The Mission Statement Is Dead! Long Live the Mission Narrative!

The idea for this piece was rattling around in the back of my brain when I came across an interesting blog post on the Association for Talent Development’s site: “Why I Hate Mission Statements—But Love Missions.” The writer, Brad Federman, lays out many legitimate complaints about typical declarations: They have been wordsmithed into frothy blather, are too long to be remembered, and have little use beyond adorning the lobby wall. But Federman also argues, correctly, that a compelling mission has the power to shape a workplace and inform strategic and operational decisions. So what accounts for the disconnect? More importantly, how can it be bridged?

The primary fault lies not in the “mission” but in the “statement.” A statement is a one-time aspirational exercise, which is usually crafted by an elite group of marketers or executives for customers or clients. Everyone involved feels good about the honeyed prose. And there are, of course, good mission statements. The best are crisp and straightforward—more Hemingway than Faulkner. I like Patagonia’s: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire, and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Too often, however, the statement becomes an end in itself, disconnected from job descriptions, leadership competencies, operational policies, and the other activities that comprise the day-to-day reality of the organization. Making that connection takes work and commitment. And that’s where mission narratives come in.

The narrative is a bottom-up method for ratifying the relevance and strength of the company’s purpose while also unearthing examples, hidden best practices, and unacknowledged obstacles to success. In a healthy culture, names can be attached to the narrative because telling truth to power is not a career-ending move. In companies that are more toxic, they can be written anonymously. People who are intimidated by writing can invest in some voice recognition software that allows them to capture the narrative orally.

The mission narrative should be short and explicit—the story of how a company’s mission is actually achieved. The quality of the writing is secondary, even tertiary, to spirit and specificity. It can be half a page, a page, or even two pages. It can be written by the people who actually do the work, and it can take one of many forms, depending on who’s writing it. Here are some examples of what a team leader might write:

  • To realize our mission, I do A, B, and C as a retail team leader to build a group that delivers X, Y, and Z. An example of where we performed at our peak in the past six months is… and an example of where we fell short is… I was most proud of my team when we…
  • The criteria I use for hiring are 1, 2, and 3. The formal and informal methods that I use for development are 4, 5, and 6.
  • The policies, procedures, and tools that help me most are… and here’s why. Here are those that get most in the way… and here’s why. The changes I would make tomorrow if I could are… and here’s why.
  • Here’s what I have done over the past six months to make our store and its people embody the mission of this organization…
  • If I were to hire my replacement, I would look for these qualities and/or experiences that are not in the current job description… Here’s why they would be important for his or her success…

A product manager might write about how the company’s mission informs the way suppliers are chosen or components approved for inclusion in a product. A designer or architect could write about how materials are specified. The list goes on.

Emphasizing examples, evidence, and underlying reasoning (“Here’s why…”) bring genuine experiences to light. Storytelling—the oldest, most enduring, and one of the most powerful forms of human communication—helps individuals from the shop floor to the boardroom distill concrete meaning and expression of the company’s overarching focus. Meaning drives engagement and motivation. Meaning cannot be crafted from afar; each person must find it and feel it themselves. The narrative exercise provides a channel for that exploration.

Be careful, however, not to turn the narrative into a corporate history. This is not about memorializing the distant past but rather an opportunity to chronicle the present and co-create the future. The narratives should be part of an ongoing, open-ended dialog through which members of the enterprise learn more about themselves and the work they do while also sharing to create community.

As a collective body of knowledge, the mission narratives can inform everything from organizational structure, to reward-and-recognition programs or basic policies. The exercise can embed purpose, values, and performance measures deep into an organization (and reveal where improvements must be made). Alignment up and down within organizational units and across organizational boundaries improves when people clearly articulate why they are doing what they are doing. Interdependencies are revealed. Resilience is enhanced.

Are there companies that do this well? John Hagel has cited Nike and Appleas examples of corporate narratives that hit the mark, with their “Just do it” and “Think different” messages, respectively. These slogans are not merely catchy mission statements meant to be used as marketing tools, but they begin narratives that encapsulate a larger story at the institutional level. I’m advocating something even more holistic and expansive in its creation and iteration. Like Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, who wrote about how to create the best workplace on Earth but who could find no company that followed all of the principles, I am still searching for the organization that takes full advantage of the power of mission narratives. If you know of one or are part of an organization that would like to try, please get in touch. In a future post, I’ll share some of the best.

Originally published at strategy + business


Target Employee’s Amazing Black Friday Pep Talk

Shift meetings are supposed to be fun and motivating.  But most are boring.  These meetings are a great opportunity to get feedback from your employees.  But most are one way communication tools.  Most importantly, these meetings should have a call to action.  Yet most fall flat.

The shift meeting below does not fall flat.  This manager understands what a shift meeting can do.  Enjoy.  It is one of the best!

