How I went from skeptic to believer about mission statements

The process ended up providing remarkable clarity of purpose

Close-up photo of a compass pointing north

(Pete Gardner)

Last May, our deputy editor, David Fielding, challenged me to do something I initially thought was preposterous. We were discussing making some changes to the magazine, and he suggested we first write an editorial mandate: a mission statement. Before we made smaller tweaks, he reasoned, Canadian Business needed to define its reason for existence.

I confess my ensuing eye roll was so epic, it risked dislodging a contact lens. There was real work to do. Why would we waste time on a self-aggrandizing recitation of platitudes? But I grumpily agreed. After countless e-mails, I’m glad. Businesses that lack mission statements—or operate with half-hearted, empty ones—do themselves a disservice.

The precise definition of a “mission statement” causes frequent squabbling among management consultants and academics, but a couple of qualities appear to be key. A mission statement should say what you’re trying to do (for example, “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”). Better still, it should explain how you’re going to accomplish that goal (IKEA’s says “We shall offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them”).

Academic research shows an inconclusive correlation between having a mission statement and improved financial performance. Companies that enshrine specific financial goals tend to do worse than those without any mission statement; those that express a commitment to their communities excel. So while the direct financial case is murky, the evidence is clear that a strong mission statement can motivate employees and reduce turnover. Further, if employees know the mission, they feel licensed to find innovative ways to implement it. “The major benefit from having a clear mission with well-specified ends and means is that confusion, uncertainty and contradiction are eliminated,” wrote Christopher Bart, a McMaster University professor and leader in the field.

It was the clarity of purpose that proved so useful as we worked on our own editorial mandate. We were forced to ask some fundamental questions: Who is our community? Business leaders and entrepreneurs. Do we just write about Canadian businesses? No, we chase the stories that matter most to our readers, no matter where they occur. Should we state our commitment to publishing on specific platforms like tablets and smartphones? No, that goes without saying and with the current pace of change, we risked having a mission statement that became outdated quickly. We’re better commiting to serving our readers “where, how, and when they need us.” Now, when we make a decision, (whether we’re commissioning a single article or conceiving an overall digital strategy) we test ourselves against those principles.

But after spending all this time on crafting our declaration of purpose, I forgot to pass it along to my colleagues. So this week I corrected that error, scrawling the whole thing in Sharpie on my office door. Not only do you need to have a mission, but you need to share it with others.

Canadian Business magazine's mission statement written in marker on the editor's office door

You can read our new editorial mandate below. And please, share your thoughts on what makes for a great mission statement—or a lousy one.

Canadian Business’s Editorial Mandate

Canadian Business. What leadership looks like.

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