Man on a mission Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

During his second year at Transplace Inc., Tom Sanderson had a bit of an identity crisis. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever accepted one of his business cards. His titles of chairman, president and CEO show that he does wear a lot of hats at the logistics technology and service provider, but the crisis in question had nothing to do with his particular positions at all. It had everything to do with the position of the company as outlined in its mission statement.

“The mission statement didn’t really communicate what it is that we were in business to accomplish,” he says.

Written well before he joined the company in late 2003, the one-sentence statement combined a vague declaration of service with enough company-specific jargon to confuse anyone without a lengthy in-house tenure.

“That statement was just ineffective in so many ways,” Sanderson says. “Unless somebody works here, it’s not something that’s going to carry any broad meaning to a customer or to a potential investor.”

A company with broad name recognition may be able to sidestep a similar lapse in communication. But for most businesses, the mission statement is as important an identifier as the inside cover is to an unfamiliar book — it tells the reader who the company is and what it hopes to accomplish. If written with enough skill, it can also serve as a road map to guide the behavior of every employee in the organization.

“It takes your mind off of the challenges of the day to day and [makes you] think about where you are heading,” Sanderson says. “What is it you want to become?”

As he looked over the old statement, Sanderson realized it didn’t accomplish any of those things, so he sought the help of a trusted colleague and got to work. By the end of 2006, the duo had written a new mission statement from scratch, and Transplace’s gross revenue has since increased approximately 10 percent to more than $900 million in 2007.

Do your research first

Sanderson’s decision to nix the old mission statement didn’t happen overnight. He was at Transplace for approximately two-and-a-half years before he decided it was in need of an overhaul.

Similarly, he says you shouldn’t rush to make revisions. Before you even begin to brainstorm, you should engage in a few exercises to help determine whether or not your mission statement is in need of a tune-up.

First, Sanderson says to put it through the laugh test: “If you read it, do you start laughing? Do you say, ‘That’s not our company? What does that even mean?’”

Though Transplace’s old statement still makes him chuckle to this day, Sanderson isn’t suggesting an ill-fitting declaration should have you doubled over in laughter. Rather, is your mission statement so misguided that you shake your head incredulously every time you read it?

For a more objective exercise, Sanderson says you can review four key questions every mission statement should answer: Who are we? What do we do? For whom do we do it? Why do we do it?

“If you look at your mission statement in that context and it does-n’t lend any insight into those questions, then that’s a pretty good indication that you need to rework it,” he says.

But just because you need to rework it doesn’t mean you should immediately begin to do so. Sanderson says you should do a little research first.

“The first thing is probably to read a couple of articles on different perspectives,” he says. “Get some different perspectives on what makes a good mission statement and what’s a bad one.”

Consult examples in the process. Sanderson says a simple Google search will give you plenty of statements from companies both inside and outside of your industry. Seeing the final products of your competitors can prove especially useful. Use them as a point of comparison to differentiate your mission for potential customers.

Looking at those examples will also help you gauge an appropriate length. The last thing you want is to overwhelm constituents with a novella. A good mission statement should be short enough to remember but long enough to answer those four key questions.

“You can have a full-page or three-paragraph mission statement that tries to get to many of the fine points of all the type of services that you offer,” he says. “Try to keep it short enough that it will resonate with people, and they’ll remember it and the key aspects of it. If you write too much, you risk having people pick up on the wrong pieces of it as being the most important elements.”

Submit a draft for feedback

Sanderson and his colleague passed numerous drafts back and forth before finally settling on a four-sentence mission statement that answered those four key questions. As with any major initiative, having someone to bounce ideas off proved an invaluable resource in that initial phase — but it still wasn’t enough. Before christening it the definitive mission of Transplace, Sanderson sought that extra feedback to fill any gaps and get the necessary buy-in.

When you’re ready to submit your draft for review, take your pride out of the equation.

“Some people are afraid to put that statement out there and get the feedback because it might bruise their ego a little bit,” Sanderson says. “The focus has to be on how do we get a good statement out there. I can’t let my thin skin get in the way of a better product.”

The next step is to determine from whom to get that feedback. Sanderson first presented the draft to members of his leadership team.

“Once we had the rough draft, we distributed it in an e-mail to the leadership team and asked for their feedback in writing,” he says.

When you send your draft via e-mail, it gives your team members more time to process the concepts and the phrasing than they would have if you simply sprung it up on them in a meeting. In a similar vein, the e-mail format grants them more time to reflect over their own feedback, which should ultimately make it that much more insightful.