It starts with this…”People of Target, brothers, sisters, hear me now,” he said. “They’re standing out there. Any moment now, those doors will be breached. Whatever comes through those gates, you will stand your ground with a smile on your face.” And it only gets better!

Have a Coke and a Smile!

I just don’t get it.  Are we  programmed to become upset about anything these days?  I think I watched the same Super Bowl and the same set of Super Bowl commercials as everyone else.

This year Coca-Cola had an ad that showed Americans from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, singing America the Beautiful.  It reminded me of that throw back commercial from, I think the ‘70s, that Coke produced called I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.

The message of the ‘70s spot was about coming together as one.  It was a message about peace, understanding and about getting past differences, about finding things in common.  The commercial this year, I think, was meant to do the same.  The commercial promoted the idea that America is beautiful, America is great, and one of the reasons it is so great is because it is appreciated from various perspectives, from people all over this country who come from all walks of life, different backgrounds and experiences and even different countries.  It was meant to say, there is no other place on earth like America, a place that is diverse and inclusive and a place where we value differences, our uniqueness…what makes you, you.  Now, one can argue that the United States has a language, the English language.  And, one could argue that it would have been nice to have the whole commercial in English.  However, it was not.  America the Beautiful was sung using a variety of different languages, including English.

Even if you feel like it was not the best use of funds and even if you did not like the commercial because you wanted it all in English, the vicious comments and curse words that followed that commercial on twitter and on the blogs just were uncalled for – we are better than this.  I think it’s time that everyone take a deep breath and have a coke and a smile.  This was not about our laws, about signs on the roads, or regulations regarding instructions coming with a product.  It was a marketing event.  A marketing event that was clearly designed to demonstrate the diversity in this country and how unified we can be even with those differences.  This was a commercial that was clearly generated to increase business and what better way to increase business than to talk to your different audiences in the easiest way that they can understand it.  And even though different languages were used, they were all singing the same thing, America the Beautiful.  At its core it was a unifying and patriotic commercial that marketed uniquely to different folks. A commercial that celebrates our diversity.  How come we get so ugly so quick over such small things?  Maybe it’s because we are drinking too much Coke or Pepsi or coffee.  Maybe it’s all the caffeine.  Maybe we need to get some decaf,  relax, take a deep breath, and treat each other just a little bit better.

Your thoughts?

To build or not to build? That’s the inclusion question

InclusionInclusion has become an approach to working with employees that are different or have special needs. Typically inclusion efforts are employed because an organization notices that there is a morale issue within a certain group or within the organization as a whole, a legal challenge has been brought forward against the organization, or there has been an effort to organize a union.   Unfortunately, many of the inclusion or diversity efforts fail because they are reactive tactics used to pacify a group or groups.  Even much of the discrimination and harassment training that exists is utilized to stay out of legal trouble or in direct response to a legal issue.  What a large number of organizations fail to see is that a reactive effort to respond to these types of issues actually alienates and disenfranchises many employees.

Employees do not want to be treated well because they are different.  And employees do not want to be treated well because the organization is afraid of an organizing effort. Employees want to feel respected, included and valued, not sometimes, but consistently.  To demonstrate respect, interest and value in your employees on a consistent basis an organization must develop a strong, clear and productive culture.

When a culture lacks clarity and is ambiguous we create many of our inclusion problems.  Amazingly, human nature generally shows that under stress and in ambiguous situations, we fill in the blanks incorrectly or exaggerate; usually toward the negative.  Individuals tend to infused negative motives on the other person(s) or company and provide opinions as facts to support their perspective.

Two consistent aspects of a strong, clear and productive culture are that it builds trust and reduces fear.

Trust has to do with our Present Interest.  The question we should consistently ask ourselves in different situations is “What is my Present Interest?”  If my Present Interest is truly in others meaning the person in front of me, my team, customer then I will create more trust.  The opposite is also true.  If my focus is on myself, Self Interest, then trust levels will be reduced.  Think of it as a continuum.  The more self-interested we are, the more our relationships will suffer or be superficial.  This is due to the fact that we cannot focus on other people and their needs when we are focused on ourselves.  We just cannot be in two places at once.  The challenge we face is that most of us are naturally self-interested; it is human nature.  Our leaders must role model an interest in others for a culture to be built.

Success is about reducing fear and anxiety.  Everyone wants to be a part of a winning team.  But what makes up a winning team? Success has to do with our Present Motive.  The question we should consistently ask ourselves in different situations is “What is my Present Motive?” or “why am I making this decision?” If my Present Motive is centered on Opportunity, meaning I am focused on what is possible then I will create more success.  The opposite is also true.  If my focus is on Risk, then I am trying to reduce my liabilities and will create less success or achievement. We know that this, too, is a continuum.  The less we are able to work through our fears, the more likely we will be unsuccessful.  There are two reasons for this phenomenon.  The first reason is based on the concept that we cannot focus on opportunities when we are too worried or about risk.  The second reason is if we act on our fear, the very thing we fear most will come true.

