An article in Forbes[1] last year, headed ‘The Importance of Having a Mission-Driven Company’ stated: “Employees who fall in love with their work experience higher productivity levels and engagement, and they express loyalty to the company as they remain longer, costing the organisation less over time”.

The article has some bold and interesting numbers.  It stated that engaged employees are 54% more likely to stay with the company for 5 years or more.  And that organisations high in trust are 2.5 times more likely to function as a high-performance organisation with revenue growth than organisations low in trust.

How do employees fall in love with their organisation, and stay in that desirable state?  The answer is that the company has values that employees engage with and that these are first defined in its Vision and Mission statements.  The article also goes on to confirm that: “81% percent of those working for companies with a strong mission stated their stakeholders hold trust for their leadership team, whereas that number was 54% for organisations without a strong mission.”

This would suggest that the mission statement can have recordable value beyond being “nice to have.”  But the caveat being that the vision/mission statement has an organic function; it has to be consistent and drive the organisation throughout good times and bad.

Consider the mission statement.  Does your organisation have one?  Can you quote it immediately?  Does every employee live by the aspiration it promises?  Sadly, for myself I can only think of one company that I have joined where I can quote the vision of the original founder. It was a good one, but when times got tough, when the founder had moved on, it didn’t last. And in today’s world, with so many people struggling to keep their heads above water every day, is there time for aspiration, for forward thinking, for creating the positivity of a vision and mission?  As an organisation ourselves we say YES.  It’s probably more important now than ever.

In this article we’ll lay out the various interpretation of visions, missions, values and culture. We’ll look at where and why they have made a difference to a successful organisation, whose brand has gone from being two people in a converted gas station to a globally instantly recognised product.  But we’ll also take a view on why, if you go down this road, it’s a lifelong mission to keep it true.

Street sign saying mission, values and vision

So, let’s start with an example of a vision and a mission.

Is there any one mission statement that stands out globally?  That millions of people can quote instantly?  That has fired up generations of enthusiasts?  Businesspeople would probably struggle to think of anything so engaging and probably with great envy.  Not so for science fiction enthusiasts.  Here’s probably the globally best-known mission statement ever produced of a five-year (continuing) mission:

“to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man (no-one!) has gone before.”

Cue the equally well-known theme music.

I managed to quote almost 100% of this from instant memory and I’m not that big a fan.  I also decided to see if there was ever a vision written by the original creators of the series for the Starfleet and, to my surprise, found that there was.  Theirs was: “peaceful exploration in the search for sentient life.”

During my career I have heard so many people speak ironically or even sneer at their organisation’s interpretation of the above. I began to consider if this is yet another example of business and HR jargon, designed for looking good, but with nothing beneath the surface. Eventually I came to realise that this happens when the values, that should support the vision and mission, do not match.  For example, Captain Kirk always gave the “sentient life” a chance to peacefully co-operate.  Confrontation was the final solution only when others had been tried and had failed.  Values have to be lived daily, in good times and bad.

Currently, and likely to be a “buzz word” for 2020 is Culture.  It has become popular to care about defining culture within the organisation, to know what works for staff and what doesn’t and the very negative effect that a toxic culture can have.  We’ll come back to that one.  But for us at Petaurum, this isn’t a new concept.  I personally became interested in the subject of company culture over twenty years ago, early in my career, when I joined a new and rapidly growing organisation.  I was interested in how defining the company culture could affect the new staff being so rapidly hired and how those new staff could affect the company. But, sadly, the parent company wasn’t interested.  Which was surprising, for what was then a huge global organisation based in Canada.  (They don’t exist any longer. No surprise!)

The reason for telling this story is to lay out what is going to be one of the main themes of this article. We’re going to discuss each aspect of the topic and then look at the ‘how.’ This is where you get them to interact and support each other, and to actively work on ensuring that they are compatible to make a significant difference to the health and wealth of an organisation.

