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Your Mission Statement: A Critical Business Tool

If you don't know where you're going, how will you know when you're lost?

Your Mission: Get One
In a small company, you have a good "seat of the pants" sense of what you're doing and why. Example: A woman who starts a catering business has a personal drive to stand out as the city's best caterer -- planning to be known for the most creative and best-quality food, treating customers exceptionally, and obsessing over details.

But if this vision lives only in her own head, what will happen? She can get side-tracked, cutting corners to improve profit margins without realizing she's sacrificing quality, creativity, and service -- the very factors her goals depend on. She's may work 14-hour days and triple-check every order, but her staff just sees her as an impossible boss. That's why a mission statement is a critical tool for every business.

Why Bother?
"Some people think a mission statement just says, 'We will make the best widgets . . . and we will make as much money as we can,'" admonishes Larry Kahaner, coauthor of Say It and Live It, a collection of mission statements (Doubleday/Currency). "The best mission statement talks about the philosophies that will guide what the company is doing. It's a total package: goals, aspiration, principles."

A Mission Statement will:

  1. Make exactly clear what your company does and where it's going.
  2. Enable everyone involved in that company to share and understand that mission.

Have a Ball
Mission statements are among the best mechanisms for getting everyone in an organization to pull together in the same direction. That's why it's best to develop the statement with the input of those who will have to carry it out. "The people who got the most out of it spent a lot of time talking with people," explains Darrell Rigby, a director of the Bain & Company consulting firm.

Here's How
A mission statement doesn't have to be long. Sometimes a brief one sums things up best; by selecting a few items for inclusion, you telegraph that these are your company's highest priorities.

Hallmark, for instance, has just nine short sentences, including the importance of maintaining private company ownership; recognizing creativity and quality as essential to success; and pointing to personnel as the most valued resource.

Brevity has been carried to the extreme in General Electric's Mission Statement: "Boundaryless...Speed...Stretch." Maybe not enough to give everyone in the company a shared sense of mission!

Key mission statement ingredients:

Staying on Course
A mission statement only achieves value when everybody turns to it as a touchstone. For instance, Ben & Jerry's mission statement says they use only Vermont dairy products. But as they grew nationwide, says Kahaner, the ice cream guys faced difficulties using local farms exclusively. Still, they stuck by their mission and found a way to honor their goals.

Remember, mission statements can evolve. As conditions change in the industry, economy, or your management style and beliefs, you can re-examine and revise your mission.

Share your mission statement with all those who have a stake in your company: employees, customers, shareholders, even suppliers and distributors. You want them all to know what you're trying to achieve.

Is it realistic to expect you'll achieve everything in your mission statement? Kahaner suggests thinking of a mission statement as an aspiration. "We think of it as the U.S.Constitution. It promises a fair trial, but we all know that doesn't always happen. Yet, the Constitution allows us to express our values, aim high, and set worthy goals."

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