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How to Tell if Your Mission Has Lost Its Meaning

Jeff Toister | Jan 14, 2017 166 views 7 Comments

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Raise your hand if your company has a mission statement.

Most companies have one. Yours probably does. Mine does. But have you ever wondered what purpose the mission actually serves?

You could go with the stock answer here. “The mission tells everyone why the company exists.” Ok, let’s test that. See if you can answer three questions about your company’s mission statement:

  1. What is it?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do you contribute?

Nobody’s listening to that voice inside your head, so you can be honest. Did you struggle to come up with a quick answer to those three questions? If so, your mission isn’t fulfilling it’s purpose.

Now, go ask your employees the same three questions and see if you get consistent answers. If you get a lot of blank looks or wildly different responses, your mission has lost its meaning.

How the Mission Drives Service Quality

I’m taking some liberty with terminology here, so let me take a moment to clarify.

Elite organizations have created a shared definition of outstanding customer service that all employees understand. I call this a customer service vision.

This customer service vision can be a stand alone statement, but often it does double duty as a company’s mission, vision, values, or customer service standards. Most, but not all, elite organizations use their mission statement to define outstanding service for their employees.

So a clear mission can give employees guidance in their daily activities. Here are just a few benefits:

  • It provides a sense of purpose when they come to work.
  • It acts as a compass to point in the right direction in moments of uncertainty.
  • It reinforces what employees should be doing to serve customers.

For example, JetBlue has led J.D. Power’s North American Airline rankings for 12 consecutive years. A lot of their success comes from using their mission statement, Inspire Humanity, as a shared definition of outstanding service.

Every JetBlue crewmember (i.e. employee) knows his or her job is to bring a human touch to service. In an age of self-service and automation, humanity is sorely needed.

JetBlue is one of the outstanding companies profiled in my new book, The Service Culture Handbook. It’s due out in April, 2017, but you can download Chapter One when you sign-up for updates.

Why Employees Don’t Know the Mission

There are three common reasons why employees don’t know or understand the mission.

  1. It’s never mentioned. The mission is almost never openly discussed.
  2. It’s not trained. Employees receive no instruction on what it means or how to live it.
  3. It’s not a priority. Employees are overloaded with too many statements like a mission, vision, values, credo, slogan, brand promise, customer service standards, etc. that create confusion about what’s important.

That last one really stands out. Employees won’t know or understand the mission unless you make it a priority. That challenge here is many leaders fall into the multiple priorities trap.

The Know Your Mission Challenge

Back to those three questions.

You can restore your mission (or customer service vision) to relevance if you can provide the training and coaching necessary to help each employee give a consistent answer to these three questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do I contribute?

Are you up to the challenge?

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7 Responses to How to Tell if Your Mission Has Lost Its Meaning

  1. Steve DiGioia January 15, 2017 at 6:26 am (56 comments) #

    Hi Jeff,

    The best mission statement, or any other task or service plan, is only good if its put into practice. Companies wonder why they aren’t as successful as they wish when they don’t apply the terms as defined by their own stated goal(s).

    Seems silly to forget about the big words on the wall poster when they keep focusing on the wrong things.

  2. Michael Lowenstein January 15, 2017 at 7:49 am (1310 comments) #

    One of my early books – The Customer Loyalty Pyramid (1997) – addressed how elements of the McKinsey Seven S Framework impacted employee and customer behavior. A key element is shared values. These are the mission and core beliefs, or manifesto, underlying the organization’s existence and its expectations of its members. Values act as an organization’s conscience and provide guidance in times of crisis; however, these values, also known as superordinate goals, are what set the operating tone of the entire company and help to shape its reputation and image outside the organization.

    Unfortunately, as you note, all too often this is the most neglected of the Seven S’s. Statements are not memorable and/or distinctive, they tend to be lengthy (days of Ford saying ‘Quality is job 1″ and General Electric saying “Progress is our most important product”, and Amex saying “Membership has its rewards” are long gone), and neither customers nor employees can articulate, or glean meaning and value from, them, If customers and employees don’t know what about the business is unique and important, getting their support and loyalty is more of a challenge.