We’re also going to consider how, if they are no more than an unvalued and ignored set of individual statements and behaviours, a level of toxicity can breed that can, if left unchecked, wipe out an organisation.

Vision and Mission – Is there a Difference?

Ben & Jerry's logo

There are, in fact, differing opinions of this one.  Some organisations choose to meld both into one statement, others to keep them separate.  What should be the difference?

A vision statement tends to be simple and short. It encapsulates a dream, perhaps that of the original founder/s of the organisation. A couple of good examples of this are Ben and Jerry’s, the company that started with 2 people in a gas station. Their vision statement is: “Making the best ice-cream in the nicest possible way,” and Oxfam: “A world without poverty”.  Each one is based on the inspirational dream of the original founder/s, is future looking and uplifting, but doesn’t define how this might be achieved.  That is the purpose of the mission statement.

If the Vision is the future, the Mission should be based in the present. According to Business News Daily, the purpose of the mission statement is to: “convey a sense of why the business exists to both members of the company and the external community.”[2]

Ben and Jerry’s goes on from their Vision to define their mission in three parts: 

  1. Product mission – to make fantastic ice-cream for its own sake
  2. Social Mission – to use their company in ways that make the world a better place
  3. Financial Mission – to manage the company for sustainable financial growth

Oxfam doesn’t have a separate mission statement.  But it has turned its Vision into 6 goals:  

  1. To help people claim their right to a better life
  2. To champion equal rights for women
  3. To save lives now and in the future
  4. To safeguard global food supplies
  5. To help people claim a fairer share of natural resources
  6. To increase money for basic services

Both organisations have had their problems, which we will come back to, but on paper they both achieve the primary purpose of their vision and mission.  The statements are both direct and simple and tell you what you need to know.  If the vision and mission statements cannot do this, then they are of little use to an organisation. Which is where the cynicism starts.

Paper boat trail representing company culture

In each, you can already begin to see both how the values of each organisation can be extracted from the statement and how the culture can be defined from those values. In the case of Ben and Jerry’s this has been successfully followed through, albeit with an intermediate downturn. 

This occurred when the founders sold the company to a global national, Unilever, that almost killed it off. The story is told in[3] and tells that:

“Unilever manages the business in a normal way – which is to say, they get it all wrong.  The company is assigned to an unsympathetic manager who is focused on cost-cutting; the quality of the product declines, and social mission initiatives are directed away from difficult, long-term efforts and toward campaigns that will play well in the press.”

After some difficult years, the company fought back and established an independent board, returning to its original mission and values.  The original vision was re-instated, and the company rose again.

The same cannot be said of Oxfam, which has had a notoriety of publicity about the appalling behaviour of some of its employees towards vulnerable people outside the UK.  This is more recent and is continuing.  Oxfam has taken, and is taking steps, to remove the staff involved – so far it has fired 43 people – and it trying to re-establish public trust.  But the fact that so many of its staff ignored its vision, its mission and its values, produced a toxic culture that almost ended the world’s best-known charity.

Even when they are separate there should still be a close relationship between the Vision and the Mission. A report by Iowa State University sums up their purpose, for employees, as:

“Statements of vision and mission are important so that everyone involved in the organisation, including outside stakeholders, understand what the organisation will accomplish and how it will be accomplished.  In essence this means ‘keeping everyone on the same page’ so they are all ‘pulling in the same direction’.”[4]

For a small or start-up company, having a vision and mission can be especially important.  ‘Making ice-cream in the nicest possible way’ not only defined Ben and Jerry’s but differentiated them from all the others in the market. Genius.

Defining Values from the Vision and Mission

If the vision and mission are aspirational and helicopter view, the values of the organisation are rooted at ground level. They define what your company believes in, set out your priorities, and guide your current and future activities.

Values can be written as anything from a series of single words to a page of paragraphs.  As long as they are clearly defined, support the vision and mission and employees can identify with and embrace them, they can be written any way the organisation chooses.

