This week I’m teaching a class on strategic planning, and one of the things we discuss is the importance of defining mission, vision, and core values to guide strategic planning.  As part of my class preparation, I searched for examples of these from real companies.  I thought this would be a simple exercise, but I was amazed at how difficult it was to find a Fortune 100 company with a defined (and publicly available) mission, vision, and values.

Instead, I found several companies with a mission but no vision or values (Starbucks, Google, WalMart, Facebook, Target).  Whole Foods Market has a mission and values, but no vision, and IBM’s website says that their mission is their values.  When I tried to find a mission, vision, and values for Apple, the “mission statement” I found read like a list of past accomplishments and product lines.  I couldn’t find a vision statement or core values for Apple.  In 30 minutes of searching, the only good example I found was Marriott, which defines a vision, values, and a purpose (mission).  With so few actual examples, it’s not a wonder that so many people I know are confused about how to distinguish between mission, vision, and values, and wonder why they should bother to create them.

So what is the big deal? These are all very successful companies, so what does it matter if these exist or not? Before discussing this further, let’s first define these terms:

Mission:  The organization purpose and reason for being.  What are we doing today, and why?  Who are our clients, and how do we provide value to them?  This frequently captures the values of the organization and answers how we will achieve our vision.

Vision:  The desired future state. Where we are headed, and what do we want to be known for? This should align with organizational values.

Core Values:  Principles that guide and define an organization’s conduct, both internal and external.

The most powerful versions of mission, vision, and values are concise, inspirational, and specific to your organization, not generic statements.  And if constructed thoughtfully, these provide important and necessary direction for your organization, for today and the future.

This last concept makes sense intuitively:  How can all the individuals in your organization work together to achieve common goals if they don’t know the organization purpose today, what tenets guide their work and decisions, and what future state they are working toward?  This isn’t just intuitive.  A study conducted at McMaster University showed that well-formulated mission statements have a positive association with organizational performance, by aligning and motivating employees.  And in the Harvard Business Review article, Building Your Company’s Vision, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that companies guided by core values, purpose (mission), and vision “outperformed the general stock market by a factor of 12 since 1925.”  They also found that “the visionary companies displayed a remarkable ability to achieve even their most audacious goals.”

As a leader, it is your responsibility to set direction for your company, and your employees think so too.  Leadership guru John Kotter makes a distinction between management and leadership, explaining that setting direction, and aligning and motivating people behind the direction are distinguishing characteristics of leaders.  And Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner surveyed thousands of working people and found that only 27% of respondents expected colleagues to be “forward-looking” but 72% expected this from a leader.  They also found that “no other quality showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague.”

There is a reason it is a challenge to find a company that has a mission, vision, and values that are clear, succinct, and powerful – doing this well is not easy.  But it is possible.  And if we are willing to make the effort to do this well, we not only embrace our roles as leaders but give our organizations and employees the guidance they need to be successful.

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