The Foundation: Mission, Vision and Values

What’s our mission? Vision? Values?

Leaders find simple, clear and compelling answers to these questions. The answers have a profound influence on what employees think, say and do. These three building blocks – mission, vision and values – are vital to establishing an effective organization. Employees want to be part of an organization that has purpose, direction, and values, and offers meaningful work.


Our mission is to “make money.” “Satisfy the customer!” “Change the world!” A company’s mission is a statement of its purpose or reason for being. Mission statements provide focus, inspiration and criteria to evaluate strategic choices. Here are some interesting comparisons of how organizations see their mission.

Police Department:
“Our mission is to prevent crime.” “Our mission is enforce the law.” If the organization’s mission is to “prevent crime” they’re probably going to develop and implement educational programs. These efforts will be focused on helping people develop the knowledge and skills needed to manage conflict, handle stress and know the law. If the organization’s mission is simply to “enforce the law” they will develop systems and procedures to catch people who violate the law.

“Our mission is to transport people from point A to Point B.” “Our mission is to entertain people at 25,000 feet.” Each purpose creates a very different company. In the first company employees are only concerned with efficiently transporting people. Employees at the Virgin Group are focused on entertaining passengers. “What can we do to make the trip enjoyable and memorable?”

“Our mission is to make buggy whips.” “Our mission is to design and produce leather products designed to satisfy customer needs.” What if the company’s mission is too narrow? Companies that said their mission was “to make buggy whips” no longer exist. On the other hand if a company said their mission was “to design and produce leather products” it could evolve and adapt as customers’ needs changed.

I like Disney World’s mission, “to make people happy.” It’s clear and succinct. All stakeholders – customers, employees, stockholders and the community – know what Disney is trying to accomplish.

Developing a focused and clear mission isn’t easy. It often takes a lot of thinking and several iterations before it can be implemented. Your mission statement needs to be regularly reviewed, to test its relevance to new conditions. Having a clear purpose is the first building block of success.


A vision statement describes a future state that’s better in some important way than what currently exists. Business vision statements are challenging. They describe people and organizations not as they are, but as they can become.

A vision starts with what the leader really cares about and is fully committed to achieving. Margaret Thatcher said that it’s the leader’s responsibility to shine a spotlight on the future, then get the support of people to create that future. Effective vision statements include the following characteristics:

  • Inspiring“Our vision is to be the number one global supplier of hardware to the automotive industry.” Will that vision inspire and motivate people to work 12-to-14 hour days? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Vision statements need to connect with people at both the intellectual and the emotional level.
  • Clear and vivid – Can you see it? Lillian started her weight loss program by putting a picture of herself, 30 pounds lighter, on the refrigerator. As the saying goes, “Seeing is believing.” If you can see it or vividly picture it in your mind you have a much better chance of achieving it.
  • A better future – What’s to be gained? When change is occurring it’s natural for people to focus on what they are giving up. Leaders have to help people see what’s to be gained. People connect with a vision when they see the benefits. “WIIFM – What’s in it for me? How is it going to make my life better?”

Vision describes your destination. Leaders must know what path they’re on (their mission) and where it’s taking them (their vision). When both mission and vision are clear, day-to-day issues and opportunities are seen within a larger context. The tasks of setting goals and priorities, planning, and implementation are aligned with the mission of the organization and its desired future. Effective leaders not only have a vision but also invest time selling their ideas and gaining buy-in.


Leaders have to find answers to these questions: What are our values? What’s important in this organization? How are we going to work together? These questions are important to an organization of 5 or 5000. Values are guiding principles that indicate what behaviors are needed for success and what behaviors are unacceptable.

Harley Davidson describes their values as follows:

  • Tell the truth
  • Be fair
  • Keep your promises
  • Respect the individual
  • Encourage intellectual curiosity

If you worked at Harley Davidson you’d be expected to tell the truth and keep your promises. Some companies put their values on a plastic card and give one to every employee. That’s fine, but “values” need to be visible – practiced and modeled. Employees observe leaders to see if their actions match their words. If there is a gap, credibility is lessened or lost.

Two of GE’s values are the following:

  • Have a passion for excellence and hate bureaucracy.
  • Have enormous energy and the ability to energize others.

Certainly Jack Welch, GE’s leader for the past ten years, sets the example for each of these values. That makes them real and believed by the organization.

