Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Developing vision, mission and values statements

I recently ran a strategic planning session with a client, within which of course we reviewed their vision, mission and values statements. And as is so often the case with this topic I found the facilitation to be emotionally and intellectually exhausting. While some felt out of their comfort zones, others were filled with undue confidence. There’s rarely an in-between when assembling the trio of products: people either find it’s not their cup of tea – and a complete waste of time – or they love the playing with words and ideas.

Sadly, those who believe our time could be better spent on (as they see it) less airy-fairy topics actually have a point. This is because hardly anyone makes any use of having built the statements. They’re just there, lifeless, framed on a wall in the reception area or floating somewhere on the website. So why bother? Because everyone has to have this stuff, right? It shows you’re with it, professional, contemporary. And after all, no one needs to know you think it’s irrelevant and ignored, and that daily life goes on as before.

Anyway, whether merely for compliance with best practice or for real, these days everyone’s got to have their statements. And now and again, usually when someone like me shows up, they’re dusted off to remind people of what they say and whether, come to think of it, they’re still on target.

So off we go, and first with the vision. In Kenya, but by no means only here, weak conventional statements are the overwhelming norm. “To be the leading XXX”, “a world class YYY”; “a centre of excellence…”, blah blah blah. This is the kind of cliché we find all too often: unrealistic, pseudo-inspirational, generic and internally focused. What a struggle it is to move people beyond such unmemorable platitudes, often expressed at wordy length, and where mission verbiage overlaps with what has already been pronounced in the visionless vision.

Wake up, folk. Think purpose. Think impact. Think customers. What is your vision of the consequence of being that world class, premium, leading centre of excellence of choice? How is what you aspire to going to make the world a better place? The example I most often quote is from Disney, whose statement simply reads: “Make People Happy”. And another favourite is low-cost irrigation-pump social enterprise Kickstart, who tell us they’re in business “to lift millions of people in Africa out of poverty, quickly, cost-effectively and sustainably”.

Unfortunately, thanks to the prevalence of the inward-looking cliché model, too many people now feel that this is the “proper” way to craft one’s statement. Good news therefore: I give you permission to be original, punchy, unique and memorable. In fact I instruct you to be so.

For me mission statements are more straightforward – and likely to need more frequent review. Here one lists what one does in order to achieve the why of the vision. (I say “for me” because there are different views on the very definition of vision and mission statements. Then, some feel they only need a mission statement, and so do away with the separate expression of a vision. My view though is that it’s a shame not to have two bites at the inspirational cherry: the “why” followed by the “how”.)

A further struggle awaits as we get to identifying the values, with more generic clichés the order of the day. “Professionalism”, “Teamwork” and “Integrity” top the polls, with “Innovation” now appearing more frequently – however poorly practiced. I will hold back from venting further on values here, as sometime soon I’ll be devoting a separate column to this element.

Even fewer fans exist for working with values statements than do for the other two. Why? My sense is that most leaders are skeptical about the very possibility of changing attitudes and behaviour, the intended consequence of defining one’s aspirational values.

“People are how they are,” such leaders feel, “and there’s not much you can do about it – certainly not here in Kenya.” I disagree, and not least as a result of observing plenty of very healthy sub-cultures in this country, in organisations where the leaders themselves live good values and have managed to get their colleagues to do so as well. They have understood the power of vision, mission and values statements, using these to galvanise those around them into purposeful and uplifting action. They speak about these statements; they recognise and reward those who are aligned with them; and they hammer those who are not.

Most leaders, it has to be said – and again not just in Kenya – having stretched themselves to conjour up their visions and missions, completely run out of energy when it comes to defining their values (or “core values” as they have come to be known for some reason). It is why, for instance, this third component so often slips off the website or the annual report without trace. “Oh yes,” they admit when I point this out to them. But are they filled with remorse? Do they rush to make amends? Hardly.

Yet, as I have written before, I am firmly convinced that without living by a set of healthy values we have no chance, no chance at all, of living our visions and missions. Not in an organisation, not as a county, and not as a nation.

In our strategy sessions we usually reach a point where I suggest to the full group that they seek a few volunteers to further wordsmith what they have come up with, as otherwise we can go on debating points and splitting hairs forever. This small team then proposes a nicely wordsmithed set for the comments and ratification of others. The big challenge then begins: to use the statements as important tools of great leadership. Yes, to make them live, rather than to see them be what far too often they become, neglected passionless prose, mere decoration without function.

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