Mission Accomplished

 

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Do organizations still revisit their mission statements as often as they used to? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

Were mission statements somehow downsized during our last recession? Perhaps business leaders increasingly saw talking about them as unproductive dalliance. Or maybe doing so just became corporately uncool for some other reason. Any of these explanations would do fine by me, but it can’t be that simple. Can it?

Frustrations & Qualifications

Some of the most frustrating experiences I have endured in life have occurred during mission statement discussions. These discussions occurred in a variety of organization settings. Large and small, for-profit and non-profit, it didn’t seem to matter. It seemed that no organization with which I was associated could resist the temptation to revisit its reason for being. With calendars blocked, the offsites were scheduled. Consultants were hired, and off we went…sometimes literally into the wilderness or out into those wide open spaces.

Then it seemed to stop. At least for me, it did.  Probably a career-saving kind of thing, as I ponder this welcome and productive development…savoring the moment for just a second or two.

So you can clearly see by now that I feel as if I have studied a lifetime in order to amass what it takes to respectfully address this vaunted topic. I have received passing grades at undergrad and graduate levels in the requisite subject matter. I have been trained by the masters and facilitated by the experts.  I have participated in mission statement discussions at just about every possible corporate level and also in non-profits as a volunteer.  One might go so far as to say that I have been repeatedly summoned to the mission to worship at its altar.

When We Need ‘Em Most

Picture yourself sitting in a room of smart talented individuals with a big pile of money on the table. Further envision that no one really knows for sure where the money came from or what it’s for. However, everyone in the room sees the seed money as some sort of a divine calling of capitalist intervention.

“What should we do with the money?” “Let’s invest it and the plow the dividends back in nanomaterial futures.” “No, we really should make a product.” “OK, I hear you, but how ’bout a service instead?” Energy and ideas fill the room. All that remains is to narrow the field, select a winner, and then write it down in as few words as possible in the form of a mission statement. Destination nirvana, utopia or some other similar realm of free enterprise!

(Note – it’s often the selection and placement of such key words such as “a”, “an” and “the” that takes the most time in mission statement discussions. You may also it find it useful to know that “in a way that”, “in order to” and “so that” are key linking phrases with which to show your mastery of mission.)

Reality Interlude

While a completely blank slate like the one above rarely becomes our reality, most would agree that such a case is definitely worthy of some good old-fashioned mission statement discussion. In fact, let’s go ahead and admit it right here.  It sounds like a lot of fun and would be a great problem to have!

Slightly further along our continuum of reality exists a collection of considerably more believable situations where necessity becomes the impetus for mission statement tweaks. When faced with market, regulatory, or technological disruptors, validating “what it is we that we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it” seems to make good sense as a necessary first step to articulating new identity aspirations and/or changes in direction.

Likewise, significant shifts in ownership, funding, or both should set even the most mission statement discussion-adverse folks like me running toward our multi-colored marker sets, flipcharts and powerpoints.

When We Need ‘Em Not So Much

However most mission statement discussions lack this degree of necessity.  In fact, many that I have seen proved to be completely unnecessary exercises that simply reaffirmed the obvious or were in the end very ineffectual discussions at best. At their worst, they were confusing, dividing, and borderline absurd. I have even seen people cry at these things. I guess discussing the obvious can become hugely emotional for some.

Despite the consumption of expensive resources, an annual reaffirmation of the current mission can make a few top people feel good about current direction and leadership. Obviously this would justify the cost. In one company, this ritual of inconsequential discussion featured idyllic, disconnected, and delusional generation of alternatives while the key issues that would ultimately cause the company significant pain remained off-limits and out of focus. Rome was burning, or at least the fire-starting sparks were assembling while we endlessly and inanely debated the unimportant.

So, it seems to me that having a good sense of corporate self-identity goes a long way to keeping the lines and arrows aligned along the right path. Organizations who do not understand their own DNA are likely to spend more time discussing it. A well run company has a way of letting its own results clarify its mission without wasting a whole lot of time and resources on defining it. I happen to work for one of these companies. We know what we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it.  Mission accomplished!

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Brand It

“All the world’s indeed a stage. And we are merely players. Performers and portrayers. Each another’s audience. Outside the gilded cage.”

