The vision and mission are two separate and distinct components of your most important leadership tool: the strategic plan. And unlike many others who work in strategic planning, I'm a stickler when it comes to clients understanding the purpose of a vision statement and a mission statement. When someone says, “I don’t care what you call it: mission or vision—they mean the same thing.” My response is, “No they don't. They serve two very different roles in the plan, for the leadership team, and for all the employees."
Let’s talk about visions first:
A vision that works creates a clear picture in every person’s mind when they hear it.
During a client’s initial planning session, I asked the senior team what success looked like to them. I asked what they'd like to accomplish to become a successful restaurant once again. After they debated and struggled with several ideas, the owner leaned back, sighed, and said, “I just want the parking lot full of cars five nights a week!” That was it! That simple statement, that simple desire clarified an image, and a picture of success for her and every person in that room. Here’s the vision they created:
By November 1, 201X, Cedrick’s parking lot will be full five nights a week with the vehicles of customers who are enjoying a memorable dining experience. (Client name has been changed.)
When you hear that, what picture do you see in your mind? What do you anticipate the chef, wait staff, busboys, and bartenders see? Because of the simplicity of this vision, any employee could look out into the parking lot and determine if it was full and if they were moving towards their vision. If there were empty parking spaces, each employee would know he or she had better ramp-up service to ensure current customers were well served so they not only wanted to return, but they would tell others about Cedrick’s fabulous restaurant as well.
A vision that works is concise and clear.
It can be easily understood and remembered by everyone in the organization. Two classic examples of concise visions are:
- Number 1 or 2; fix, sell, or close. (Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric)
- 2000 Stores by 2000 (Starbucks – Achieved 2200 stores by the end of 1999)
My rule is that a vision should be no more than one sentence long - and it can't be a run-on sentence. The above examples are short but powerful. They were also tremendously successful.
A vision that works can also answer the question, “How do we know when we get there?”
Re-read the visions listed above. Do you see how you could easily track progress towards or away from these visions? We could easily count the number of empty parking lot spaces. We could track our position in our respective industries. We could track the number of stores we had opened. Most of us have never worked for any of these companies, yet we can understand what they they wanted to accomplish because their visions were so clear. These vision statements worked because they were clear and focused. They worked because they were tangible and measurable. They worked because they allowed all of the employees to "see" the future. They were clear. They were concise. They worked.
So, what are mission statements?
Unlike the vision statement, which creates a clear picture of what you want to accomplish or become (a target or goal), the mission statement, clarifies what you do as an organization — why you exist — who you serve. That’s its job. The mission statement clarifies for everyone who works with you, and those with whom you interact, just exactly what business you’re in. I tell my clients, “Your 87 year old Aunt Clara needs to be able to understand this. If your elderly relative - who doesn't work with you - understands what your organization's mission is - your employees and leadership team will be clear on what it is you do - and don't do as well. Keep it simple.”
A good mission statement clarifies why you exist.
Many organizations have nebulous mission statements that sound nice but only serve to confuse everyone as to what they're supposed to be doing and who they're supposed to be serving or supporting:
We are committed to delivering the highest-quality, state-of-the-art services and products that support our customers while servicing them with honesty, integrity, and professionalism.
That’s all well and good, but what do you actually do? This statement provides no clarity as to what the organization does, who it serves, or what it produces. It puts no "book-ends" on the organization's focus or offerings. In fact, the above sample mission statement is simply a waste of space. I hope every organization is committed to providing the highest-quality services and products, to supporting its customers, and to servicing them with honesty, integrity, and professionalism. There's nothing helpful to the leadership team or employees in this mission statement. If you shared this mission with your Aunt Clara, she'd probably say something like, "Well isn't that nice?" and she'd still be confused as to what you do.
A good mission statement is clear, simple, and understood by anyone who hears it.
Now here’s an example of a solid mission statement:
The Board of Supervisors of Elections for Washington County’s overall mission is to assure that all eligible citizens are provided the opportunity to vote in local, state, and federal elections, and to monitor and verify the voting procedures in Washington County. (Washington County, Maryland)
That's it. It's clear. It’s well written and it states very simply who it services and why its exists. If you worked there and shared this mission with your Aunt Clara, she'd probably say, “Well you’ve got a very important job then don’t you?”
To wrap up:
Vision and mission statements have two very different meanings and serve two very different purposes. If you do not delineate between the two, believe me, you’ll end up creating a leadership nightmare. You will not have a unified focus on what specifically your organization is trying to accomplish together, and you'll creep into services and offerings outside your intended mission. Your leadership team will start to fracture as you each justify your actions as you've interpreted the vision and mission. Why set your leadership team up for confusion and conflicts? Create clarity with your leadership team and set your organization up for success. Get clear on who you want to serve and how. Then define how far you want to go.
Clarify your mission and then define your vision. Get clear. Your Aunt Clara, your leadership team, and your employees will thank you.