Some teams develop “operating rules” (values) which define how team members will work together. One team I was on developed the following operating rules:

  • Begin and end meetings on time
  • Listen, no interruptions
  • Active participation is required
  • Decisions by consensus
  • Be prepared, complete assigned action items

These rules established an expectation of how we would behave. Were the rules always followed? No. What happened if a team member violated one of the rules? In high performing teams all members hold each other accountable to following the rules.

Every major religion has a set of rules for members to follow. In a similar way leaders have to establish values, guiding principles, or operating rules to define what’s important and how people will work together. Leaders demonstrate their values in their actions and behaviors. Kim Krisco, author of Leadership Your Way, says that communicating a list of values before they are reflected in tangible ways can turn values into hollow words.


Mission, vision and values are three important pieces of the puzzle. Without mission, there’s no purpose. Without vision, there’s no destination. Without values, there are no guiding principles. When mission, vision and values aren’t clear, it’s easy to lose focus, get off track, and pursue the wrong goals. Effective leaders make sure all employees understand and support the organization’s core beliefs. On a daily basis leaders demonstrate their commitment to these building blocks.

When strategic options and difficult problems arise, leaders ask questions such as:

  • Does this align with our mission?
  • Is this action in line with our vision?
  • Are we adhering to our values?

Applying the Concept

Dave Logan, President, Palmer Foundry

“I look at vision as the dream we all need. Dreams are what make life exciting and interesting. During the past year, our business suffered a catastrophic loss due to a massive fire. Much of the plant was destroyed. Everything looked like a mess, felt like a mess, and it was very difficult to see beyond the rubble. We needed a vision. We needed a positive picture of the future to buoy our spirits as we argued with the insurance company, dealt with concerned customers, and slowly rebuilt our business. We faced many investment decisions as we rebuilt. Knowing what type of product we wanted to make and the type of customer we wanted to serve guided us during the reconstruction process. With so many decisions to make, having a focused vision kept our team pulling in the same direction.

Our mission helps clarify why we exist. In our case, we don’t want to have the largest share for all aluminum castings. We want to be the premier source for aluminum castings that have unique engineering challenges. We want our employees to know what type of work we are going to pursue. When we decline high volume-low quality work, our employees know why.

Sharing core values makes life much easier. There is less confusion, and everyone knows the type of people we want on our team as we pursue our dreams. Honesty is one of our key values. As a leader, be honest with yourself and your employees. I often hear company leaders say they want to be the biggest and best in their industry. Bigger isn’t always better, and not everyone needs to be a worldwide leader. Pursue a vision and mission that really captures the essence of what you want your company to be. Don’t look at the mission, vision, values exercise as a PR gimmick. It’s important stuff.”

Applying the Concept

Jamie Walters, Founder and President, Ivy Sea (Communication and Leadership Consultants)

“Closing the gap between the espoused mission and vision, and the reality that is lived day-to-day in the organization, is key. At Ivy Sea, and with our clients, we do an in-depth review of the vision and mission annually. We’ve created a specific process called the Ivy Sea Visioning Model. Part of the annual vision review includes a no-excuses look at what the words of the vision and mission really mean. We explore what the words or jargon look, sound and feel like on an average day in the company. How do customers experience that? What does that mean for how people interact within the organization? What are each individual’s responsibilities to the organization? What can he or she expect back from the organization?

Too often, a visioning program results in a vague statement that is never connected to everyday actions and experiences, which takes the power out of the vision and is likely to generate cynicism from employees and customers.

After the annual vision reviews, we get together on a quarterly basis to talk about how and where the vision was put into action, and where opportunities exist to do so in the coming months.

This same approach, once the “vision in action” is defined, permeates job descriptions, performance expectations and performance reviews. All company communications reinforce the connection between the lofty vision language and the everyday activities, including examples of how specific employees performed in a way that supported the vision. Each role is connected to implementing the vision, as are expectations, and performance is evaluated based on how, specifically, each individual contributed in support of the vision and mission.

This way, regardless of what’s happening in the larger economy or the normal cycles of business, we’re always grounded in our vision and what that means for us each day, week, month and quarter. We understand it so well that we can easily evaluate opportunities and decisions to ensure they’re truly aligned with what we’re here to do. We encourage and assist our clients in doing the same.”