Write your mission statement

I’ve previously written about using mission statements as a clear declaration of your goals. While there are different formats for capturing this concept – guiding principles, core values, vision statements – they all allow you to refer to your true goal and redirect yourself when you start to drift. The important thing is to have such a statement, in whatever form.

It’s not easy to write a mission statement, either for yourself or for your workplace. It’s hard enough to decide what you truly believe in, but then it’s even harder to condense those ideas into a compact handful of sentences. It’s at this point that people often fall into the trap of thinking that it has be like advertising: punchy, cute, or clever. The good news is that it doesn’t have to sound like it was written by a marketing firm. In fact, a mission statement only has to be two things: honest and useful.

An honest statement means that it represents a true belief and feels like something you would actually say. When I was the head of my radiology department, we wrote guiding principles for our approach to patient service. I wrote many of the early versions, and for some reason I felt I had to make it sound fancy. In trying to mimic my idea of important statements, my early drafts were full of awkward sentence structure and formal language. One of my colleagues pointed out that he didn’t think that his team would connect with anything I had written; it just didn’t capture their true voice. After debating over specific word choice for a while, we erased everything and asked, “What are we really trying to say?” Getting to the heart of our meaning resulted in something that felt honest. So “We will strive to be worthy of the trust our members place in us by giving the best of our ability every day” turned into “Our members deserve our best.” And “We are professionals of the highest degree regardless of job description, and our actions, words, and demeanor reflect our high standards,” turned into “We are health care professionals. We take pride in what we do.”

Your mission statement can’t feel contrived. It has to sound like it comes from a real person – you, in fact – not from a greeting card or a corporate marketing group. Whether it’s meant for a large team or just yourself, if you don’t really mean it, then your mission statement will have no value. Mean what you say.

The second thing that a mission statement needs to be is useful. It has to help you turn a goal into specific actions. 

We chose “our members deserve our best” because we knew that during a busy day it was too easy to cut corners. Our plan was to hold discussions about how to define our “best” and how to make sure we consistently delivered it. For example, defining specific preparation steps, focusing on the patient in front of us, and using accepted best practices are all ways to ensure that we would be at our best. We could also use the principle to examine any process and ask ourselves if we felt that it was our “best” or if we should continue improving it. We knew that we could turn the statement into practical action.

The phrase was useful on another level – it was short and memorable enough to be used in moments of stress as a reminder to ourselves to take the high road. The week we wrote that principle I was driving past an accident on the road and wondering if, as a physician, I should stop. I told myself that I was in a hurry and should just keep going. I passed the accident…but then pulled over and went back to help. At that moment I remembered “our members deserve our best,” and although the person on the road wasn’t necessarily a paying “member” I asked myself – is this the best I can do? And I knew that driving past was not my best self. If we had gone with the longer, more complicated version, it might not have sprung to mind quite so easily.

Our statement was useful for planning and for stressful moments, which is what we wanted. But usefulness is relative. We already knew what we did as a department, but if you are defining a company strategy, maybe you need to be more specific. Being “the best” might be too vague for you. Your mission statement might need to define your work and your direction more precisely. The “best” Rolls Royce is a different thing than the “best” Toyota Corolla. You have to ask if your mission statement is useful to you. What purpose do you want it to serve? In what circumstances do you think you will use it? If it doesn’t seem like it will work for you, then change it.

It’s easy to to pick the wrong goals by not consciously picking at all. It’s easy to assume you are heading in the right direction, and instead be missing everything. Don’t wait until you reach a decision point to decide your true goal. Choose your destination, write it down, and live it.

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