Area Economy

Mission, vision and values: Are these just words?

May 23, 2014
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Have you seen statements that tout a company or organization’s mission, vision or values? Most of us have.

Along with them are important ideas that appear to set the focus for what is expected to happen at the organization. The question is: What kinds of things are actually happening? Do the statements play an important role in the organization, or are they just window dressing?

Recently, I was working with a new organization and trying to understand how things operated: what aspects of the business were the drivers of events, who played what roles and what were the expectations for the employees. I was meeting with members of the leadership team. As part of the discussion, I asked about the organization’s mission, vision and values statements. I wanted to know how important these thoughts were to the organization and how they impacted what went on.

At first I was shocked by the answer I received. It came after a short pause, and some reflection: “They are just words. They really don’t seem to come into play in any notable way.” This was followed by explanations, rationalizations, etc.

I appreciated the honesty, but I thought it was a bit like a person at a therapy session admitting he had a problem and then looking to move on to something more important. Upon further reflection, I realized that although this was the first time a senior executive had said this to me, it wasn’t the first time I had encountered the phenomenon.

Many organizations don’t have their “mission statements” verbalized or printed for all to see. Others have them, but the statements seem to be only known to the owners or the senior executives. They don’t find their way to others down in the hierarchy, except perhaps when pointed out in the front of the handbook during orientation. Making them a part of regular activities is hard, especially if they are competing with unstated values and missions, or perhaps a personal vision of someone who is not fully aligned.

Think about when these statements begin to appear. It is usually not at the start of the organization, but at some point when the founders believe others in the organization don’t have the same understanding, or there is confusion as to where the organization is going.

But reflecting the correct view is really only one of the steps in making the statements have real impact. An associated step might be to believe these statements will be a valued tool of guidance. If you don’t have this perspective, why bother? The other perspective is that of commitment to support and provide those things necessary to drive the ideas through the organization with education, understanding and re-enforcement.

There are always matters and events that chew away at the foundation statements as operating environments change and the distance between the top of the organization and hands-on events grows. We often hear management advisors talk about “alignment,” “engagement” and “organization fit.” These are terms to describe the idea that everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction. A term that perhaps also needs to be on the list is “execution.” After all, the principle idea is to make something happen in a way that is deemed desirable.

Making the mission, vision or value statement a working part of how the organization functions requires testing plans, projects and practices against the stated belief system. If there is a strategic plan, each step of the process has to be examined against the statement to be sure they are not in conflict. As often as possible, they need to support the mission and vision, and they have to be accomplished by following the values. This means that during the execution process, how things are accomplished becomes one of the most important aspects of getting the impact the statement can bring. This requires analysis, listening and perhaps correction, but also re-enforcement to make the ideas a part of everyday actions.

Where is the payoff? It comes in multiple ways. People mentally embrace the goals and the processes either because they have them from the beginning or learn them along the way. In either case they “fit in” or they wash out, and perhaps the sooner the better. It will also help in the initial selection process because the culture of the organization will be clear to those who are involved in the hiring process.

With employees who fit, there is less conflict and more acceptance in how things are done, so training costs become lower. There is less time spent on discipline. People are less likely to “work the system,” so productivity increases. Turnover is almost always lower.

When you describe a workforce that wants to align with the purpose statement, it is because they see how it fits with their personal goals and they like it. This is what current jargon calls “engaged” employees. Engaged employees outperform employees who are there because it is a job. This has been verified by in-depth academic studies.

Organizations have to make the commitment, define the mission, clarify the vision picture and lay out what values they want to follow as they execute the work. It isn’t going to happen overnight. It will also require making adjustments as operating environments change. The adjustments and refinements have to be made with a longer term perspective. This is not a one-year budget approach. It is a way to success.

Ardon L. Schambers is president and principal of P3HR Consulting and Services in Grand Rapids.

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