By Tony Mulkern

TRIGGER WARNING:  If you already have Mission and Vision Statements which are full of vague “solutions” jargon, you may find parts of this article offensive.

INVITATION:  If you would like to improve your Mission and Vision Statements, or write them well in the first instance, you will likely find this article very helpful.

What is your mission?  What is your vision?

Many entrepreneurs seem not to know the answers to these two simple questions.  Either they do not know the difference between the two or they have paid someone to state them in such opaque language that it is anyone’s guess from reading their mission and vision statements what exactly it is they do for a living.

While this article is not going to be a set of instructions on how to distinguish the two or how to write them clearly, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s boil it down to essentials that will cover about 95% of cases.  The Mission simply describes the type of products or services you are in business to provide and your target markets.  The Vision is either a set of ideals that are never fully accomplished once and for all, in regard to service, quality, loyalty; or your aspirations for how the enterprise will look in a few years, or a combination of the two. The Vision is where your distinctiveness or uniqueness can shine through.

Why is this important and why is the third of the Six Engines of Entrepreneurial Ascent® comprised of Renewal of Mission and Vision?

Because in the absence of clear and meaningful answers to the two questions above, it will much more difficult to:

  • Be clear where you should put your capital and efforts , i.e., do effective strategic planning
  • Attract clients or customers
  • Attract top-performing employees
  • Inspire employees
  • Attract investors or joint partners
  • Unleash inspiration (the topic of next month’s column).

So what do good Mission and Vision statements look like?

Clear examples can be found on the television series “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs have one brief shot in front of a panel of venture capitalists to pitch their companies’ missions and visions, with the objective of gaining equity and a seasoned, business partner. Rejection may mean their enterprise is doomed.  Consequently, in pitches from those presenters who walk away with a deal, you will hear a minimum of vague and obscure rhetoric about “enterprise-wide solutions” that sounds as though it was composed by a D-minus student in a technical writing course.

The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner contains eloquent examples of Vision statements, official or unofficial.  The late Edward Goeppner of the Podesta Baldochi chain of flower stores is quoted as saying, “We don’t sell flowers, we sell beauty.”  Actually, they do sell flowers; that is their Mission.  What is meant is that they do not just sell flowers.  They are bringing joy, delight, and expressions of fondness and caring, while creating memories of special occasions for years to come.  The concise, almost poetic Vision statement stimulates the imagination rather than stumping the intellect.

The manager of facilities at Raychem says their crew does not just fix toilets, adjust heating and air conditioning, and clean offices and restrooms.  He says, “Our job is to lift people’s spirits through beauty, cleanliness, and functionality, enthusiasm, good cheer, and excellence.”

If your company’s survival depended upon your raising capital and your last chance consisted of a five minute pitch, how would you explain to a venture capitalist what you do and how you will make money?  Probably in phrases almost any English-speaking adult could quickly grasp.  Why then is it fashionable to have mission and vision statements that are so murky?

Perhaps the fad to be vague and virtually incomprehensible to the average person started with the strategic planning guru and “visionary” who said some years ago that railroad companies mistakenly defined themselves too narrowly at the advent of aviation.  If they had not so unimaginatively confined themselves to actual railroad tracks, train cars, and locomotives, it was said, but instead had adopted a broader mission of simply being providers of transportation “solutions,” they might have purchased airplanes and not allowed the airline industry to take away their passenger business.

Sounds like a very clever analysis, except for one colossal flaw: the passenger aviation business remains today as it has been from its inception, an extraordinarily difficult one in which to make a profit and avoid bankruptcy.  Railroad companies in contrast created massive fortunes almost from the start and remain quite profitable to this day.  See as well as  The real visionaries were the railroad executives who saw with laser-like focus precisely how to make more money hauling diverse freight, coal, and oil by rail; changed strategy; and conceded the increasingly unprofitable passenger business to companies with buses and airplanes.

This does not mean that the Mission and Vision statements cannot change.  On the contrary, they need to be reviewed and up for refinement if not revision in every strategic planning cycle, and this is another reason for the importance of “Renewal.”  Apple, Inc., originally incorporated as Apple Computer, Inc., is no longer exclusively or even primarily a personal computer company. Amazon does more than sell books on-line.   Google is involved in so many ventures it is difficult to keep up.  Texas Instruments is generations past the transistorized, handheld calculators that made the company famous.  This is why I advise against inscribing the Mission and Vision on an acrylic, metal or granite plate with a laser beam and hanging the whole display on the wall as though it were a monument to timeless wisdom, akin to a copy of the Declaration of Independence or the Ten Commandments.

Just for fun and to provide a useful exercise, imagine a food truck whose owner makes her living selling sandwiches curbside to office workers at lunch time.  What might well-written Mission and Vision statements look like for her business?  Here are my suggestions.

Mission: We make and sell sandwiches primarily for office workers in a hurry at lunch time, just outside their place of work.  We also sell lots of drinks that go with lunch.

The Vision statement might be:

Vision: During their morning working hours, customers will look forward to lunch with us again and again.  We gain their loyalty through A-level health department ratings, fresh ingredients, delicious options of meats, sauces and vegetarian selections, reasonable prices, friendly, well-trained and upbeat help, and fast service and short menus which keep lines short—not to mention great drinks, hot coffee, and some “comfort food” deserts.  We provide them the energy for a great afternoon.  

Now imagine that a “strategic planning expert” with a trendy vocabulary has sold this entrepreneur on the idea that if she wants to grow her business that she needs to sound really sophisticated and hip and post her Mission and Vision statements on her truck.  The result is below:

Mission and Vision: Executing rigorously established parallel processes, while meeting or exceeding all governing statutory and regulatory requirements, we create meridianal, sustainable, human nutrition and hydration solutions in a mobile environment while enabling gustatory synergies within the exacting tolerances of temporal fungibility set in high-performance, knowledge-based enterprises, thereby instancing an emerging feedback loop of iterative and anticipatory connections, facilitated by an enterprise-wide platform of experimentally-established contextually-specific behaviors significantly correlated with emotional intelligence parameters. 

Likely she will not feel any greater sense of purpose or sell many more sandwiches with this pretentious drivel, though some people will line up to read the posting for a little comic relief. Maybe this is a bit of a caricature, but you get the idea.

Now ask yourself, seriously and honestly, which of the above examples do your Mission and Vision statements most resemble?

Which would you most prefer they resemble?

Consider in your answer not just your own point of view but also that of your top team, your employees, your potential customers and investors.

Another question, quite relevant in a global economy: which of the above examples is most likely to be comprehensible to a reader for whom English is a second language (as is the case with at least one member of the Shark Tank panel)?

What revisions would make your Mission and Vision statements more accurate, clear, focused, current, bold, visionary, inspirational, motivational—and useful?

Who from among your team—or perhaps others—should be involved in this Renewal and revision process?

Finally: when will you make time for this?