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Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Bookby Jack Welch
Bear with me, if you will, while I talk about mission and values.
I say that because these two terms have got to be among the most abstract, overused, misunderstood words in business. When I speak with audiences, I'm asked about them frequently, usually with some level of panic over their actual meaning and relevance. (In New York, I once got the question "Can you please define the difference between a mission and a value, and also tell us what difference that difference makes?") Business schools add to the confusion by having their students regularly write mission statements and debate values, a practice made even more futile for being carried out in a vacuum. Lots of companies do the same to their senior executives, usually in an attempt to create a noble-sounding plaque to hang in the company lobby.
Too often, these exercises end with a set of generic platitudes that do nothing but leave employees directionless or cynical. Who doesn't know of a mission statement that reads something like, "XYZ Company values quality and service," or, "Such-and-Such Company is customer-driven." Tell me what company doesn't value quality and service or focus on its customers! And who doesn't know of a company that has spent countless hours in emotional debate only to come up with values that, despite the good intentions that went into them, sound as if they were plucked from an all-purpose list of virtues including "integrity, quality, excellence, service, and respect." Give me a break — every decent company espouses these things! And frankly, integrity is just a ticket to the game. If you don't have it in your bones, you shouldn't be allowed on the field.
By contrast, a good mission statement and a good set of values are so real they smack you in the face with their concreteness. The mission announces exactly where you are going, and the values describe the behaviors that will get you there. Speaking of that, I prefer abandoning the term values altogether in favor of just behaviors. But for the sake of tradition, let's stick with the common terminology.
First: About That Mission....
In my experience, an effective mission statement basically answers one question: How do we intend to win in this business?
It does not answer: What were we good at in the good old days? Nor does it answer: How can we describe our business so that no particular unit or division or senior executive gets pissed off?
Instead, the question "How do we intend to win in this business?" is defining. It requires companies to make choices about people, investments, and other resources, and it prevents them from falling into the common mission trap of asserting they will be all things to all people at all times. The question forces companies to delineate their strengths and weaknesses in order to assess where they can profitably play in the competitive landscape.
Yes, profitably — that's the key. Even Ben & Jerry's, the crunchy granola, hippy, save-the-world ice cream company based in Vermont, has "profitable growth" and "increasing value for stakeholders" as one of the elements of its three-part mission statement because its executives know that without financial success, all the social goals in the world don't have a chance.
That's not saying a mission shouldn't be bold or aspirational. Ben & Jerry's, for instance, wants to sell "all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions" and "improve the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally." That kind of language is great in that it absolutely has the power to excite people and motivate them to stretch.
At the end of the day, effective mission statements balance the possible and the impossible. They give people a clear sense of the direction to profitability and the inspiration to feel they are part of something big and important.
Take our mission at GE as an example. From 1981 through 1995, we said we were going to be "the most competitive enterprise in the world" by being No. 1 or No. 2 in every market — fixing, selling, or closing every underperforming business that couldn't get there. There could be no doubt about what this mission meant or entailed. It was specific and descriptive, with nothing abstract going on. And it was aspirational, too, in its global ambition.
This mission came to life in a bunch of different ways. First off, in a time when business strategy was mainly kept in an envelope in headquarters and any information about it was the product of the company gossip mill, we talked openly about which businesses were already No. 1 or No. 2, and which businesses had to get repaired quickly or be gone. Such candor shocked the system, but it did wonders for making the mission real to our people. They may have hated it when businesses were sold, but they understood why.
Moreover, we harped on the mission constantly, at every meeting large and small. Every decision or initiative was linked to the mission. We publicly rewarded people who drove the mission and let go of people who couldn't deal with it for whatever reason, usually nostalgia for their business in the "good old days."
Now, it is possible that in 1981 we could have come up with an entirely different mission for GE. Say after lots of debate and an in-depth analysis of technology,competitors, and customers,we had decided we wanted to become the most innovative designer of electrical products in the world. Or say we had decided that our most profitable route would have been to quickly and thoroughly globalize every business we had, no matter what its market position.
Either of these missions would have sent GE off on an entirely different road from the one we took. They would have required us to buy and sell different businesses than we did, or hire and let go of different people, and so forth...
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