How to Make Your Mission Meaningful

Your organization’s mission and values should provide clarity for workers, helping everyone “row in the same direction.” But sometimes they don’t.

I once worked in a human resources office with a multi-national corporation of 3,500 employees. I’ll call the company “Big International.” While Big was built on a foundation of hard work and had some good products that were prominent in the North American marketplace for a while (until they were beat out by price), there were some things happening there that disheartened me. Interestingly, what discouraged me most involved Big’s mission and values statements. My first Christmas there, we each received a copy of the statements on a classy-looking bookmark. The next Christmas, they were printed on fridge magnets – they were even painted in four-foot-high letters on the north wall of the plant for everyone to see.

One day when my team and I were trying to discern what to do with an employee who was learning too slowly, it occurred to me that our mission and values should guide us. It seemed to me that the two statements, “We will be a leader in our industry,” and “We will treat all employees with respect,” should have illuminated our problem. After all, they basically described the tension we were wrestling with, but I needed clarity. What was “We will be a leader in our industry” supposed to mean? Did we want to be number one in our market? Number two? And at what cost? Or how far did we want to take respect when it seemed to have a negative impact on cost and efficiency (and therefore our ability to lead in the industry)? Twenty years ago, as a young HR professional, I didn’t know the answers to these questions. However, it seemed like the fridge magnets, bookmarks, and wall of our plant were trying to tell us something.

I went to my immediate supervisor who was the HR manager of the plant. She said she didn’t actually know what the mission and values meant – she told me to talk to the General Manager.

When I asked the GM what the statements meant, he chuckled and said, “I don’t think anyone knows what those statements mean. Talk to the CEO.”

The CEO’s assistant said, “I think the CEO would love to answer that question. I’ll have him call you.”

He never called.

I don’t know how much time and money the CEO and his executives had spent brainstorming, writing, printing, and painting those statements, but what I learned from the whole episode was, “When the company talks about mission and values, they mean nothing and will probably be ignored by those around you.”

I suspect it wasn’t their intention to create meaningless statements – I think they wanted me to be guided by them, which was what I wanted as well. However, despite their efforts to communicate their mission and values, the message didn’t make it to our plant.

In our book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work, we encourage leaders to have a conversation about mission and values at all levels of the organization, engaging people in discussion regarding what the actual values are, and what the mission of the organization is and should be. Below is an abbreviated excerpt from the book:

If you’re in a leadership role, it’s your responsibility to get everyone else talking about purpose. You can use the following questions to start the conversation:

  • How is your organization making the world a better place?
  • Why does your particular organization exist?
  • What are you trying to achieve in the big picture?

Rather than having values that no one understands or knows how to live out, we suggest you get people talking about the values the organization already possesses:

  • When your organization is at its best, what behaviours do you see?
  • Which behaviours are so important that you would ask an employee to leave if they didn’t live them out?
  • What ways of acting are so important that you wouldn’t apologize for them, even if a potential client or customer didn’t like them?
  • How could you describe those behaviours in short statements?

If you want a mission and set of values your people can understand and follow, engage with them during the creation process, and revisit them so that they’re both updated and reinforced. When you do this, people know what your mission and values mean, and are energized to live them out, resulting in company-wide alignment.

Looking for more resources on this topic? Check out our other resources.


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

Mike is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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