Throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate to meet and get to know a great deal of small business owners, including my wonderful parents. I can also count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work within a variety of different types of companies and business models during the first decade of my career. I’ve found that one thing that unites all the businesses I admire, regardless of size or industry, is a strong sense of mission, vision and values, and a determined adherence to live these ideals in every decision they make.
To that end, I’ve been considering how we can all work toward the type of messages and actions that set these organizations and people apart, and wanted to share my thoughts with you.
By now, you are likely familiar with the wonderful work of Simon Sinek – his 2009 TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” has been viewed more than 37 million times. If you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat.
It’s been incredibly heartening to see how Simon’s messages have trickled into even the most unlikely of industries and business models, and just how pervasive the concepts have become. Most notably, the idea that people don’t buy what we do but why we do it has presaged a paradigm shift in the way many businesses and leaders, big or small, approach how they operate, communicate and exist on a cultural level.
Sinek’s model for inspirational leadership has had a powerful effect on a wide range of disciplines, with perhaps the largest short-term impact coming in marketing and communications. Which is, again, markedly positive – the more brands and businesses shift to messaging about why they exist, what they believe in and what they stand for, the better off we will be.
Yet, it’s one thing to understand the concept, and quite another to implement it as part of your organization or firm’s story. In nearly every industry, there are still many companies whose primary message is focused on what they do. Even one of the most common formulas for a positioning statement remains “We do X, for Y, so they can Z.” The formula can help you craft a solid positioning statement, but it will likely fail to answer the all-important “Why?” question.
So how can you inject “Why” messaging into your website, marketing materials and communications about your business? Start by crafting (or, if you already have them, taking another look at) the following foundational statements about your practice:
Your Mission Statement
As I review mission statements from the many different organizations out there, I am always struck by how wildly different one statement can be from the next. This may come as no surprise, as a search will show that there is not one accepted and agreed-upon definition of what a mission statement actually is. For example, certain definitions focus more on defining what a company does and how it does it, while others focus on the fundamental goals of an organization in relation to how a business aligns with its stakeholders.
I subscribe to the assessment that your mission statement, because it’s essentially a representation of your practice’s core identity, should focus primarily on why you exist, while a vision statement (described below) focuses more on what you do and how you do it. Take, for example, Amazon’s mission statement:
“To be earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
The organization’s mission is not to deliver Prime products to your door in a two-day window. That’s part of their product, or “what” they do. Instead, it’s about becoming the model for exceptional customer service, a higher aspiration. In a similar vein, Starbucks’ mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Like Amazon, the Starbucks statement mentions the “what,” but the products themselves are secondary, and are not identified as the reason the company exists.
The key to an exceptional mission statement is, I think, to ensure that it lines up with your deepest purpose. No matter how useful a product is, it still lives at the level of transaction, and what these organizations are aiming for is transformation.
Your Vision Statement
As you may already see, it can be easy to confuse mission and vision statements, as some organizations use the concepts interchangeably. I like the way Investopedia defines the difference, stating that “a company’s mission is its identity, and the vision is its journey to accomplishing its mission.” A great vision statement defines what a company will look like years down the line, and is both inspirational and aspirational.
One excellent example comes from Southwest: “To become the world's most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.” While the statement focuses more on the “what” and “how” than a mission statement, it’s also future-focused and aspirational. It also adds a human element (most loved) to show that, while profits matter, the organization places at least an equal value on the customer experience.
Your Values Statement
Values statements are exactly what they sound like – a set of principles defining how an organization and its people will behave. As an example, here is a list of core values from website provider Squarespace:
- Be your own customer
- Empower individuals
- Design is not a luxury
- Good work takes time
- Optimize towards ideals
As you can see from the Squarespace website, each value (with the clever exception of Simplify) corresponds with a one to two-sentence description of how the principle applies, and what it means to the organization. It’s a powerful reminder for both internal employees and external stakeholders of what matters to Squarespace, as well a framework for how decisions will be made.
Delving into mission, vision and value statements is almost always a useful exercise, and if implemented well, these statements can serve as a valuable tool for recruiting and retaining staff, communicating your value to your customers and potential customers and in setting yourself and your business (or side hustle, or freelance brand, etc.) apart in a crowded marketplace.
That said, one final, critical question to ask yourself before you set down the path of creating these statements is, “Am I prepared to completely and fully live these statements in all aspects of my practice, now and in the future?” If your answer is not an emphatic “Yes,” I would caution against creating and sharing these types of statements until you are prepared to stand behind them through thick and thin. People take mission, vision and value statements very seriously, and using them only as a marketing tool with no intention on backing them up with decisions and actions is a recipe for disaster. Put another way, these statements can be aspirational and inspirational, but they must also be rooted in truth.
For this reason, many organizations start the process of crafting these statements by focusing on their internal identity, as opposed to how they will position their organizations to their most important stakeholders. The external messaging (how these statements show up to those outside the organization) is certainly an important component of the process, but is often generated organically by discovering the fundamental truths about why an organization exists, why it (and its people) does what it does and its intended impact and significance.