I’ve had a 30-year love-hate relationship with mission statements. I’ve read thousands. I love it when a mission statement defines a business so well that it feels like strategy—which does happen—and I hate it when a mission statement is generic, stale, and completely useless. Which also happens, but not nearly as often.
What is a mission statement?
A good mission statement is useful tool for well-run business. It’s the “why” of business strategy.
A mission statement define a company’s goals in three important ways:
- It defines what the company does for its customers
- It defines what the company does for its employees
- It defines what the company does for its owners
Some of the best mission statements also extend themselves to include fourth and fifth dimensions: what the company does for its community, and for the world.
Developing your company’s first mission statement, or writing a new or revised one, is your opportunity to define the company’s goals, ethics, culture, and norms for decision-making. The daily routine of business gets in the way sometimes, and a quick refresh with the mission statement helps a person take a step back and remember what’s most important: the organization has a purpose.
Don’t waste your time with a bad mission statement
That a traditional business plan often includes a mission statement isn’t a reason to do one. And make it useful or don’t bother. The vast majority of the mission statements are just meaningless hype that could be used to describe any business in the category.
People write them because some checklist or expert said they had to. There are actually webapps that poke fun at how most mission statements use vague, high-sounding phrases to say nothing. The comic strip “Dilbert” has had a field day making fun of them:
Image: DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.
And you should always subject a mission statement to this test, from Mission, Mantra, or Vision:
If you have a mission statement in your company, test it by asking yourself, honestly, whether your competitors could use exactly the same statement.
Does it distinguish you from all other businesses? If you gave an employee or customer a blind screening test, asking her to read your your mission statement and four others without identifying which is which, would she be able to tell which mission statement was yours?
How to write a great mission statement
So how do you make a useful mission statement? Over the decades I’ve spent reading, writing, and evaluating business plans, I’ve come up with a process for developing a useful mission statement, and it boils down to five steps.
1. Start with a market-defining story
You don’t have to actually write the story—it’s definitely not included in the mission statement—but do think it through:
Imagine a real person making the actual decision to buy what you sell. Use your imagination to see why she wants it, how she finds you, and what buying from you does for her. The more concrete the story, the better. And keep that in mind for the actual mission statement wording: “The more concrete, the better.”
A really good market-defining story explains the need, or the want, or—if you like jargon—the so-called “why to buy.” It defines the target customer, or “buyer persona.” And it defines how your business is different from most others, or even unique. It simplifies thinking about what a business isn’t, what it doesn’t do.
This isn’t literally part of the mission statement. Rather, it’s an important thing to have in your head while you write the mission statement. It’s in the background, between the words. If you’re having trouble getting started, make a quick list of what your company does and doesn’t do.
2. Define what your business does for its customers
Start your mission statement with the good you do. Use your market-defining story to suss out whatever it is that makes your business special for your target customer.
Don’t undervalue your business: You don’t have to cure cancer or stop global climate change to be doing good. Offering trustworthy auto repair, for example, narrowed down to your specialty in your neighborhood with your unique policies, is doing something good. So is offering excellent slow food in your neighborhood, with emphasis on organic and local, at a price premium.
This is a part of your mission statement, and a pretty crucial part at that—write it down.
If your business is good for the world, incorporate that here too. But claims about being good for the world need to be meaningful, and distinguishable from all the other businesses. Add the words “clean” or “green” if that’s really true and you keep to it rigorously. Don’t just say it, especially if it isn’t important or always true.
For example, Apple Computer’s 2017 mission statement is:
“Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.”
That one obviously passes the test of defining the company with flying colors. Nobody could mistake that mission with generic hype. And it’s an interesting change from the early mission as defined by founder Steve Jobs:
“To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”
Ikea, on the other hand, starts its mission statement with something that could be any company anywhere. “Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the [sic]many people.” To its credit, it goes on to define a “rest of the mission” that could only be IKEA:
“We make this possible by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home-furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”
And note, in this mission statement, how Sweetgreen incorporates a world vision into a product-oriented mission statement:
“Founded in 2007, Sweetgreen is a destination for delicious food that’s both healthy for you and aligned with your values. We source local and organic ingredients from farmers we know and partners we trust, supporting our communities and creating meaningful relationships with those around us. We exist to create experiences where passion and purpose come together.”
3. Define what your business does for its employees
Good businesses are good for their employees too or they don’t last. Keeping employees is better for the bottom line than turnover. Company culture matters. Rewarding and motivating people matters. A mission statement can define what your business offers its employee.
