Q: John, what do you think about company mission statements? Are they genuinely something useful for staff to focus on working towards, or is it (as I think) yet another bit of business-speak that sounds impressive, rather than is?
A: Like you, I’m somewhat cynical about mission statements, but many do a good job of describing what a company sets out to achieve.
Below are a few examples from well known businesses. Can you guess whose they are?
“Our mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
“We strive to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where people can find and discover virtually anything they want to buy online.”
“We aim to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”
“We aim to make shopping confidence-boosting, sociable and fun… giving our customers around the world a unique, differentiated and exclusive mix of own brands, international brands and concessions.”
The first three mission statements are from Google, Amazon and Starbucks. The last was used by Debenhams, which goes to show that mission statements are not in themselves a guarantee of long term success.
One benefit of the pandemic is that in 2020, there have been very few company retreats or away days where senior teams dream of the future, draw up a forward plan and compose their mission statement.
I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been there. In the Eighties, when our shoe shops hit a tough time, we locked our executive team in a hotel at Stratford upon Avon. With the help of some syndicates, break out sessions and a few flip charts, we approved a five year plan, backed by a new mission statement (“We aim to provide shoes for all the family with a friendly service”). Two years into the five year plan, the chain was heading for a loss and was sold to a competitor.
Some companies, not content with a mission statement, go on to list the qualities they hope to find within their workforce. Amazon has had 14 leadership principles, which include customer obsession, ownership, thinking big, frugality, diving deep and delivering results. Other firms seem to list 10 attributes with initial letters that form a motivational word, such as “MOTIVATION”, which is quickly forgotten when daily pressures take over.
Mission statements, mindsets and motivational mottos may help, but they’re never going to provide a substitute for good management.
Chief executives must communicate their strategy – a job that is best done in their own style and in plain language. Winston Churchill was a master of the mission statement, but his power of leadership came from his personality.
Q. How big a part does luck play in business success?
A: Luck has always been important; successful entrepreneurs are those who can spot an opportunity and take full advantage of the good fortune that comes their way. But this pandemic puts a new perspective on the influence luck has on a business.
Imagine a diverse group of business friends who meet for lunch every July: a publican, supermarket executive, travel agent, online fashion retailer, software director, the owner of a hairdressing business, and a City-based coffee chain manager.
Last year, they were equally successful in their own fields, but this year? All seven faced some tricky problems. The supermarket boss experienced massive stock shortages and had to adapt to social distancing; the software director needed to recruit five new employees to cover the extra work; and the online retailer had to double the size of his warehouse. These three made more money and were proud of their success.
The publican, hairdresser, coffee chain manager and travel agent, on the other hand, lost a massive slice of their businesses and wondered whether they could survive.
The past year shows that luck is a major factor and my sympathy is with those who have companies that collapsed through no fault of their own.
Golfer Gary Player said “the harder I practice, the luckier I get,” but even he would struggle if someone broke all his clubs on the tenth tee.
Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.
Send him a question at [email protected]