Business posts do not typically start out by quoting rock lyrics. But maybe that’s just part of what I do and how I do it. In and of itself, this is an illustration of personal branding in action. Long before I ever heard or read about this term, the above Rush lyrics conveyed to me a message that someone is always watching and that we all have a choice as to how we wish to be perceived by others.

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Cultivating Image vs. Personal Branding

There are numerous examples of high-profile celebrities who cultivate their personal brands by performing and portraying in a way that creates an imagery that facilitates “the sale”.  One favorite example is Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who would certainly be dead by now if his on-brand and legendary self-destructive behaviors were a continued reality. Throw in an occasional tidbit like falling out of a palm tree in the Fijis to maintain the mystique, and you’re all set in his biz. Yes, that’s right. Falling out of a palm tree.

Cultivating image and personal branding do at some point intersect.  However, personal branding is its more earnest self when it comes naturally and manifests as a relatively effortless synergy of one’s genuine personality traits.  It’s where the various aspects of what makes us who we are become evident in our work and how we do it.  When we have an approach that’s just a little bit different from the norm, and it creates a niche.  When the feedback we get from others tells us that we are effective but that we may be doing our typically mundane jobs in a way that sets us ever-so-slightly apart from our peers.

Do you know yours?

It is important to know and understand your personal brand. Do you know yours?  I know mine. My personal brand is about being the finance guy who understands the business and can explain financial things to non-financial people in a way that strengthens their ability to create value for the business.  It’s about displaying situational leadership, being the approachable accountant with as much personality as the job enables me to have, and mentoring others to build stronger organizational capability.

Throw in my amateur writing, semi-competitive running, and musician wannabe pursuits, and it becomes a broadened brand comprised of quite a few things for people to grab onto and by which to remember me.  A reasonable level of performance in these areas comes somewhat naturally for me.  Personal branding at its best is about doing what comes naturally and doing it in a way that has impact.

Personal branding involves differentiation. Sometimes differentiation takes on oxymoronic character and can be quite refreshing.  Just the other day, someone was telling me that their son may want to become an actuary.  The immediate connotation is that this would be one very boring career choice. I suggested to the parent that there would be a real niche for a “flamboyant” actuary.  While I could have picked any number of adjectives in juxtaposition, my main point was that there would be a real niche for someone who added non-stereotypical value to this heavy-stat role that helps insurance companies weigh present and future values of things like premiums and death benefits.

“America’s Team”

I very recently heard part of a fascinating Philly sport talk station interview with former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach.  At the height of his career, clean-cut USNA grad Staubach was an obvious poster-boy for the wholesome values that were seen as what was still good about this country during and immediately after our country’s protest era.  He was an essential component of the NFL’s and Dallas Cowboys’ launch of their “America’s Team” marketing campaign.

The “America’s Team” tag line ultimately became a classic example of successful branding and marketing.  To some extent, it still endures today in the Jerry Jones-Tony Romo era.  Not even they can fully dilute the brand they inherited. What Roger had to say about all this was very interesting. He said that the players hated the “America’s Team” label because it put targets on their backs during games.  The players didn’t understand and embrace the brand.  However, they rolled with it because that’s how their employer was selling the product.

Does Personal Brand Trump All?

Eventually, the image of the Cowboys team, as widely documented (eg. “North Dallas Forty”), migrated more toward celebrity trappings hubris and away from the wholesome aspects of the previously cultivated all-American image.  It was just as widely known that Stabauch didn’t fit that mold.  The key is that the brand Staubach had established for himself was too strong to be devalued by the dysfunctional behavior of co-workers.

By way of testimonial to the strength of the Staubach personal brand, Philadelphia Eagles’ fans who meet a certain age threshold grew up hating “America’s Team”.  We really did.  After the recent radio interview concluded, the primary theme of the Philadelphians who called the show was how much they hated the Cowboys but actually liked and respected Roger Staubach and the way he did what he did.  Repeatedly heralded as being a “class act” and someone “who played the game the right way”, it was all about personal branding.

From rock lyrics to business to sports and back again, it’s all here and part of the brand.  Personal branding in action.  By the way, read Dennis Nishi’s article (link) on personal branding too – it’s also a good read!

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