Google defines its core values as:

  • Focus on the user
  • Fast is better than slow
  • You can be serious without a suit
  • Democracy on the web works
  • Doing one thing, really really well
  • Do the right thing. Don’t be evil

Interesting, laid back and funny, each of these headings has a sub paragraph to further define each value.

Values are intrinsic to every individual company and, like fingerprints, each one is unique.

The importance of values cannot be underestimated, particular when it comes to hiring staff.  Many companies will focus on skills, knowledge and experience and of course these are imperative.  But what about values?  If people are hired only for what they know, there is a risk that they will bring clashing values to the organisation. This means too much time spent on individuals who should never have been employed in the first place. Differing opinions from people who are prepared to argue their point and challenge the status quo can be very good.  But they have to be ultimately aiming at the same target as the organisation, albeit looking at it from a different angle.  Not including an examination of values creates risk and time spent managing these people is time away from creating success for the organisation.

From values, objectives are derived for the organisation and its component parts. And from there to each individual member of staff. And it should be clear to each member of staff that their objectives are part of the whole, supporting the values and the mission and the vision.  If they can’t see this clear path, then they are never going to truly feel that their contribution has worth and value and their outputs will be disappointing. Probably acceptable, but never more than that.

white jigsaw with vision and mission written on two tiles

Company Culture

The final part of this ‘golden thread’ is the culture of the organisation.  This is the organisation’s day-to-day personality and its atmosphere on the ground. This is how people work together to support the values, mission and vision.

The culture might be team based, or individual. It may be fun or serious. It may be inclusive or narrow. There is no right or wrong. It’s whatever is in harmony and compatible with the stated mission and values of the company.

The problem comes when the culture doesn’t match the vision, mission and values. What people then see, or feel, is, for example, an organisation that describes itself as friendly and inclusive, but has managers that only include the people they like.  Or that has compassion as a value but has no interest in family and personal issues that might arise for individuals, expecting them to put work ahead of everything else no matter what is going on in their lives.

This is a toxic culture in which very few people feel safe. Brought about by the clash of values vs. culture, working in such an environment people feel uncomfortable, unwanted and sometimes fearful. The likely outcome is that they will leave the organisation as soon as they find a role that they prefer in an organisation that seems to match its values with the way it works.

The organisations with such toxic cultures tend to have high turnover, which is time consuming and expensive.  Yet so few of them realise that this is happening and puzzle over why so many people leave. It’s probably down to poor leadership. That’s a whole other subject, explored in a series of articles on our blog. If the organisation appoints a leader on the basis of skills, knowledge and experience, and doesn’t include values, then the toxic culture will start at the top and quickly work its way through the whole organisation. Congruence matters at every level.

To summarise, we’ll go back to Ben and Jerry’s. Before you ask, there is no incentive here. I don’t especially like flavoured ice-cream. But I do like and appreciate a company that remains true to itself. Their values, which are written on a whole page of A4, lean strongly towards environmentalism and protection thereof. 20th September 2020 is global environment protest day and the company is supporting it. This is what you will see today on the front page of their UK website:

“Our house is on fire and it’s time we started acting like it.  The Global Climate strike is happening all over the world led by young people.  Join us on 20 September.  Find a climate strike near you.”[5]

You may or may not agree with an organisation nailing its colours to the mast in this ‘in-your-face’ way, but it’s who they are, and they are being true to their values.  Can you imagine this company employing someone who says, “I know all there is to know about the technical aspects of making ice-cream and I’m a great manager, but I don’t give a toss about climate change”? No. We don’t think so either.

Having a stated vision, mission and values and ensuring that these underpin everything that the organisation does will attract staff who, going back to that statement at the beginning of this article, “fall in love with their work”. And stay there. Which is both productive and financially positive. 

A lot to think about. Perhaps a new way of thinking. Let us know what you think.

[1] May 2018

[2] July 2019

[3] “The rise, fall and comeback of ice-cream giants Ben and Jerry’s” 2014

[4] 2016

[5] 2019