What’s Our Business?

Think fast: Can you recite your company’s mission statement from memory? Do you even know your organization’s business goals? More than just feel-good, celebratory slogans, clearly defined mission statements are essential in helping companies of all sizes reach their full potential.

“A mission statement is a declaration of the company’s purpose. But it is also a promise the company makes to its customers and its employees,” says Jeffrey Abrahams, an Oakland, California-based consultant and author of The Mission Statement Book: 301 Corporate Mission Statements from America’s Top Companies (Ten Speed Press; $24.95). “That promise becomes an integral part of the branding of the company. Even if we’re talking about a one-person business, the mission statement brands the business and hopefully differentiates it from the competition so that customers understand that the company is committed to a purpose and will back that up with products and service.”

Whether a few words or a paragraph, the construction and the tone of a mission statement should also reflect the personality of the company, says Larry Kahaner, a competitive intelligence and ethics consultant as well as the co-author of Say It and Live It: The 50 Corporate Mission Statements That Hit the Mark (Currency; $19). Kahaner says: “People tend to pooh-pooh mission statements as something that makes us feel good. But they can be true management tools if they’re used all the time.”

Mission statements should also be viewed as living, breathing documents that need to be regularly revisited, perhaps every six to 12 months, he says. “Rely on the mission statement for judgment. You have to challenge it, and employees and team members should be judged on whether they live the rules.”

That’s why Kahaner says it’s important “to share mission statements in as many creative ways as possible. Some people have them on the back of business cards; some on big plaques in the hallways. But you have to keep it in front of people.”

“What’s embarrassing is to have a potential customer ask someone what you do and they don’t know,” says Mary Ann Mitchell, president and CEO of the 200-employee Computer Consulting Operations Specialists Inc. and chair of the National Black Business Council. “That can cost you a lot of money if you don’t know who you are, who your customers are, and how you want those customers taken care of.”

Mid- to upper-level managers need to ensure that mission statements exist for their own teams of employees. This is critical “to make sure all their employees are on the same page and know what needs to be accomplished,” says Mitchell. The process of creating a mission statement–which must be a team exercise, insists Kahaner–is as important as what it says. “It absolutely cannot be a solo effort because you need everybody’s buy-in,” he says. “It can’t come from the top down, but the bottom up.”

Not only does taking a team approach reveal management and employee perceptions about the company, says Abrahams, but “the process also brings people together and aligns them in thinking that