Mission statements and vision statements are often the poster children for ineffective leadership communication.
You might see them framed and gathering dust in a company’s lobby, where they are having about as much impact as the Monet print hanging up next to them.
You probably have come across them in annual reports and on websites, too. Wherever I see them, my reaction usually ranges from a groan to a “Meh.” So many of them are generic, vague, and ultimately meaningless.
Another problem is confusion over what a mission statement is versus what a vision statement is. The terms are often used interchangeably, and this creates even more fuzziness about what they’re supposed to be. So let’s clear that up and then talk about how to write a vision statement that actually will matter to people.
If you’re looking for employee engagement ideas, having leaders collaborate on a meaningful vision statement is a great start. We’ve been doing a lot of work like this with clients lately, and we’ve learned some things that you might find helpful.
What’s a mission statement? We believe it should answer a simple question: why are we here? If that question is too big, here are some related questions that we find helpful:
- Why do we exist?
- Who do we serve?
- Which need do we fill?
- What promise do we make?
For us, a vision statement answers a different question: Where are we going? It’s aspirational. It’s a destination. If it’s done well, it gives everyone a good idea of what we will—and won’t—be choosing to do. It’s also emotionally exciting: people should hear it and get charged up about what the future will be like for the company and themselves.
So how to you avoid a meaningless vision statement and craft a powerful one? Here are the three keys that we use when working with leadership teams who want to create vision statements that will engage and energize teams.
- Use a facilitator. An outsider who has expertise in this area can be invaluable here, whether you have an expert on staff or bring in a consultant. Someone who has a little distance from what you do every day can be a big help when capturing your vision.
- Have the team critique several vision statements. We do a short exercise called “You Be The Coach,” where we share about a half-dozen actual vision statements from various companies. They run the gamut: Some are truly awful; some are mediocre, and a few are terrific. We have the leadership team critique each vision statement. What do they like? What’s lacking? Pretty quickly, people are chuckling over the bad vision statements. More importantly, they’re starting to become more discerning about what makes a vision statement go so terribly wrong: generic wording, hopelessly vague language, accurate but uninspiring goals, and so on.
- Create a list of banned words and phrases. If your vision statement isn’t going to sound like it could be anyone’s, you need to use fresh language. So we forbid the use of quite a few tired phrases: state of the art, cutting edge, and shareholder value are some examples. Eliminating those vision clichés gets you on the road to a vision statement that is uniquely your own.
- Remind people of the key elements. The vision statement should describe or strongly imply the following: what type of business you will be, as defined by something measurable—for example, market share or position, revenues, customer perceptions, and so on; where you will be doing this work geographically; what products, services, or offerings you will provide; and who your ideal customer base will be.
- Be ready to wordsmith. It takes time to get the wording of the vision statement just right. While it should be aspirational, it also has to be attainable. It has to be descriptive and lend itself to measurement, but it also should quicken everyone’s pulse to imagine it as the future. We often have extensive debates about a single word. Recently, one team spent quite a while mulling the word “define” in relation to their market. Was it too arrogant to say that? Was it realistic—was their business unit really capable of being the ones to define standards in their industry? We kept peppering them with questions, and finally they accepted the word… and then they had to debate a half-dozen others.
If that sounds labor intensive, that’s because it is! But when you get it just right after much debate, the room goes silent. People have imagined the future… and they’re now excited to take the next step—specifying what that future will look like and what actions will be necessary to get there.