The last few months have been a wild ride as some of the nation's largest businesses have come apart at the seams. The largest of these, of course, is Enron, whose mission statement noted that the company prided itself on four key values: respect, integrity, communication and excellence. Among other things, all business dealings at Enron were supposed to be "open and fair." As Enron's story unfolds in Congress, it's obvious the former seventh-largest U.S. company wasn't living its own mission statement. Now the question is: Are you living yours?
"I suspect the majority of mission statements don't reflect reality, and I think it's apparent to employees," says Lin Grensing-Pophal, a Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, consultant and the author of HR Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function.
Mission statements are often seen as creative-writing exercises, Grensing-Pophal says, and management forgets about them once the ink is dry. It's no wonder they've become a joke to employees. You can find a humorous "mission statement generator" at Dilbert. com, and Enron's mission statement is a collector's item on eBay.
Your mission statement is more than a page in your employee handbook; it's your best tool for holding your company accountable to employees, customers and investors, says Paul Davis, president of the Scanlon Leadership Network, a nonprofit leadership organization in East Lansing, Michigan. But many of today's mission statements are too vague to make them useful as a benchmark. "Right now, [entrepreneurs] can do better than just saying 'We're going to produce high-quality goods and satisfy our customers, and we consider our employees our greatest asset,'" he says. "It's so innocuous that it doesn't mean anything."
It also sets you up to fail. Sure, you write that "quality customer service" is a company goal, but you've created policies that reward your employees for wrapping up customer calls within three minutes. Employees can see the gulf between what you say vs. what is valued on the job, says Walt Boyes, principal of MarketingPractice Consultants, a Maple Valley, Washington, management consulting practice.
"Employees have highly tuned B.S. detectors," he says. "They know that if they do what the mission statement says, they're going to get [in trouble]. So they conform to what the company really wants them to do." Your mission statement--and thus your core values--becomes meaningless.
Reassessing your mission statement starts with asking your employees how closely it reflects how the company works. Is it realistic? Are we living up to it? Is it used on the job? Where can we do better? This critical look in the entrepreneurial mirror is daunting, but the rewards are great. You'll connect with your employees, who will respect you for taking an honest, warts-and-all look at your company. A staff meeting or a survey are both good options for getting feedback.
"Employees would be pleased as punch [to be asked for input]," Boyes says. "There's no way the entrepreneur can lose by initiating a dialogue."
Susan Singer is president of Field Trip Factory Inc., a Chicago company that organizes life skill education field trips. Last summer, she asked her eight employees to help her update the company's mission statement, which hadn't been changed since the company was founded five years ago. "Business dynamics change," says Singer, 49. "It's good to make sure that your mission statement is still right."
Singer and her employees talked about the original mission statement and found that "it's not what we do," Singer says. They brainstormed a new one that reflects where the company is today. "It became so clear what we do vs. what we want to be," she says. Most surprising to Singer is how employees understand their jobs better now--something she thinks is ultimately improving her bottom line.
If you find dissonance in your mission statement, get rid of it. That may require changing some of your company procedures. Don't leave yourself any wiggle room, either. If you write that your company will have "integrity," for example, what does that mean? Your mission statement should define what integrity means on the job, and how it will be measured in company performance. "If you can't measure it, maybe you should change it," Grensing-Pophal says.
Boyes suggests using the "smart" rule. Make sure your mission statement is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and trackable. You'll increase it's usefulness as a benchmark in staff meetings as well as in your brand strategy. "Use it as tool," Boyes says. If you do, you'll find that living up to your mission statement has never been easier.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.