A rant about corporate mission statements


There are precious few things in my career that I have learned to avoid more than mission statement meetings.  It always shocked me that people actually volunteered for them. It seemed to me that it was the equivalent of prisoners volunteering to do community clean-up patrols to get outside the walls of the prison for a few hours.

Why am I so cynical?

Maybe it’s because most of these meetings spend more time on epic debates on punctuation and verb tense than they do on a body of work that has utility in the enterprise. It’s like getting people to agree on the painting that moves them the most at the contemporary art museum. Ask 10 people what they like and you’ll get 15 different opinions and a two-hour debate. Ask them to remember the most memorable piece a week later and you’ll get a blank stare.

Every company I’ve worked for has felt the need to have a mission statement. Many are proudly displayed throughout waiting rooms and staff cafeterias around the world. Some actually translate into foreign languages; others completely lose meaning and impact because they’re so weighted in American-speak that they need cryptography to decipher in other geographies and character sets.

As a researcher, I’ve done an informal study over 40 years about how often the mission statements are reviewed in an average year. My conclusion is that the mission statement is typically reviewed the same day the next mission statement refresh begins. If your old statement is good for two years, it will be read the first day it was published and the last day of the second year it was to be recrafted.

If you wonder why the mission statement has no legs, it’s because it was never intended to be a working document in most enterprises large and small. It’s an ancient ritual performed in far too many cases only when new senior management takes over, or when there has been a merger that requires a mission-meld. I dare say that human resources is also the culprit, albeit victims of HR seminars and graduate courses that spend days role-playing the mission statement process.

There are a few reasons why even when warranted, new mission statements have little or no utility.

First, they’re developed almost entirely inside-out. They are the epitome of the company telling the customers (and shareholders) what its mission is. This is done using much the same process that soviet propaganda posters told citizens how great the communist state was for them. Having lived in the USSR I can assure you the comrades would have created a different list.

Second, rarely if ever are corporate mission statements baked into the actual behavior of the employees and the management. The proletariat is totally desensitized to the mission statement posters in the lobby and cafeteria. There may be some reference to the spruced-up version at the annual sales meeting or in the annual report to shareholders. I’d be able to buy a great dinner if I had a dollar every time a designer said we “need to save space for the mission statement on page 2 of the (fill in the blank) corporate document.”

I know as a fact it doesn’t need to be that way!

There’s a better way

I worked for 25 years in senior management at global company where the mission and the values were inseparable from day-to-day work life. They were so much a part of the ethos of the chairman that we were horrified if he called on us at a worldwide managers’ meeting and we couldn’t remember Value #2: Respect the dignity of the individual.

It was never a corny gimmick. It was the basis from which all employees operated around the world. It was our own proprietary emotional intelligence quotient. With no intention, and with little effort, the values and missions translated perfectly into even the most culturally diverse languages around the world. Their power and their beauty were in their simplicity. Value #8: Keep the corporate staff lean.  And believe me, the company meant it! 

The mission and values reflected an outside-in view of what our customers wanted, not what we thought they wanted. Value #10: Foster an action-oriented “let’s try it” attitude.

I know that other colleagues who went through the “other kind of” mission and values creation exercise also had a difficult time understanding how it could be simply a ritual and not a corporate raison d’être.

How closely knit are your corporate mission and values with the day-to-day activities of the employees?


  1. Ronald Sonntag says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! Thank you.


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