“We already know our mission.” The person speaking was one of a group of businessmen who were gathered to do strategy work for a non-profit venture they were launching. “We know what we are trying to do.” He didn’t have his arms crossed, but he sounded as if he did.

“Great,” I responded. “Then we’re ahead of the game. But first, let’s make sure I know as well. I’m a potential funder, and we’re taking that proverbial elevator ride. Tell me about your mission. What are you asking me to fund?”

The entire room was silent. No one had a way to answer my question succinctly. I wasn’t trying to play ‘gotcha,’ but the exchange did highlight the reason I was there to work with them. It’s relatively easy to believe you know your mission and vision, especially if you are within a group doing the same work. However, it is often difficult to explain to an outsider, a new team member, and, if we’re honest, sometimes even to ourselves.

Does it really matter?

I recognize that businessman’s skepticism because I’ve been there. For at least the first half of my career, I saw no value in mission statements and rarely ever heard of vision statements. I worked in colleges and universities that had lofty and long mission statements that no one ever looked at. Mission statements lived in the front of the college catalog with lots of other words few people beyond accreditation teams ever read.

Experience has changed my opinion. I think well written, meaningful mission and vision statements are crucial. Used well, they define direction, set a tone, guide decisions, and provide the glue that connects the many disparate parts of an organization. I have come to believe that organizations, and divisions within organizations, who spend time defining and writing good vision and mission statements do better work. They have taken the first step in attaining “… piercing clarity (emphasis mine) about how to produce the best long term result and then exercising the relentless discipline to say, ‘no thank you’ to opportunities…” (p.17) that don’t support their work.* 

Such organizations make better decisions about the use of limited resources – not only money but time and individual efforts. Having a clear and inspiring vision statement gives people something to work toward. A defined and exciting mission statement to support day to day efforts helps people find meaning in their daily work. It’s worth the time and effort to develop such statements and to use them, discuss them, and test them regularly.

It’s worth your time.

If you can’t explain your mission or vision to someone during that elevator ride, or if you haven’t looked at those statements in a while, it’s worth revisiting them. If you don’t find your versions to be clear, concise, inspiring, or accurate, I encourage you to find the time to bring people into the work of rewriting them. Engaging your colleagues in the work of determining the vision and mission of your organization is critical leadership work. It is work that helps create your culture. It is work that, to use Jim Collins’ formulation, moves you from good to great.

*Collins, J. (2005). Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, Jim Collins: Boulder. 

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