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Mission Statements: Who You Are, What You Do and Why You Do it

Mission Statements: Who You Are, What You Do and Why You Do it

There is a scene in Lawrence of Arabia, the epic film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence and starring Peter O’Toole, where we see Lawrence standing majestically in the middle of the desert with his white robe swirling around him in the breeze. Nearby, his companion frantically shouts and waves to get the attention of a lone motorcyclist in the distance.

When the motorcyclist stops, he stares across the expanse at Lawrence before shouting through cupped hands, “Who are you? Who are you?”

Who are you? As a small business owner, knowing who you are, what you do and why you are doing it is an integral part of your success. An important tool that can help you capture this information is a mission statement.

A properly crafted mission statement tells the world in clear, concise language the essence of your organization. In no more than a few sentences, it communicates your purpose and your focus, and it can serve as a guide for how you do things.

Mission Statement versus Vision Statement

Before we look at how to write an effective mission statement, let’s examine the difference between a mission statement and a vision statement. Both statements are important for your small business, but they are not one and the same.

One way to look at the difference is that a mission statement is grounded in the present, and a vision statement involves the future.

A mission statement explains the company’s purpose by describing what it does, why it does it and how it does it. A vision statement, on the other hand, offers the goals of the organization. It provides a look at what the organization hopes to be in the future.

To illustrate the difference, here is the mission statement of Norfolk Southern Railroad:

“Norfolk Southern’s mission is to enhance the value of our stockholders’ investment over time by providing quality freight transportation services and undertaking any other related businesses in which our resources, particularly our people, give the company an advantage.”

And here is Norfolk Southern Vision Statement:

“To be the safest, most customer-focused and successful transportation company in the world.”

Here is another example.

Apple’s mission statement is “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store.”

Apple’s vision statement is: “We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. “

You’ll notice from both examples that the mission statement looks at the present, while the vision statement looks at the future.

How to Write a Mission Statement

A well-written mission statement can reflect every aspect of your business including what service or product you offer as well as your relationships with your customers, your suppliers, your competitors and your community.

“Mission statements help clarify what business you are in, your goals and your objectives,” according to Rhonda Abrams, the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies.

A good starting place for writing your own mission statement is by examining the mission statements of other companies. You’ll notice that the best ones are concise and to the point.

Here are a few good examples from a variety of different organizations.

The mission statement for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is “to stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking.”

The mission statement for the Science Museum of Long Island is “stimulate and nurture children’s natural interest in science and help them to discover the power of science through the fun of science.”

The mission statement of Honest Tea is “to create and promote great-tasting, truly healthy, organic beverages.”

EBay’s mission statement is “to provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything.”

Think of some of the companies with which you do business, both in your professional and personal life. Do a quick online search to find their mission statements. Then determine if these statements accurately reflect who they are and what they do.

What Should Be in a Mission Statement?

Now that you have studied the mission statements of other companies, it is time to create your own unique statement.

An effective mission statement conveys purpose. Why does your company exist? What is the result of what you provide to the public? To get started, think in terms of infinitive phrases such as “to provide,” “to prevent” or “to increase” and then fill in the appropriate noun after the infinitive.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • to provide educational services
  • to grow organic vegetables
  • to design children’s clothing
  • to offer financial advice
  • to decrease homelessness
  • to sell computers

For example, the infinitive phrase in the Alzheimer’s Association’s mission statement is “to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease.”

However, that infinitive statement is not enough. Your next step is to identify how you are going to accomplish that task. Finish the infinitive phrase with a business-oriented statement of how you will operate. Think of purpose-oriented words such as “through” or “by” to complete your purpose statement. For example, if your purpose is “to decrease child abuse and neglect,” you can finish the statement by adding the phrase “by offering new parent training and new parent support services.”

The Alzheimer’s Association mission statement goes on to state, “to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health.”

An effective mission statement also can reflect your core values and beliefs. Here is an example of a mission statement that has a clear infinitive statement followed by a concise “through” statement as well as a phrase that reflects its values: “The YMCA of San Francisco, based in Judeo-Christian heritage, seeks to enhance the lives of all people through programs designed to develop spirit, mind and body.”

In order to pinpoint the correct words and phrases that accurately communicate the purpose of your small business, you will need to brainstorm. There is no one correct way to do this brainstorming. If you are a solopreneur, it may be as simple as taking a legal pad and jotting down your ideas.

Write down any and all words and phrases that come to mind that describe who you are and what you do. You can edit them and/or combine them later.

If you have a larger organization, invite your key team members to join you in this brainstorming session. Some companies make the creation of a mission statement the focus of a board or staff retreat.

The more you discuss the wording and share ideas for your mission statement, the more invested your team will be in your company.

Here are some questions to help guide your thinking and your discussion:

  • What business are you in?
  • What is your product or service?
  • Why are you in business?
  • Who are your customers?
  • What do you provide for your customers?
  • What image do you want to convey?
  • What level of service do you provide?
  • How do you differ from your competitors?
  • What philosophies or values guide the way you do things?

After you have explored the answers to these questions, you can pull out which words and phrases will best fill in the “to _____” purpose statement and “through ____” business statement we discussed earlier.

Now that you have the ”who” (who you are) and the “what” (what you do) of your mission statement, the next important element is the “why” (why you do what you do). Now, keep in mind that we are not looking for lofty, future-oriented goals. Those goals can be shared in your vision statement. Remember to keep your mission statement anchored in the present.

Why does your company exist? Why are you doing what you do? Hallmark’s mission statement puts it this way: “to make the world a more caring place by helping people laugh, love, heal, say thanks, reach out and make meaningful connections with others.”

Google’s brief mission statement reflects its values — “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The United Community Center in Atlanta gets specific in its missions statement, but it still maintains clarity. “The United Community Center is a 501(c) (3) human service agency providing emergency assistance, daycare, social services and recreational activities for low-income children and families at risk in inner city Atlanta, Georgia.”

Trader Joe’s mission statement reflects purpose and values: “to give our customers the best food and beverage values that they can find anywhere and to provide them with the information required to make informed buying decisions. We provide these with a dedication to the highest quality of customer satisfaction delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, fun, individual pride, and company spirit.”

In his article “Crafting Your Mission Statement”, Richard Branson suggests less is more when it comes to mission statements. “Brevity is certainly key, so try using Twitter’s 140-character template when you’re drafting your inspirational message,” he suggests. “You need to explain your company’s purpose and outline expectations for internal and external clients alike. Make it unique to your company, make it memorable, keep it real and, just for fun, imagine it on the bottom of a coat of arms.”

Putting It All Together

Now that you have narrowed down the words and phrases for your new mission statement, let one or two trusted individuals draft the wording into one or two clear statements. Then you can bring the statements back to the entire group, if you have one, for review.

You then may want to seek the opinions of a few friends or family members outside your organization. Ask these people to rate your draft for substance and clarity. Consider their comments carefully as you strive for the best statement possible.

After you have worded the mission statement the way you want it, it is now time to put it to work for you. Place it on your website and social media pages. Put it in a prominent place in your employee handbook and other instructional materials.

Make it part of your marketing campaign and include it in any brochures or newsletters you publish.

Writing a mission statement is well worth the time and effort you put into it. You have already put so much of yourself into your small business. Having this statement clarifies what you have worked so diligently to build. In fact, you may find that the process of creating the statement helps motivate you in a new and deep way.


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by Tricia Drevets // Regular Contributor to Businessing Magazine. Tricia Drevets is a freelance writer who specializes in business and communication topics. A community college speech and theater instructor, Tricia lives in beautiful Southern Oregon.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.