pioneering spirit to responsibly deliver energy to the world.”

Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

Ford: “We are a global family with a proud heritage passionately committed to providing personal mobility for people around the world.”

These mission statements do a better job of communicating the purpose of a company. They inform the type of work (energy, sports, transportation) and offer clues as to how the work will be accomplished (delivery, pioneer, innovation, mobility, global). These are mission statements that will probably not change often, though I have a feeling Conoco Phillips, Nike and Ford are exactly the kinds of companies that would reflect on their missions to ensure that they remain relevant. Ford, for example, had many internal conversations about what the “global” family meant. The company ended up selling some of its brands and established a new mission statement focused on creating “One Ford,” which has been quite successful. Conoco Phillips also elevates the principle. The company has developed an acronym representing its core ideals:  SPIRIT (Safety, People, Integrity, Responsibility, Innovation, Teamwork). Perhaps such extensions are over the top (this article does not address whether or not companies live up to their missions), but it is clear where Conoco Phillips wants to focus its resources, and that is a good thing.


Darden:  “To nourish and delight everyone we serve.”

Dean Foods:  “The Company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term stockholder value, while adhering to the laws of the jurisdiction in which it operates and at all times, observing the highest ethical standards.”

Would you believe that companies in the food business generated both of these mission statements? The first is Darden, a company with 4,500 restaurants around the country, and the second is the mission statement prepared for the Board of Directors of Dean Foods. Seriously, Dean? I am a huge believer in transparency, but this is a little like being a nudist in winter. Do I really want to put something in my body produced by a company extolling the benefits of stockholder value? If that company does indeed maximize its efficiency by aligning its processes to its mission, I’m scared. To be clear, it is a responsibility of a for-profit company to provide healthy returns. But take a look at Aflac’s mission statement:  “To combine innovative strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best insurance value for consumers.” While this company focuses on returns (as it should), the mission also mentions the customer. The mission demonstrates an understanding that, to create healthy returns, one must build a well-run company that takes care of its clients.

At the end of the day, a mission statement should adequately reflect the company you are trying to build. It is only one part of a puzzle. Think deliberately. Create a culture that manifests the values you espouse. Focus on delivering great products and services. After all, mission statements are more tangible than aspirational.

Image credit: CC by Richard

About the author: Ethan Mayers

Ethan Mayers is the CEO and founding partner of Synthenai, a business advisory firm that architects growth for early stage and growth firms looking for sustainable expansion. He is working on completing his first book, The Agile Shepherd: Flat Business in a 3-D World, expected to be released in 2014.

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