Does Your Mission Statement Pass the BS Test?

Last Updated Oct 28, 2010 12:27 PM EDT

"Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit -- one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time."
So, has Starbucks inspired and nurtured your spirit lately? No, of course it hasn't. You wait by a counter for a few minutes, someone yells "who's got the Grande Skinny Caramel Macchiato with whip?" and you walk out with a $7.00 cup of coffee. If Starbucks was really interested in nurturing the human spirit (it's hard for me to even write that without laughing), there wouldn't be dozens of Web sites and blogs dedicated to teaching people how to order a coffee there without sounding like a loser. I can only speak for myself, but getting a cup of coffee there actually saps my spirit. So, mission not accomplished, I guess.

If Starbucks wanted to be believable, its mission statement would be:"To have as many coffee shops as possible and sell as many drinks and biscotti as we can."
Come on, companies, get real. Most mission statements (it's also cool to call them "brand promises") are absolute BS.

I'm sure H.J. Heinz is a great company with great people (you don't get to be 140 years old by doing things badly). I am a lifelong, loyal and satisfied consumer of its products. But if you polled all 32,500 of its employees, how many of them would say they guide their workday by being "dedicated to the sustainable health of people, the planet and our Company"? I'd be willing to bet four Oscar Mayer Wieners that most of the good folks at Heinz show up for work to make and sell ketchup and other yummy toppings, and that not one person left the relish-bottling night shift yesterday thinking about the planet at all. If I were a serious tree-hugger, I might go so far as to argue that zillions of little plastic packets aren't the planet's best friends. But I do loooove my dogs n' fries, so have to recuse myself from that one.

To be fair, some mission statements are realistic, to-the-point and credible. Even some Fortune 500 company statements are reasonably down-to-earth. The ones that are short, and revolve around selling things and making money, tend to strike me as most honest. I'll even allow that some of the sillier ones have value as well-intentioned, team-bonding rallying cries. Nothing wrong with a little rah-rah.

But most mission statements are just empty promises and highfalutin, self-important proclamations that have little to do with the business and do even less to drive it. Most likely, some C-suite exec(s) -- probably with the help of a high-priced agency -- came up with something they thought profound enough to put on the wall in the lobby, offer up as a good sound byte, and lead off the annual report with a bang. Nary a care whether the statement had any basis in reality, or whether the factory worker or middle manager really comes to work driven by an obligation to embrace the global village.

I'm not knocking altruism or good deeds in any way, nor suggesting that companies don't mean well. But this is business, and with few exceptions, for-profit business does its good deeds by employing people, making good products, creating supply chains, paying taxes, giving to charity, and so on. But all of it starts with making money, which IS the rightful mission of most businesses, and is nothing to be ashamed of or talked around. Bill and Melinda Gates are giving away more money than anyone in history, but that's because Microsoft made them craploads of money. Saving the world was not Microsoft's original mission; they had to get a PC on every desk on the planet before they could get to the good work of saving the planet.

I think most companies can do without mission statements. They're more likely to be met with ambivalence or incredulity than to inspire anyone. I much prefer values to missions. Having a good set of values sets the tone and comportment of the company and -- if written in an honest and realistic way -- gives its people a usable road map of how the business wishes to conduct itself each and every day, "on the ground." Our employees know exactly how we want to run our company and how we want to be perceived, and that's what makes our culture and business work. Relatable standards and guidelines, rather than vague, overarching pronouncements.

All of that said, writing this made me feel left out for not having a mission statement for my laptop bag/design company. So I'm working on one... here's what I've got so far:

"The mission of Skooba Design is to leverage our creative assets to ideate and develop textile-centric enclosures that protect the technology investments entrusted to them, while always being respectful to the earth and its inhabitants."

I don't know... it doesn't quite sing to me. If you'd care to suggest a better one, or share your own thoughts on the topic, please do.

(Flickr photo by Craig S.)
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    Michael Hess is founder and CEO of Skooba Design. He is also a public speaker and advisor, obsessed with customer service, communication, and culture. Read the philosophies that make Michael tick here, and visit his website and new Facebook page for information on speaking engagements and more.

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