A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 9: Vision/Mission

A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 9: Vision/Mission

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders. In this post, we tackle vision and mission, the first element of culture.

Revised Employee Communication Model


The series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Overview
Part 3: Alignment
Part 4: Listening
Part 5: Consultation
Part 6: Branding
Part 7: Channels
Part 8: Culture

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. With this post, I’m beginning the discussion of the five critical elements of culture, the first of the four circles, beginning with vision.

CultureIn 1987 President George H.W. Bush’s colleagues noted that Bush had a remarkable understanding of complex issues but that he was unable to shape them into larger themes, that he lacked vision. A friend suggested Bush spend a few days at Camp David to figure out where he wanted to take the country. In exasperation, Bush said, “Oh, the vision thing.” The quote was picked up by the press and hung like a dark cloud over his campaign for re-election. It has haunted him ever since.

Visions matter, especially in business. Writing about the elements of great corporate culture, business writer John Coleman put vision first:

A great culture starts with a vision or mission statement. These simple turns of phrase guide a company‚Äôs values and infuse it with purpose. That purpose, in turn, orients every decision employees make. When they are deeply authentic and prominently displayed, good vision statements can even help orient customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders…A vision statement is a simple but foundational element of culture.”

(Note: Coleman lists six elements of culture, the basis of the five I include in the model. He also includes narrative in my list, which I have put in the Engagement segment of the employee communication model. It’s also worth noting that Coleman identifies “vision or mission statements.” Ideally, vision and mission statements are different, the vision statement articulating where the organization is going and the mission statement outlining how it will get there and what makes the company different. The reality, though, is that vision and mission statements have become more and more conflated over the years.))

Trouble with “The Vision Thing”

Too many corporate leaders fall into the Bush camp. Sure, they have a vision. Make as much money as possible for the company’s shareholders (and, by extension, for themselves). Lest you think I’m just being cynical, consider these real vision and mission statements from Fortune 500 companies:

  • AmerisourceBergen: “To build shareholder value by…”
  • Anadarko: “to deliver a competitive and sustainable rate of return to shareholders by…
  • Cooper Tire & Rubber: ...to earn money for its shareholders and increase the value of their investment.
  • Dean Foods: ...to maximize long-term stockholder value…
  • Dynegy: ...to be a superior investment for our shareholders…
  • Kerr-McGee: Create value for shareholders through the energy business. (It’s a good thing that’s the business they’re in, isn’t it?)

I have already mentioned in this series that it is dangerous to guide employees’ decisions based on the interests of shareholders. To be fair, some of these companies preface their missions with the shareholder focus, such as AmerisourceBergen: “To build shareholder value by delivering pharmaceutical and healthcare products, services and solutions in innovative and cost-effective ways. We will realize this mission by setting the highest standards in service, reliability, safety and cost containment in our industry.” Still, the endgame of this mission statement is the shareholder’s wealth.

ROI is a Byproduct of Vision and Mission

In fact, the money a company makes should be viewed as the key byproduct of what the company does. That is, if we fulfill our vision and live our mission, we’ll wind up making a shit-ton of money. Take a look at some vision/mission statements that employees can use to (in Coleman’s words) orient every decision they make:

  • Darden Restaurants: To nourish and delight everyone we serve.
  • Dow Chemical: To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology.
  • Harley-Davidson: We fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling, by providing to motorcyclists and to the general public an expanding line of motorcycles and branded products and services in selected market segments.
  • Levi Strauss & Co: People love our clothes and trust our company. We will market the most appealing and widely worn casual clothing in the world. We will clothe the world.
  • Manpower: To be the best worldwide provider of higher-value staffing services and the center for quality employment opportunities.
  • Micron: Be the most efficient and innovative global provider of semiconductor solutions.
  • Microsoft: We work to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential. Nike: To Bring Inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.

Some companies avoid the ROI component of their vision/mission statements, trading it for vagueness. The mission statement of the Hershey Company, for example, is “Undisputed marketplace leadership.” Well, hell, what company doesn’t want that? A vision/mission should spell out that central characteristic(s) that will result in marketplace leadership and ROI. Any company should want to be its marketplace leader. You can’t even tell from this statement that Hershey makes chocolate!

Hershey should take a lesson from Godiva: “Godiva’s mission statement is to go global and to promote a high-quality product and service. Godiva chocolate is made to bring sheer delight to its customers.” It’s not the greatest mission statement ever, but employees know they’re making chocolate that’s supposed to bring sheer delight to its customers. If they focus their efforts and decisions on that, you wouldn’t expect the company to have many problems.

I have favorite vision statements. One was articulated by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961:

It was clear to every NASA employee what they were striving for. It guided every decision. And it empowered them to surmount untold technical obstacles to achieve a goal that was sheer science fiction before that.

