Why Your Mission Statement (Probably) Sucks

Your mission statement needs to distinguish you from the crowd of competitors and resonate with both your employees and the public

"If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter which way you go. — Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

Your mission statement. Ideally, it should serve as a framework for your organization’s decision making as well as a touchstone for your identity, culture, and values. Good mission statements help shape strategy; they serve as a tool for employee and customer engagement, and they help you hire for alignment -- and keep your existing team aligned around what's important. They tell your potential customers  why you care about solving their problems and filling a need that they have.

lot to ask of just few short sentences.

Indeed, mission statements are tricky things to nail down. 

They have to do so much in so few words. And that’s probably why there are so many bad ones out there -- bland, boring, and downright cheesy statements that inspire eye rolls rather than a sense of purpose. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of putting a less-than-stellar statement out there. Without careful consideration, your mission statement could end up being:

  • Too General: There’s no sense of what you do or what sets you apart from the competition
  • Too Much Jargon for Jargon's Sake: Does the world really need another statement with the word “synergy” in it?
  • Boring and Bland: You want to inspire emotions, not yawns
  • Confusing: If people are more confused about what you do after reading your mission statement than they were before, you've failed
  • Too long: If it’s not short, sweet, and catchy, no one is going to remember it - so what’s the point?
  • Uninspiring: If you aren’t inspired by your purpose, no one else is going to be either
  • Unfocused: You don't convey what job you're going to do for the customer and why you're going to do it

What does this all mean in practice? Take, for example, General Motors’ mission statement: “To be the world leader in transportation products and related services.” Seems okay at first glance, but ask yourself: How is this different from what any old car company might say? For that matter, how can you even tell this is a car and not a .. bus company? What exactly are “related services?” Ultimately, this statement is too general and vague, and because of that it’s not very inspiring.

Or consider this mission statement from Albertsons: "To create a shopping experience that pleases our customers; a workplace that creates opportunities and a great working environment for our associates; and a business that achieves financial success." Can you tell from this statement that Albertson’s runs chains of grocery stores? No you can't, and that’s confusing. And having a mission to merely “please” the customer is a bit … underwhelming and generic. Why not make their life dramatically better in some specific way? Verdict: A confusing yawner of a statement.

Exxon Mobil provides yet another example of what not to do in a mission statement: “To be the world’s premier petroleum and petrochemical company. To that end, we must continuously achieve superior financial and operating results while adhering to the highest standards of business conduct. These unwavering expectations provide the foundation for our commitments to those with whom we interact.” Besides the fact that no one is ever going to remember this overly long statement, it’s impersonal, dry, and bland, and seems to really be saying “We want to make a lot of money.” Not exactly the kind of thing that’s going to inspire customer loyalty or imbue employees with purpose.

Good mission statements, on the other hand, share a very different set of qualities that help them to stand out from the crowd. By contrast, successful mission statements are:

  • Specific to you and you alone
  • Employ clear language
  • Are easily understood
  • They’re inspiring - but realistic and relatable
  • They’re not too long - just a few a few short sentences at most.
  • They capture and convey your value as a company/product
  • They convey the problem you're going to solve

The following statements, in contrast to the ones above, accomplish something very important: They tell us who they are, what they do, and what makes them special.

  • Google: “To organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
  • Facebook: “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”
  • Amazon: “To be the Earth's most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
  • Southwest: "The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit."

In just a few short words, these easy-to-remember mission statements manage to convey what sets them apart from the competition through their purpose, personality, and goals. Can you honestly say the same about yours?

If not, you might want to go back to the drawing board and craft a mission statement that distinguishes you from the crowd of competitors and resonates with both your employees and the public. 

And remember, once you’ve crafted the perfect mission statement, your job doesn’t end there. Test it out — on team members, relatives, and strangers -- do people “get” it, or do you have to explain it? Do they remember it? Don’t hesitate to ask for and incorporate feedback when sharing such an important statement about yourself with the world.