In the first of our Leadership articles dedicated to People Strategy, Barney Collins examines the importance of an organisation’s mission or vision statement, and the communication of this mission or vision to ignite talent as well as engage customer groups in achieving organisational goals.
A robust business strategy should be one that is long-term, customer-oriented, clearly defined and articulated; achieves competitive advantage and is encapsulated within a strong vision or mission statement. We examine how a well-articulated vision or mission can transform traditional practice, help to redefine standards, best practice and performance and create an energetic and dynamic vehicle for change.
A strong Vision or Mission Statement
For any organisation, creating and communicating a clear and consistent vision is a critical tool in helping the organisation achieve its goals, as well as engendering the right behaviours and driving performance. A clearly articulated vision will engage colleagues providing the basis for an aligned and shared purpose, and ultimately attract customers, achieving long-term competitor advantage.
The mission or vision statement should be clear and concise, with a focus on customers and colleagues. The strongest statements also communicate ambition, for themselves, their customers and their industry. The most extreme and inspirational visions are those that communicate an ambition for humanity, and in so doing engage and inspire a new generation.
What I hope to demonstrate is that a clearly articulated vision can go beyond the engagement of immediate customers and colleagues to build a vision and brand values which inspire and energise talent in other markets.
Achieving a Vision for Humanity
I recently watched the ‘21st Century Race for Space’, presented by Professor Brian Cox in which he investigates the progress of private commercial enterprise in financing privately-funded space flights, space exploration and exploitation. In the programme Brian interviews Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin (and Amazon) and Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. Finally, he examines the progress by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. Arguably these are three of our most inspirational business leaders of the last 50 years and one can’t help but be inspired by their respective vision and ambition for the future of space travel. All three have made significant investment in their respective programmes, Jeff Bezos having sold over a billion dollars of Amazon stock this year to fund Blue Origin.
However, it is during the interviews with each of them, that the true power of their distinctive yet complementary missions are evident. For their true ambition goes far beyond the individual, organisation or customer. After all, how many of us can afford the £250,000 price tag for one of the first commercial space flights with Virgin Galactic? Their ambitions are best summarised by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk: Jeff wants millions of people living and working in space and for us to be a spacefaring civilization, Elon wants to ensure the survival of the human race by crossing our solar system and colonizing Mars in the next decade.
Lessons from History – the Third Man
I am reminded of another incident over 50 years ago, when President John F Kennedy toured the NASA space centre in 1962. During the visit, the President noticed a janitor sweeping the floor. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”. The janitor responded “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.
To many, the NASA janitor was just cleaning the building. But to the janitor he knew he was contributing to a bigger story; he was helping to make history. The janitor understood the vision and his part in it; he had a purpose.
There is a similar story closer to home. Christopher Wren, one of the UK’s greatest architects asked one of his men who was building St. Paul’s Cathedral in London,” What are you doing?”. The man replied, “I’m cutting a piece of stone.” To a second man, he asked the same question and the man replied, “I’m earning five shillings two pence a day.” The third man who was asked the question answered, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.”
The third man understood the vision. He could see his role beyond the immediate benefit to himself; beyond cutting the stone, beyond earning his daily wage, to a higher purpose; the creation of something greater than himself, the construction of something remarkable.
Landing a successful Vision or Mission back down on earth
All companies have ambition, although the extent of that ambition varies hugely. We cannot all aspire to a mission as altruistic and expansive as one that benefits the long-term strategic ambition for all humanity. However, there are clear lessons we can take from the visions and ambitions of these contemporary and historical missions.
Both vision and mission should be deeply and institutionally authentic. Therefore, the process of creating a shared vision and mission should be highly collaborative. Listening and engaging as many colleagues, employees and shareholders as possible will form the strongest commitment to the company’s vision. Vision and Mission statements should also be prominently displayed. A clearly defined and articulated vision and mission will reinforce relationships with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.
The difference between Vision and Mission
So, what is the difference between a Vision and Mission statement? The vision statement should communicate the aims and ambitions for an organisation, usually with a longer-term focus on what the organisation would like to become, whilst considering the organisational values. The vision statement is also a simple declaration of organisational culture. By contrast, the mission statement should communicate what the firm is currently doing, this may bring in overarching philosophy, customers and colleagues, or market and products.
The importance of a Transformational Vision and Mission
In some cases, organisations may need to refresh or transform their vision or mission. This is usually as a result of two eventualities; either because the vision has weakened over time or because of changing market dynamics, such as economic, political or technological changes. For example, companies which have experienced continuous political and economic turmoil may find their vision weakened by historic market performance or customer perception. The financial crisis led to the politicisation of Financial Services which in turn significantly affected how firms were perceived by customers. This has caused many firms to refresh their vision statements to emphasise customer centricity.
Similar experiences have applied to Oil & Gas companies who changed their vision statement to emphasise sustainability, following significant environmental events such as oil spills.
For these organisations, the importance of signifying a break from the past and a positive call to action for colleagues and customers should be central to any revised vision or mission. These statements should be progressive, dynamic and communicate intent to transform themselves and their markets. In doing so, they ignite the current workforce and attract future leadership talent.
Simple and Compelling
The most effective vision and mission statements are simple and compelling statements of purpose. Let me leave you with a few:
“A just world without poverty.” Oxfam
“To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.” BBC
“To connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” Linked In
“The maintenance of international peace and security.” United Nations
“Introducing future leaders to progressive organisations”. Bateman Collins International