Another is enshrined in much of Disneyland’s signage:

Disneyland's Vision: The Happiest Place on EarthAs a result, “cast members” not only understand the “why” behind what’s expected of them, but strive to do it well. If you’ve been to Disneyland, you know there’s never any trash on the ground; it would disrupt the fantasy the park is trying to create in order to make you happy. I remember once at Disneyland, on Main Street we passed by a cast member portraying Mary Poppins who was interacting with a small crowd. A maintenance worker passed by, sweeping trash. As he did, he said, “How are you today, Mary Poppins?” She answered, “Practically perfect in every way, as you well know.” Both knew how important it was to delight guests. Nobody trained the custodian to do that. He just did it. It’s part of the culture.

And I’ll never forget Disney Parks social media master Thomas Smith telling the tale of a custodial staffer at the Magic Kingdom named David, who used water as paint and his broom as his brush to create soon-to-evaporate sketches of Disney characters. It wasn’t a job requirement. In fact, it took a bit of time away from his job. Yet it amazed and delighted visitors, earning David special recognition on the Disney Parks blog.

Disney One more Disney example. When my wife was five (she was born the year Disneyland opened), my in-laws took her to Disneyland. As they were walking down Main Street, a mustached man in a suit stopped her, bent down, and asked if she was having a good time. She told him (enthusiastically) that she was. Her parents told her after he walked away that that was Walt Disney.

I define culture simply as “the way things are done around here.” Investopedia says it’s “the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions.” Either way, NASA and Disney’s visions set the tone for how things are down, how employees interact. If Walt Disney did not want Disneyland to be the happiest place on earth, would he have asked a five-year-old how good a time she was having?

Communicating the Vision

In part 3 of this series, I talked about alignment. If employees need to understand where the fit in the company’s big picture in order to align their work and decisions with the organization, nothing is bigger-picture than the vision and mission. While not every communication will overtly reinforce the vision, nothing the company and its leaders communicate should ever contradict the vision and mission.

Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities to focus on the vision. From new products and acquisitions and policies, you have an opportunity to make the connection between decisions and vision: How is this moving us toward the vision? How does it fulfill the mission? Even tough decisions, like layoffs or divestitures, should be explained in terms that reflect where the company is headed and how it will get there.

Communicators can play a role in communicating vision in a number of ways:

  • Help make the vision something employees can remember. Too many vision and mission statements are long, rambling dissertations, loaded with jargon and impossible to recall. When asked, any employee should be able to rattle off the vision and at least know the key elements of the mission.

  • Build business literacy. A mission differentiates your company from the competition. As communications and marketing executive Georgia Everse noted in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, “For employees to fully understand how your strategy is different and better than the competition they need to be in touch with market realities. The challenge is in how to effectively convey those realities so that your people can act on them. By building internal campaigns based on market and customer insights, you bring your strategy to life for your employees through this important lens.”

  • Tell stories. You can tell stories of employees and teams who are bringing the vision and mission to life. You can also solicit them, letting staff tell stories in their own words. Nothing resonates like stories about people. These stories also serve as recognition. Recognizing behaviors that advance the vision/mission will inspire others to adopt that behavior. Similarly, stop recognizing those whose efforts are contrary to the behaviors you want employees to exhibit. (I’ll talk more about the storytelling aspects of vision and mission when I cover the narrative segment of engagement, the second inner circle of the employee communication model, in a few weeks.)

  • Report on those rewarded for advancing the vision. Similarly, if employees are rewarded by HR or another entity for their efforts to advance the vision/mission (for example, with the annual Chairman’s Award), report on it.

  • Make it challenging.—I can’t imagine the engineers at NASA would have been as psyched if JFK’s vision had been “When the technology lets you, orbit a satellite 50 feet higher up than Sputnik.” Your company’s vision should be ambitious and challenging. Assuming it’s also desirable, you can help inspire employees to strive for it, especially if you make the vision compelling enough that employees want to be a part of it and understand what’s in it for them if the vision is reached.

  • Get managers involved. Although I remain skeptical about supervisors as communication linchpins, they can bring the vision and mission to life within a department or team. One way to maintain a face-to-face conversation while overcoming some of the cascade model’s worst shortcomings is to hold “skip-level” meetings, where employees meet with their boss’s boss, eliminating one link in the cascade game of telephone. The vision and mission should also be a formidable presence in any town hall or all-hands meeting.\

  • Listen. Listening is one of the five segments of the new employee communication model’s outer ring. Vision and mission are culture drivers that can soar when employees feel like they have input into the company’s path into the future.

  • Communicate milestones.—Let employees know what the milestones are, both short- and long-term, and celebrate the achievement of those milestones when the company hits them (casting the recognition spotlight on the individuals and teams that helped hit those targets).

Let’s get some discussion going. Share how you communicate vision and mission in your organization.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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