How many north stars does one company need?

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to help Dow Chemical clarify its global brand: What was the company all about? Why was it here? How did the company make a meaningful difference to its customers, employees, suppliers, communicates, even investors? When I arrived in Midland, Michigan, Dow’s headquarters, to begin the engagement, I noticed a sign in the visitor’s center which offered four separate statements: a purpose statement, a mission statement, a vision statement and the company’s values. On one hand, it was heartening to see this giant industrial concern address such seemingly soft matters; on the other hand, I sensed that the company was, unwittingly, fomenting confusion within the ranks …

With good reason, companies today are increasingly seeking to put a stake in the ground that illuminates what they’re all about, why they’re here, apart from the need to make money. Getting this right is a powerful force that can, like a magnet, help attract and hold the right people for the right reasons, improve customer loyalty, and even draw investors, whose time horizons are well beyond the next quarter. Many books and articles have been written that assert seemingly critical differences among various kinds of company statements and, further, how to craft each one. These include mission, vision, purpose, brand, and identity statements. An online review offers these general descriptions:

mission defines what an organization is, why it exists, its reason for being

A vision isfuture-based and is meant to inspire and give direction to employees

A brand is your promise to customers and other stakeholders, derived from who you are, and who you want to be 

Purpose is the driving force that enables a company to define its true brand and create its desired culture

Identity clarifies who you are as an organization, and what distinguishes the company 

Allowing for a few differences, these descriptions are largely the same. They all potentially represent a company’s “north star,” pointing the way forward in a manner that is designed to guide decisions and behavior. Here’s a statement that, with a few, small word changes (or none at all), conforms to all of these descriptions, equally well. It is Ikea’s stated mission: To create a better everyday life for the many people. The company’s declaration effortlessly translates as follows:

… As its vision: A better everyday life for the many people

… As its brand promise: To create a better everyday life for the many people

… As its purpose: To create a better everyday life for the many people

… As its identity: An organization dedicated to creating a better everyday life for the many people 

Clarifying the logic of one 

There is simply no good reason a company must have a mission, a purpose, a brand promise, and a vision, or even two of these. One will do. And, one type of company statement is not more important than any of the others. What matters most is that whatever statement you select be informed by the unique contribution your company is capable of making in the world; i.e., how it creates proprietary value. 

There are three other criteria worth mentioning. Your company’s north star needs to be distinctive – it is about your company and yours alone. It needs to be authentic – it cannot be fabricated, or invented; it can only be discovered. It must be sustainable – it has to have the bones to be nearly timeless, despite how often you may need to express it differently to maintain its relevance.

In short, less is more. Employees have enough to do without having to memorize, let alone help operationalize, two, three, or four separate ideas. Make it easier for them to succeed: Simplify! What label you choose is far less important than the substance of the statement you embrace.

Eighteen months after the Dow engagement began, the company replaced three of its original statements with one: To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology, and modified its values to support this mission. The result helped employees put their collective energy into one, value-creating idea that inspired innovation and commitment, and helped produce the economic, social and environmental benefits Dow’s stakeholders deserved.

If you’re in the market for a mission or a (fill in the blank), keep the following criteria in mind. 

Make sure how your company creates proprietary value is the foundation of that statement.

One statement is enough.

Ensure that your statement is distinctive, authentic and sustainable.

Your employees will thank you. Executive communications will be streamlined. Conversations will be more focused. Expectations will be clearer. The connection between company mission and individual jobs will be easier to make. Accountability will be enhanced. 

When it comes to forging a compelling north star for your organization, the above measures are the only ones you really need. Then the real work begins: how to translate that north star into decisions and actions that will illustrate its power and prove its intrinsic worth. (Stay tuned; that topic is coming up next.)

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