The reality is that many of our company cultures have reacted too much to our national culture of litigation.  We spend a great deal of time focusing on how not to get sued or called on the carpet by a government agency.  By responding to the current climate in this way we tend to create the very problem we wanted to avoid.  Cultures that focus on creating an incredible place to work typically have less inclusion problems and less legal issues.

Here are some tips on creating a culture that is more inclusive:

  • Create a leadership development process and program that is mandatory for all leaders
  • Develop a process for selecting the most appropriate leaders and not just promote those who are good individual contributors
  • Ask employees for feedback on a regular basis including the use of 360 feedback tools and engagement surveys
  • Encourage people to talk face to face when possible rather than use email
  • Discourage multi-tasking by asking people to work on the 20% that creates 80% of the impact rather than on everything
  • Transparency. Transparency.  Transparency.  Secrets are cancer.  While you cannot share everything…share as much as you can, as soon as you can.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  In multiple ways and multiple times.  Messages must be heard often to stick
  • Get to know your employees.  Know who they not just what they do.  We tend to include those we understand.

Remember we spend more time at work then we do with our families.  Our organizations are more than a workplace they are a home. Our organizations should be a place where everyone we hire feels like they have a place and space, feel involved, included and respected. A place where there are shared norms, goals and expectations.  A place where you can feel free to be yourself and are valued for your uniqueness.    And a place where you feel safe.  Ask yourself, how many of our employees consistently feel like they are a part of a family and have a place in our workplace home?

Originally published in: Words on Wise

Cheerios, interracial marriages, and the wisdom of children

When a Cheerios internet commercial came out recently that featured an interracial family it was a test.  And as a society we failed.

It was a simple message.  Cheerios is heart healthy.  For those of you who have not seen it, there is a link below and a summary of the commercial as well.

A mother sits at her kitchen table writing when her daughter walks up with a box of Cheerios.

“Mom,” says the girl. “Yes, honey?” says mom. “Dad told me Cheerios is good for your heart. Is that true?”

Mom looks at the box, and answers that it says the whole-grain oats inside are “heart healthy.”

The commercial picks up with dad asleep on the couch.  He starts to wake up notices a pile of Cheerios on his chest covering where his heart is located.

The commercial sounds harmless enough and similar to other commercials aired in the past.  The difference in this commercial is that the mom is white, the dad is black and the daughter is biracial.  Disappointingly, the comment section had to be turned off due to the vitriol spouted by anonymous racists out on the internet.  While the overwhelming majority was supportive of the commercial, I can only say I was saddened by the strong reaction of a few.

We have a ways to go.  We struggle in our personal and work lives to be included.  The idea that every citizen and employee should be able to feel valued, heard and have a safe place and a space available to them is an important one. This is one of the reasons we have discrimination lawsuits and engagement levels are so low.  Those that spread hate make us all uncomfortable.

There is hope.  My faith was restored when I watch a follow-up to the commercial (link below).  When the commercial was shown to children not one of them could see anything wrong with the commercial.  To say that these children were confused, stunned, and shocked when told what the reaction to the commercial was and why is an understatement.    Here are some of their reactions:

“It’s just the color of their skin, what matters is if they’re nice or mean”

“I thought Martin Luther King spoke against this and fixed this already”

“Underneath it, you’re literally the same. You have organs and a heart.”

“Some people just fall in love like that.”

Leave it to the next generation to demonstrate the wisdom and caring that ours still needs to learn.  Hopefully, they can out beautify the ugly spouted by those still living in a past world that lacked the understanding and value of others that differed from them.  Hopefully the next generation will continue to make this world a more inclusive place where everyone has a safe place and a space to contribute.  Thank you for restoring my hope.

Should Paula Deen lose here job with the Food Network?

This is inherently an employment issue, as well as, a cultural and moral issue.   What are your thoughts?  Should she have been let go based on her behavior?

Onboarding: Are you enacting the lemon law strategy?

I recently worked with a company on its talent management strategy, and I heard a number of things from focus groups, including:

• Employees accepted the position because it was a
job, not for a higher purpose.
• Employees were never told why they were hired
and what would make them successful.
• Orientation was short and administratively
driven, not learner- or employee-centered.

The way an employer brings people on board makes a big difference in how employees perform, how they feel about their decision to take the job, and whether they will stay. Some employees may feel buyer’s remorse—like after buying a used car. They may
even want to take advantage of the lemon law and find a new job. Other employees may feel a sense of pride from day one. What’s the difference?

Find out at: