Management: When a corporate resolution becomes mission impossible: A stated vision of the company may just be an illusion

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The Independent Online
TO Andrew Campbell of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, mission statements are about as meaningful as New Year resolutions.

They can mean anything or nothing. If you resolve to give up smoking, committing your resolution to paper does not guarantee that you will stick to it, he suggests.

'You need to think in enormous depth about what your company is, where it is going, the rules and values it lives by. But it doesn't matter whether you write it all down or not.

'Indeed, those companies that say they don't need a mission statement probably genuinely don't, because they already have a strong sense of mission. On the other hand, many of those companies that say they do need one probably don't have a sense of mission, and therefore couldn't write a mission statement if they tried.'

None the less, he understands the need of others to write down their statements, in order to 'celebrate', share and communicate them.

The aim of a mission or 'vision' statement is to capture the essence of a company, to find something that will tie a diverse group of people and interests to a single goal or set of values. Some are just a line or two; others run to a small volume. They range from strategic goals for the business as a whole to standards of behaviour for people within the organisation.

They have become more popular as shareholders and stakeholders have demanded more accountability, and as the break-up of corporate hierarchies has empowered employees to take more decisions. It is estimated that between half and 80 per cent of organisations now have what could be broadly termed mission statements.

However, Mr Campbell reckons that at least half of these are no more than 'cosmetic wordsmithing'. So what is the difference between a meaningful mission statement and a banal truism?

Mike Jeans, a partner at the accountants KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock, says a good mission statement can be 'used internally and externally and drive everything a company does'.

But that means thinking it through carefully and monitoring it. 'Then you can make it work by incorporating it into people's appraisals.'

It is a strategy exemplified at BAA, which runs Heathrow, Gatwick and other leading British airports. The company, which last week announced a 13 per cent rise in profits, drew up its mission statement just over a year ago, after consultation with employees and management. It is, says Sir John Egan, BAA's chairman, part of a programme of continuous improvement, 'where everyone is working towards common objectives such as quality management and lower costs. Our mission statement makes absolutely clear what we want to do.'

BAA's statement begins: 'Our mission is to make BAA the most successful airport company in the world. This means always focusing on our customers' needs and safety, seeking continuous improvements in the costs and quality of our services, enabling our employees to give of their best.' It is intended as a practical tool for employees, Sir John says, but it also appears in the annual report as a demonstration to the outside world of the company's management.

'Normally, mission statements are written and then ignored,' Sir John says. 'But you have to lead by example, and our management committee manage this way, and are constantly monitored to ensure that they are doing so. There is no question that it is working. We are achieving the performance measures we have set.'

What is more, he says, it will evolve. A statement about the environment is one recent addition. Next year, providing employees agree, a statement about overseas expansion will be included.

Tomkins, the industrial holdings company, uses its mission statement primarily as a communications tool for investors. According to Ian Duncan, finance director, the device was first used in the 1987 report and accounts as part of an attempt to explain the company.

'The outside world had great difficulty in understanding conglomerates, so we felt we had to explain what we weren't. Every time I give presentations externally I show them the first paragraph.'

This reads: 'Tomkins is an industrial management company dedicated to the revitalisation of under-developed businesses and their sustained growth.'

Mr Campbell believes many companies make mistakes in trying to package mission statements together with corporate identity. 'At one level you are trying to create graphic support for your sense of mission. I take issue where a corporate identity project is designed to generate a sense of mission. The idea that everyone having the same flag means that we all believe the same things and paper over the cracks is nonsense.'

He cites the massive corporate identity programme that Courtaulds embarked on a few years ago, resulting in the ' 'C' mark' and 'the sense of Courtauldness'. Not long afterwards, the company demerged into chemicals and textiles, giving the lie to any sense of homogeneity the project was trying to harness.

'If an organisation has a mission, if the people in the organisation have a sense of mission about what they are trying to do and how they are going about doing it, that mission will be plain for all to see. Mission statements and corporate identities will be redundant,' Mr Campbell says. 'If the people do not have a sense of mission, no amount of corporate identity can compensate.'

(Photograph omitted)