    You cite JetBlue’s two word service mission, Inspire Humanity, as a great example. In all honesty, thought aspirational, this feels fairly vague and vanilla. It could apply to many industries and many companies.

    For my part, something more preferable came from Charles Cawley, who started MBNA (purchased a few years ago by Bank of America) in an empty A&P food store. Before being acquired, MBNA was the largest independent credit card company in the world. Cawley’s mantra, which was on a large sign in the Board Room and written on the back of the company’s annual report for all to see was “Success is about finding the right customers and keeping them.” Certainly, finding and keeping the best customers (which MBNA was able to do better than any other company in its industry) was a statement all could understand and articulate. This became the foundation for how MBNA gauged its culture and business performance.

  3. Andrew Rudin January 15, 2017 at 7:22 pm (231 comments) #

    After reading your article, I am left wondering whether mission statements matter, and why they were invented in the first place. Did they originate in marketing as a way to wow customers? Regardless, a company that does not embody its mission statement through its culture and activities will appear as tinny and hollow to its employees as it does to its customers.

    A related article I wrote last year, Do Corporate Values Matter? (http://customerthink.com/do-corporate-values-matter/) generated an interesting discussion. In it, Bob Thompson mentioned, “Values that truly become part of the culture will influence behavior.” That, of course, is what distinguishes Values/Mission Statements from mere words. Toward that goal, I outlined five recommendations:

    1. Values must be defined and available – not just ‘backroom’ or C-Suite.
    2. Values must be shared with employees
    3. Values must be repeated at the right time (e.g. brought up at meetings and presentations where interactions with customers are discussed)
    4. Values must be routinely open for debate regarding interpretation and relevancy, and not cloaked in terms that stifle recognition of inevitable gray areas
    5. There must be accountability for values in decision making at every level

    By the way, you might be interested in The 9 Worst Mission Statements of All Time (http://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/9-worst-mission-statements-all-time.html), which contains examples guaranteed to amaze.

    And the Mission Statement Generator (http://cmorse.org/missiongen/), a fabulously easy-to-use tool for those who experience writer’s block when tasked with crafting an inspirational sentence. My result just now: “Our job is to continue to seamlessly leverage value-added opportunities to stay relevant in tomorrow’s world.” – Less trouble, sounds great!

  4. Jeff Toister January 16, 2017 at 7:53 am (99 comments) #

    @Michael, you make a good point about JetBlue’s mission seeming very vague. What separates companies like JetBlue from the rest is two things: (1) Making their mission about people, not planes is deliberate. Planes is only the mechanism they use to deliver their mission. Many elite companies, but certainly not all, do the same thing. (2) Companies like JetBlue make it come alive where crewmembers (their word for employees) understand how they contribute to the mission in their role. This aspect is uncommon in most companies that I observe.

  5. Jeff Toister January 16, 2017 at 7:54 am (99 comments) #

    @Steve — Yes, I’ve often wondered why so many companies bother to write mission statements that are quickly forgotten and ignored after they’re written.

  6. Jeff Toister January 16, 2017 at 7:59 am (99 comments) #

    @Andrew, you pose a good questions about the origin of mission statements. I don’t know the answer.

    I can tell you I’ve worked with many nonprofits, which are by definition mission-driven organizations. Nonprofit employees (typically) understand their organization’s mission and are willing to accept less pay than they might get from a for profit company to work there. That’s pretty incredible. For-profit companies that have a clear sense of purpose (i.e. mission) tend to be employers of choice for that same reason.

  7. Michael Lowenstein January 16, 2017 at 8:33 am (1310 comments) #

    Southwest Airlines has an equally general mission statement. More impactful is their statement of purpose. From their web site – Our Purpose: To connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.

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