Throw Away Your Mission Statement

Before you read this, take a walk around your office. Find the posters in the halls, the brass plaques in the conference room, the signs in the kitchen – anything with the heading “Our Mission”. Tear them off the wall and throw them away. Now delete the mission statement from your computer. Brush White Out through the mission statements in your brochures and annual reports.

By John Sturtevant www.johnsturtevant.comTeacher of business writing at Harvard Business School and The European School of Economics in Rome, Italy.

Before you read this, take a walk around your office. Find the posters in the halls, the brass plaques in the conference room, the signs in the kitchen – anything with the heading “Our Mission”. Tear them off the wall and throw them away. Now delete the mission statement from your computer. Brush White Out through the mission statements in your brochures and annual reports.

Why?

They’re lies.

Sound harsh? Probably not. In the 21 years I worked in marketing, I read only one mission statement that made sense. It was from a company whose CEO and employees actually believed in it – and lived it every day. The company was Boston’s Holland Mark Martin ad agency. And their mission was:

“Have fun. Do great work. Be profitable.”

As I conduct writing workshops and speak at conferences around the world, I meet people who laugh and roll their eyes when I ask if they know their company’s mission statement. Most people have no idea what their company's mission is. Nor do they care. The fact is, most organizations are not telling the truth in their mission statements. That’s right, well-meaning companies and organizations all over the world are lying - without even realizing it.

Right now, organizations everywhere are lying to their employees and to their customers. The CEO says one thing, the sales people say something else, and their customers have another point of view. All their perceptions contain part of the truth. But they’re disconnected and inconsistent.

A woman who didn’t see the writing on the wall.
Here’s a real life example of a company who lied in their mission statement. My father-in-law recently came to visit from San Francisco. He flew to Dallas and took care of some business. Then he rented a car and drove to Houston, with a ticket in hand to fly back to San Francisco.
Easy enough.
But when we returned his car to Avis, the clerk informed him of a $450 fee since he had obtained a round trip contract but brought the car just one way.“That’s not what I requested in Dallas,” he told the clerk. “I asked to return the car in Houston.” My father-in-law waved his Continental Airlines Houston to San Francisco ticket in the air.The Avis clerk got on the phone to her manager. But his story was the same: “Tell the customer he has to pay the additional fee,” said the manager.

As I listened to the Avis clerk talk with her manager, I noticed a brass plaque on the wall behind her counter. It was titled: The Avis Mission…“This is beautiful,” I thought.

May I speak with your manager?” I asked the clerk. She rolled her eyes again, shrugged, and handed me the phone. “Hi, this your customer’s son-in-law,” I said. “May I read something to you?” “Um…yes sir,” sighed the voice on the other end. I read:

The Avis Mission Statement

  • We will place the interests of our customers first.
  • We will be dedicated to building a rewarding and lasting relationship with each and every customer.
  • We will maintain a continuous quest for world-class quality to assure customer satisfaction to earn the unwavering loyalty of our customers.

Then I asked the manager “Does this sound like what you’re doing”?

Um...

Click click click click.

It’s all taken care of sir,” said the humbled voice.

The best part?

As I handed the phone back to the Avis clerk, she glanced at the brass plaque behind her and said “I’ve never even read that thing.”

Oy vey.

I got more high-fives from the people in that Avis office than a field goal kicker at a playoff game.

So now what?
One of the most valuable ways you can serve your customers is to help them look a bit deeper into your company. To see things from a different perspective. To look beyond the obvious.

And a great way to do that is in what you write. And what you say. The simple stuff. Your emails. Your proposals. How your people answer the phone. Use everything you say to bring a clarity and a focus that will help you speak to your customers, coworkers, partners – your community – in a language they understand, and embrace.

I call it transparent writing. So the reader sees not pictures and words, but rather the ideas behind them. And those ideas are what your people buy from you.

So, start now. Take a look at your organization from your consumer’s point of view. Delete the mission statement and other BS around your company. And instead, make a promise, and deliver on it consistently.

Throw away your mission statement. Start telling the truth.