CAN I TALK SHOP FOR A SEC? In the toolbox of corporate communication are a couple of slippery items known as “mission” and “vision.” I wrote them off for a long time as naval-gazing or propaganda created by executives to give employees a purpose that isn’t pay. If companies were real about it, “maximize profit and cash out” would sum it up, right?
My cynicism softening in mid-life, I see now that a mission, in some form, is critical for everyone—be it a corporation, a community non-profit, or an individual. There’s so much to be done and so many ways to go about it; without parameters, every opportunity might as well be a Yes. Profit alone isn’t enough. The more businesses I get to know, the more money looks like the lowest rung on the ladder of value, a price of entry instead of a raison d’être (outside of finance, of course).
Feeling your purpose is easier than expressing it. Few mission or vision statements amount to more than “be the best at what we do.” So what’s a good one sound like? Google is organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. That’ll keep you busy. Sesame Street recently updated theirs, from a rather academic definition to “Sesame Street helps kids grow up smarter, stronger and kinder.” Simple. Directive. Challenging. While I didn’t write that line, it clarities the ones I do.
This month I started working with Penumbra Theatre, a beloved regional arts institution. Their example has me thinking about a mission’s role in focusing and catalyzing effort. When you put on 6 plays a year for four decades, something more than “delighting audiences” has to hold things together (if only because you fully understand what delights those audiences). Penumbra’s mission, to “create professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought provoking, and relevant and illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African American experience,” while less succinct than Sesame’s, sets a high bar. It could go further (they also want to create a just society) but defining what each and every play needs to do is enough.
All that is to say: if you’re going to do something, you should know why you’re doing it. I haven’t always, career-wise. As a freelancer, I’m at the mercy of short-term motivations and endless random opportunities. All the more reason I need guardrails. Years ago, I decided I “create foundations for good communication.” It nods to what I like (helping companies early; big, strategic contributions they can use for a long time) and what I don’t (advertising, ephemeral crap). But as a mission, it’s transactional, all What, no Why.
What gets me out of bed in the morning (when coffee isn’t enough)? Intellectual challenge. True believers. Artists. Underdogs. Finding alternatives to our unjust, oligarchic social shitstorm. After 11 years of running a business, this needs nailing down. At least I’m feeling it.