My recommendation is that you don’t simply assert how the business is good for employees—you define it here and then forever after make it true.
Qualities like fairness, diversity, respect for ideas and creativity, training, tools, empowerment, and the like, actually really matter. However, since every business in existence at least says that it prioritizes those things, strive for a differentiator and a way to make the general goals feel more concrete and specific.
With this part of the mission statement, there’s a built-in dilemma. On the one hand, it’s good for everybody involved to use the mission statement to establish what you want for employees in your business. On the other hand, it’s hard to do that without falling into the trap of saying what every other business says.
Stating that you value fair compensation, room to grow, training, a healthy, creative work environment, and respect for diversity is probably a good idea, even if that part of your mission statement isn’t unique. That’s because the mission statement can serve as a reminder—for owners, supervisors, and workers—and as a lever for self-enforcement.
If you have a special view on your relationship with employees, write it into the mission statement. If your business is friendly to families, or to remote virtual workplaces, put that into your mission.
And this is rare in mission statements. The vast majority are focused on messaging for customers. My recommendation here is not the norm. I include it because it’s good practice, even though not common.
While I consulted for Apple Computer, for example, that business differentiated its goals of training and empowering employees by making a point of bringing in very high-quality educators and presenters to help employees’ business expertise grow. That was part of the culture and, to my mind, part of the mission; but it wasn’t part of the mission statement. It could have been.
American Express, however, includes the team in its mission:
“We have a mission to be the world’s most respected service brand. To do this, we have established a culture that supports our team members, so they can provide exceptional service to our customers.”
4. Add what the business does for its owners
In business school they taught us that the mission of management is to enhance the value of the stock. And shares of stock are ownership. Some would say that it goes without saying that a business exists to enhance the financial position of its owners, and maybe it does. However, only a small subset of all businesses are about the business buzzwords of “share value” and “return on investment.”
In the early years of my business I wanted peace of mind about cash flow more than I wanted growth, and I wanted growth more than I wanted profits. So I wrote that into my mission statement. And at one point I realized I was also building a business that was a place where I was happy to be working, with people I wanted to work with; so I wrote that into my mission statement, too.
However, this element too, as with the suggestion about including employees, is unusual. Few mission statements do it. That’s understandable, since most mission statements are outward facing only, aimed at customers and nobody else.
Still, some of the best mission statements incorporate a much broader sense of mission that includes, or at least implies, the mission of ownership.
Warby Parker, an eyewear company, does a great job at voicing a higher mission that includes customers, employees, and owners.
“Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious business.”
5. Discuss, digest, cut, polish, review, revise
Whatever you wrote for points two through four above, go back and cut down the wordiness.
Good mission statements serve multiple functions, define objectives, and live for a long time. So, edit. This step is worth it.
Start by considering developing a full mission statement for internal use and using a customer-facing subset for general publication. That’s common. Many companies have segmented mission statements, with sections set aside and categorized by type or goal. Use bullet points or sections if that works for you. Part of the reason people confuse mission with mantra and vision is that many businesses use them together, and many others also redefine them to fit their context. So what a company does for customers is often called vision, despite the formal definition.
Remember, form follows function, in mission statements, as in all business. Make it work for your business. Or don’t do it at all. If you want to call it a vision, and that works for employees and customers, then do that.
As you edit, keep a sharp eye out for the buzzwords and hype that everybody claims. Cut as much as you can that doesn’t apply specifically to your business, except for the occasional special elements that—unique or not—can serve as long-term rules and reminders. Unique itself, the word, means literally, the only one in the world. Use it sparingly. Phrases such as “being the best possible,” “world-class,” and “great customer service” mean little because everybody uses them. Having great customer service is way harder than writing that into a mission statement.
Read other companies’ mission statements, but write a statement that is about you and not some other company. Make sure you actually believe in what you’re writing—your customers and your employees will soon spot a lie.
Then, listen. Show drafts to others, ask their opinions, and really listen. Don’t argue, don’t convince them, just listen. And then edit again.
And, for the rest of your business’s life, review and revise it as needed. As with everything in a business plan, your mission statement should never get written in stone, and, much less, stashed in a drawer. Use it or lose it. Review and revise as necessary, because change is constant.
*Should I apologize for putting the word “easy” into the title of this piece? Sometimes I confuse interesting, useful, and important with easy. I always underestimate tasks I like doing.
Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans. Follow him on Twitter @TimBerry.