A colleague told me this story: She once worked for a director who was extremely proud of the vision statement he had written for the company. He had spent a lot of time choosing the language, and he thought the resulting statement “sang.” Unfortunately, no one else in the company thought so. Full of buzzwords and clichés, the statement was confusing and empty. And it was long—so long that when the director asked the team to have it printed on mugs, they had to order the largest cappuccino cup in the catalog and reduce the font size until it was almost unreadable.
That director forgot an important part of the writing process: letting go of your words. The only way to know if your writing is clear, concise, and has impact is to get feedback from others. This is especially true in the case of mission and vision statements, which not only have to fit on mugs but also into hearts and minds.
Let go, again and again
Say you’re confident your mission or vision statement does, in fact, “sing.” You’ve crafted it with a team, you’ve vetted it with stakeholders and everyone feels pretty great about the result. Now what? Time to let go, once again. No matter how well-crafted your mission or vision statement is, the ultimate test of its usefulness is how it is understood and embraced by others.
Naturally, all the work you’ve done to make your statement memorable and clear will help others to embrace it. So will displaying it prominently and repeating it often. But while it’s often said that communicating a mission or vision is key to making it work, communication can’t be one-way. Requiring employees to memorize the mission, carry it in their wallets, or use it as an email signature will not make it personally meaningful.
Mission and vision statements that work are those that are springboards for individuals to create their own missions and visions. As Peter M. Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline: “If people don’t have their own vision, all they can do is sign up for someone else’s. The result is compliance, never commitment.”
So, rather than communication, I prefer to think of the key to successful mission and vision statements as translation.
Mission and vision statements that work are those that are springboards for individuals to create their own missions and visions.
Found in translation
A sparkling mission or vision statement may very well encourage stakeholders to repeat it—or parts of it—verbatim. At Gilda’s Club Twin Cities, where the mission is “To ensure all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community,” I frequently hear staff and volunteers use “empowered by knowledge” and “sustained by community” to describe their work or experiences. More often, however, individuals in an organization take a mission or vision and translate it into language that makes sense for them.
Organizational leaders must encourage that act of translation, rather than force-feed a mission or vision to stakeholders. Here are three ways to help others make a mission or vision their own.
- Use the statements as backdrops. Mission and vision statements can give context to day-to-day activities. Reference them openly and frequently in meetings, events, and communications. Do so not for repetition’s sake; rather, demonstrate how the mission or vision relates to daily experiences. Encourage others to do the same. Name an event or initiative—a fundraising golf event or an employee recognition award—with words or phrases from your mission or vision.
- Tell personal stories. One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate how missions and visions play out personally is to tell—and to ask for—stories that translate those statements into experience. I recently worked with interactive media agency Brandspeak to help create a customer-facing video for its client, Pella Corporation. One of the top five U.S. window and door manufacturers, Pella is extremely proud of its 90-year heritage of quality and innovation, core values expressed in their mission and vision statements. The video succeeded in conveying those values not by using a disembodied voice reading the mission statement, but through the stories of Pella employees, in their voices, talking about the pride in their work. Personal stories make abstract concepts like “quality” and “innovation” concrete. Stories also enable employees to relate deeply to a shared mission or vision. David Seckinger of Brandspeak says that while this was a customer-facing video, “We’ve heard employees who’ve seen it—from C-suite to plant workers—say, ‘Yes. That’s Pella.’”
- Encourage free association. In a recent blog post on the creative use of word clouds, I described an exercise I call Pin the Tale on the Mission. It’s useful for getting teams within an organization—staff, board members, volunteers, leaders, advocates—to explore their personal connections to the organization’s mission or vision. The exercise involves using a word cloud generator to disassemble the language of your mission and vision, then encouraging individuals to find the word or phrase that resonates with them. It’s a fascinating exercise that helps people find their personal “points of entry.”
It’s a bit ironic that you spend considerable time crafting just the right language for a mission or vision statement only so others can find new language to express it. But that’s the true secret of mission and vision statements that work: they’re both definitive and evocative. They speak to core values but they’re also flexible. They may exist on the walls of the corporate lobby but it’s in the conversations at lunch where you hear what they really mean. A mission or vision statement is only as good as it is meaningful and relevant to individuals.
Is your mission or vision statement so compelling that stakeholders will embrace it and make it their own?