One thing you want to avoid in the process, Sanderson says, is distributing the mission statement to everyone in the company.

“It’s a fine line to balance,” he says of the 550 employees at Transplace. “You don’t want to have a culture where the CEO is a know-it-all and unopen to any suggestions. On the other hand, you don’t want to have a culture where the CEO isn’t willing to go out on a limb and say, ‘Here’s the direction we’re headed.’ It is the responsibility of the leadership team to state that direction and hopefully to have enough experience and wisdom to craft it in such a way that you’ve at least gotten most of the people on board. You’ve got to just think about the employees in entirety.”

That doesn’t mean you should only think about your employees though. Sanderson says your mission statement must also address customers.

“It’s important to help the customer understand what we’re striving to do,” he says. “It helps them understand whether we’re a good fit and someone that they would like to do business with.”

As such, it makes sense to also look to customers for feedback. Identify some of your top clients — those people who you’ve been doing business with for years — and call to ask for their opinions.

“Call a customer and say, ‘I’m working on this mission statement; I’d really value your input,’” Sanderson says. “If you’re a valued supplier of theirs, they’re going to stop what they’re doing, and they’re going to take a little bit of time and have a conversation about that.”

Once you get a customer on the phone, he says to avoid a word-by-word read through. On the other hand, don’t ask for overgeneralized input.

“It’s too broad a topic to just call and ask them, ‘What do you think our mission should be?’” he says. “You invite criticism in that sense: ‘Wait a minute. Don’t you know what your mission is?’”

Sanderson says to talk about the key concepts you’ve developed instead. Customers will not only help you determine if they reflect an accurate representation of your organization. They’ll also help you sift through the kind of company-specific jargon that plagued Transplace’s mission statement in the first place.

“It makes more sense before you cast it in concrete and get it posted out on the Internet to get a gauge of how someone who’s not walking in your shoes is going to interpret that message.”

Display it for all to see

After Sanderson received responses from everyone on his leadership team and after he called each of his top customers, he was finally ready to sit down and polish the draft. He had enough confidence in his and his colleague’s writing abilities, so the pair simply spun it out together.

If the art of prose is a craft beyond your comprehension, Sanderson says not to fret. Look to a peer for help.

“What you need to think of is who has good written communication skills in your company,” he says. “Look to an outside colleague. Maybe it’s a faculty member at a university, or maybe it’s a boss you had in a former job, or maybe it’s an administrative assistant you had in a former job.”

Once they help you produce a final draft, the only thing left to do is share it for all to see. Sanderson suggests using multiple channels of communication when doing so. At Transplace, he shared it at his monthly teleconference call with the entire company. He published it on both the company’s intranet and the Internet. He even put it on a business card with the company’s annual goals and then distributed it to employees so they would have a copy on hand at all times.

Despite this multilatitudinal barrage, Sanderson says to avoid sensational proclamations of the dawning of a new age.

“You have to be a little cautious about overplaying it,” he says. “It’s absolutely important to what you’re doing, but it doesn’t mean that the day that, that comes out, the company is suddenly a new company.”

Sanderson says that approach would not only send mixed signals to employees, but it also may prove confusing to customers, as well. When it comes to these external constituents, it’s best to share the new mission statement throughout the course of your normal interactions. Include it in PowerPoint presentations. Display it prominently on the Internet. Include it in your business reviews. Just don’t hit them over the heads with it like a sledgehammer. If the mission statement is strong enough, you won’t need to force it down the throats of your constituents. Those three or four carefully crafted sentences will do most of the work for you.

That was certainly the case at Transplace, where Sanderson heard immediate feedback from his employees.

“The employees certainly felt it was much more meaningful that what it replaced,” he says. “There was a lot of positive feedback that, ‘It makes more sense to me as an employee. It makes more sense to our customers. It’s easier to talk about.’”

By conducting a little research, seeking the appropriate feedback and communicating it effectively, your mission statement should produce the same results for you. What’s more, it will serve as a guide for your company for years to come.

“You have to think about what’s right for your own situation, for your own company, for your own employee base and leadership team,” Sanderson says. “A well-crafted statement should stand the test of time. Everyone in the company will understand at a very basic level why the company is in business and what their activities should be focused toward accomplishing.”

HOW TO REACH: Transplace Inc., (888) 445-9425 or www.transplace.com