On a Mission


As I mentioned previously, a few weeks back I went to see a lecture given by General Stanley McChrystal, who made a name for himself by leading the development of a more informational and intelligence driven form of defense in Iraq and Afghanistan. He talked about how the world, from the industrial revolution up until recently, followed what he termed a “complicated” model, where the makeup of a company was too complicated for most to know it, but those at the top sent down orders to keep the various parts operating as they should.

The General posited that we now live in a world that, more than ever, follows “complex” and/or “chaotic” models where, in order to keep up with rapidly changing dynamics, decision making capability has to be pushed down to (in his case literally) front-line troops who can make decisions in real-time and need to decide if the orders they are receiving from the C-suite are, in fact, the correct decisions to follow. As General McChrystal said, “we tell our troops not to follow the order we gave, but the order we should have given.”

Well, you might ask, how the heck is a 24-year-old Sergeant supposed to know what order the 60-year-old General should have given?

The answer is simple: Branding.

When the people inside your organization truly understand and inculcate what the organization stands for, then they can make decisions that reflect that understanding. And the obverse is true: if your people don’t understand what you stand for, well, it becomes a crapshoot as to how they express their own particular understanding, and your brand gets dictated by whichever employee a customer happens to deal with.

Truly knowing what kind of company one works for can come in handy when deciding the best way to remove a passenger from an airplane, for instance…

This is the part where someone says, “We need a mission statement!”

No, you don’t.

In fact, if you have a mission statement hanging on the wall of your conference room, take a short break and go remove it and toss it (forcefully) in the trash can. I’d be happy to swing by and do it for you if you like; it always makes me feel good.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Your mission statement is what you say; your brand is how you make people feel. Guess which one people actually care about: the few broad and obvious platitudes your Board could agree on, or the actual way you move through the world?

A mission statement may be a handy internal planning tool, but externally facing, it is either a cure for insomnia or a petard from which to hang.

I often remind myself, “if someone cannot feel your love, then you are doing a lousy job of loving them.” So then, if someone cannot feel what you are trying to say in your mission statement in the way you treat customers and employees, in the language you use, in the deals you make, in the walk you walk, then that sign on the wall just reflects your hypocrisy — to your customers and your employees.

Ask one of your customers if they can guess what your mission statement is. See if it is close to what you would have written. If it is, thank your branding firm. If it isn’t, you’ve got work to do.

Either way, write your mission statement on your heart, not your wall.

— Simon Dixon

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