When talking to a board about the relevance of sustainability in their everyday practices, a reply I often get is: “We’re already thinking about/working with sustainability, we’ve added it to our mission statement”. If you feel like you need a mission statement to convince people you’re working on a topic, you’re probably not doing a great job actually working on it.
Shareholders versus customers
The first thing I would like to discuss is the difference between shareholders and customers. The revenue of your company is always created by the amount of stuff you sell. Whatever you’re making or doing, your customers have to buy it from you. This also means that everything you do should be relevant for your customer. A customer doesn’t care about your mission statement, where you’re heading to and the great things you could achieve if only…. Customers care about what you’re offering, and if that offer is properly aligned with their personal values.
When I go shopping for example, I go to this supermarket that only sells organic, local or (if not local) fair trade stuff. Even though I have never read their mission statement (and have no intention of ever reading it), I will keep buying my food, soap and other stuff here. This shop sells what I need, so I go there.
Now, as a shareholder we might be looking at a different story. You might argue that for someone to invest his/her money in a company, you need some sort of promise written down. But most investors don’t really care what they’re investing in, as long as it’s profitable. The few who do, won’t be interested in what you’re saying you do but in what you’re actually doing.
In his book “The Radical L.E.A.P.”, Steve Farber also discusses the relevance of mission statements:
A vision statement doesn’t generate energy, love does, great ideas do, principles and values do. A vision statement is usually about as energizing and memorable as a saltine cracker.
Whether or not people will believe you (as a person and as a company), depends on whether or not you’re authentic. As mentioned before on this blog, authenticity is all about DWYSYWD; Do What You Say You Will Do.
The same thing I said about my supermarket goes for big companies like Patagonia. They probably have a superbly well-written mission statement fabricated by a publicity agency, but I haven’t read it. I believe Patagonia is sincerely committed to sustainability, because they’re acting like it. They don’t need a big mission statement because every fibre of the company is breathing sustainability.
Testing the relevance of your own mission statement
Mission statements rarely have an impact beyond the boardroom. They are artificial statements created by the board on a team-weekend, handed out to the employees who actually do the job, read, laughed with, discarded and forgotten. The reason for this is not that your employees don’t understand what you wrote; the reason is they know you don’t understand it.
A fun game to test the value of your companies mission statement is this one:
- Host a board-meeting to discuss the mission statement
- Write down all the buzzwords in the mission statement on a blackboard (sustainability, innovation, hands-on, user centered, community driven, open, transparent…)
- Ask the board members to individually write down (in normal spoken language) the definition of each buzzword
- Compare the different definitions, there are 2 possible outcomes for this test:
- Everyone has written down the same definitions (rare): Congratulations, your board is able to actually align their vision. Now rewrite your mission statement so that everyone actually understands what your saying
- Everyone is interpreting the buzzwords in a different way (more likely): If you don’t know what you’re talking about, how can your employees? Work out common goals and targets, and if you really have to, write them down in an understandable mission statement (no buzzwords this time).