Don’t Screw Up Your Mission Statement!

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At jetBlue, one of our early attempts to craft a pithy, meaningful mission statement came out sounding like our auditors drafted it. The key line declared that our airline would become “the premier value-based carrier in the Americas.”

The what? Yes…it didn’t take us long to realize that not a single customer, crewmember or shareholder would know what “premier value-based carrier” meant. So we went back to the drawing board.

When jetBlue was founded in 1999, airplanes had come to feel like crowded, expensive buses in the sky. We had wanted to change that. More than just making flying more affordable, we wanted to transform it into an enjoyable and inclusive experience – in the words of our founder, David Neeleman, we wanted to “bring humanity back to air travel.”

In the forty years that I’ve served on different corporate boards, more than a few have had mission statements are long and flowery, full of buzzwords and the language of lofty virtue. I’ve seen lots of businesses claim that they’re changing the world, thanks to their forward-thinking products and unimpeachable integrity. What they don’t realize is that these attempts at being aspirational and inspirational often come off as interchangeable and irrelevant.

The famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had a nice way to describe the value of reducing things to their essence: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.”

Holmes’ far-side simplicity is the kind that captures complex ideas in a sentence – or an image, or a product – that anyone can understand. If you’ve ever achieved this kind of simplicity, you know it’s rooted in the hard and often frustrating work of deep thinking, false starts, and trial and error. But the simple ideas that emerge from that kind of process can be the most powerful and inspiring, both to your team and to your customers.

Mission statements written in business-speak or soaring rhetoric tend to invite eye-rolling and suspicion, rather than loyalty and appreciation. How inspired are you when you hear something like, “It is our responsibility to assertively administrate timely deliverables in order to solve business problems”? Or, “we aspire to be the premier provider of tasty take-out food while maintaining uncompromising principles.”

I’m constantly reminding myself that if I haven’t figured out a simple way to explain something to other people, I probably haven’t figured it out yet. The trick is to boil something down into a set of goals – or plans for execution – a vision so clear than everyone can start working on it right away.

When you write a good mission statement – or a good business plan or pitch – you’ll know how well you did by the number of heads nodding in agreement.

This is the art of saying what you mean. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to mean what you say.