Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

A few months ago I was studying some material related to guiding an organization through the process of defining their identity. As I was digging through my research, it dawned on me that while I am clear on what and why I do the work that I do, I had never stepped back and formally undertaken a similar process myself. As a one-man operation, I had done some exploration when I first started my business to come up with a purpose statement that related to my ideals, but I hadn’t taken it as far as to hammer out a consistent, cohesive identity that articulated my values and vision beyond that.

“I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.”

That was my manifesto up to this point. When I examined this further in light of what I was now coming to understand, I realized that what I had was a core ideology, but that this was only one piece of the blueprint I truly needed in order to succeed. The ideology would inspire me and remind me why I was putting in the work, but it didn’t give me a real map or guidepost that I could use to build a lasting strategy. Given that I’m a firm believer in practicing what I preach, I decided to follow a process and get serious about putting the soul of my business on paper.

I’m sure there are a million ways to go about defining  identifying core values. I’ve seen a number of them in use over the years, some more effective than others. One method that I particularly like and have used with great results in both individual coaching and organizational work is a card sorting exercise.

The card sort starts with a list of values on cards or sheets of paper. Those cards then get sorted into piles according to where they fit in your sense of personal or organizational values – Always, usually, sometimes, seldom or never. This could be done similarly with just a list of values on a single sheet of paper, but the physical act of sorting them tends to add a deeper level of connection and thought to the process. However you choose to go about it, the first round of sorting is easy, but it gets challenging as you go. The goal is to end up with only 3-5 cards in the “always” pile, which forces some deep choices and reflection when it comes down to selecting those final values. This is where I really had to listen to my gut and explore the different reactions I had to various concepts in order to boil it down to my most fundamental beliefs.

I say “identifying” rather than defining, because core values are intrinsic. They’re not chosen based on how they’ll sound on a brochure or whether they rhyme with “great.” These are the defining truths within us that would be authentic no matter what – even if they became a competitive disadvantage. The goal of the process is to tap into the values that are deeply held by the group or individual, those that carry the most emotional gravity, the ones that breathe life into you and the people involved in your endeavor. These are central to your “why,” which, as we know, is the heartbeat of success.

At the end of my own card sort, I was left with four core values. When I looked at them, I could see that they were central to my sense of self. The reality in which I would feel completely fulfilled and at my best would have to include all four components. They resonate so deeply for me that even as I recall them now I get a chill up my spine. That’s how I know that I tapped into the true heart of my mission – these aren’t just a few superficial nouns slapped on a page, they are reflective of who I am and what I aspire to be.

Having teased out these guiding principles, the next step was to turn them into definitions that would clarify their meaning on a personal and professional level. How would I recognize them if they showed up in my work? Why did they matter and what were they moving me toward? If I could see myself and my work from the outside, what would these principles look like in action? With the help of a dictionary, some inspirational reading and a rainy afternoon, I was able to expand the values into guiding statements.

At this point things were starting to come into sharper focus. I could begin to see the frame of the vehicle I was building up around my work, and it felt powerful. Now I had to use that foundation to create a vision which would inspire a lasting emotional connection and give me something to strive for, and a mission that would make clear what my business was setting out to accomplish.

The terms mission, purpose, vision, and values are often used interchangeably. I’m not interested in claiming absolute authority on the subject, but it is important to develop a core identity structure that serves and supports the growth of your business. It is also crucial to understand what purpose each piece of that identity serves. In my work, I define it like this:

  • Values are what get me out of bed in the morning. They’re the beacons in the darkness, what I am about in my heart of hearts.
  • Ideology is what I believe in that makes my work necessary.
  • Mission is the the market state that I hope to create or transform.
  • Vision is the greater good that I hope to achieve – the perfect world that would be realized if I am able to fulfill my mission to its utmost.

Notice one very important detail that is not present in this list. Goals. This is a crucial point to hold on to. Goals are not defined in your vision and values. Values, vision and mission are embedded in goals. That is to say, the vision and values are a constant – these are the things that never change about the purpose of your work. They’re not checklist items to be achieved, but rather the foundation of everything that you will accomplish over time. Done well, the values process will create a powerful nucleus around which you can structure your long-, mid- and short-term goals when it comes time to map out your strategy. But again, creating that strategy is a different piece of work altogether.

After values, the next step is crafting a vision and mission statement. Typically these are two distinct items – the vision inspires the interior life of the company, and the mission makes the connection to the outside world you hope to engage in the process. In many cases, it’s easier for companies to grasp the concept of the mission. This has a more direct relationship to the work – what are you trying to do in your market? What sort of problem are you trying to solve?

The best mission statements are those that are short and to the point, but still inspirational and speak to the big picture. Some companies veer off that course for various reasons, and the results are telling. For example, consider Apple’s early mission statement under Steve Jobs: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” This statement makes clear what the company does, articulates a noble, lofty goal, and is pretty inspirational in the process. Under that mission, Apple pioneered the field of personal computing and became ubiquitous through their design and innovation. Now compare it to their current mission statement: “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.” Hm. Nothing sexy or inspirational there. It sounds more like the intro to a class paper than a message that can speak to the hearts and minds of designers and engineers in pursuit of “advancing humankind.” The change in messaging obviously hasn’t sunk their business, but one might wonder what kind of impact it has had on the soul of the company and their ability to engage talent while holding on to market share.

Whatever the approach you choose, the crucial point to consider is this: Your values exist. Whether or not you’ve taken the time to engage with them and develop their connection to your business reality, they’re there and they make an impact. Taking the time to harness and embed them into the lived-in reality of your work gives you the strongest opportunity to connect with your employees in a meaningful way, engage in an emotional connection with your market, and define the value of your work well into the future.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here are the results of my own personal mission/vision/values process:

Adventure – To choose that which challenges and expands my perspective
Purpose – To be fueled by a sense of meaning and fulfillment
Compassion – To act with consideration for the experiences and needs of others
Mastery – To be known and sought out for having the highest skill and expertise

I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.

To transform lives by connecting people with purpose, values and integrity.

To enable companies to attract, develop and retain the most talented people in their industries by building organizational cultures and leadership that inspire innovation, purpose, and mastery.