Last year, the president of a non-profit in Boston called me and said, “I need you to help me write a vision statement—or is it a mission statement? Maybe you can explain to me which is which.” I'm not picking on this guy; many Fortune 500 companies can't seem to recognize a mission statement.
Here are two examples to illustrate my point:
American Standard Company’s mission statement is to "Be the best in the eyes of our customers, employees and shareholders." This sounds more like a vision statement.
The Hershey Company’s mission statement is “Undisputed Marketplace Leadership.” This sounds more like a slogan.
The difference between a mission and a vision statement is a mission statement represents what a company does every day, and a vision statement represents what the company wants to become. The mission statement tells the world why the company exists and how it can guide company leaders, acting as a corporate compass.
So how do you come up with an effective mission statement? Here are six tips to help you get it right.
Ask and answer the right questions. The most important question is: What does your company do? Some mission statements also answer these questions: How does it do it? Why does it do it?
Be succinct. The hardest part about answering those questions is doing it in as few words as possible. The best mission statements are 30 words or less because brief mission statements will actually be read—and remembered. Avon’s mission statement is 240 words long; H&R Block’s is 273 words. How many people know what those statements really say? The medical supplier Becton, Dickinson and Company’s mission statement is “To help all people live healthy lives.” That statement says a lot in seven words.
Be clear. Show it to your mother—or someone else’s mother—and ask if she understands the mission statement. If she doesn’t, rewrite it until she does. Sun Microsystems’s mission statement is: "Solve complex network computing problems for governments, enterprises and service providers." Exciting? No. Clear? Very.
Be inspirational. The mission statement doesn’t have to inspire the masses, but it has to inspire company employees. Of course, the best ones do both. Here’s one from The Elephant Sanctuary: "A natural-habitat refuge where sick, old and needy elephants can once again walk the earth in peace and dignity."
Match the statement with the company. The best mission statements fit the companies’ culture and personality. A creative business needs a creative mission statement. Like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream: "To make, distribute & sell the finest quality all natural ice cream & euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment."
Strive for perfection. Don’t post your mission statement on a website or on the wall of your business until it has been edited many, many times, preferably by someone who knows how to build sentences and use punctuation.
Every company needs a mission statement, which evolves as the company grows. When done right, mission statements can keep employees on the same page and help company leaders guide a company through good times and bad. When they’re done wrong, they are quickly forgotten.
Do you have a mission statement? Are you happy with it, or think it needs work?
Mark Di Vincenzo is a journalist with 24 years of experience and a New York Times best-selling author. Mark blogs via Contently.com.