I have worked as a C-suite brand strategist for Big Retail executives for over 15 years. My responsibilities included everything from compiling dossiers for new product launches to scouting locations for new brand hotels to writing CEO speeches. As the years passed, I did more focused work for fewer executives, becoming integrated into their individual careers and not just their current corporate ties. With each emerging professional shift, they moved key members of their current team from one company to another. And I was part of that luggage set.
Whether brand president or CEO, the people I worked with were hired as transformational leaders charged with driving change. And an early signal of that imminent change in organizational structure was a review of the basic materials: mission, vision, values (MVV).
What surprised me at first, and then started to frustrate me, was how automatically these leaders hired outside agencies to do this basic work. Why did such smart business people, proven performers with a good sense of the market, doubt that they could do this alone? Perhaps they viewed this basic work as purely creative – and thus outside their leadership domain – rather than purely strategic, an integral part of identifying long-term goals and how to achieve them – something top managers are very good at.
To be clear, I don’t think outside agencies are the enemy. There is real value in building solid partnerships and there is a lot of work that can be sent their way. But when it comes to base materials, it’s better to let go of the layers and stick as close to the bone as possible.
Or, as I would say to my clients, please. Use your words.
Outsourcing a company’s core identity often results in a kind of corporate vocabulary full of trendy buzzwords and phrases rather than the kind of clear and authentic language that can articulate a new vision, designed to meet changing needs: simple and streamlined language connected to a specific business, grounded words with clarity and usefulness that people can understand, rather than virtue-signaling phrases (“empowerment”) or glossing over clichés (“paradigm shift”).
Working with colleagues on foundational materials as part of a brand evolution can also help transformational leaders understand how those around them think, ultimately developing their own corporate language to better reflect their changing position. Whether outsourced or produced in-house, the process is always a challenge. Misalignment can occur when an MVV is arbitrarily changed (often by a committee) to fit specific agendas rather than the overall branding and purpose. Careless language, such as inserting a buzzword like ‘sustainability’ without regard to the commitment required, inevitably creates a gap between principles and practices. When ill-informed change, regardless of its source, is not challenged by transformational leaders, a mission statement can be reduced to a mere marketing message rather than a forward-thinking management tool.
After 45 years with the mission to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” Patagonia has released a new mission statement: “Patagonia is in business to make our save home planet.” That’s as close to the bone as words can get, yet an important statement of evolving environmentalism.
There is no escaping jargon. It’s an occupational hazard for those of us who work in communications, and here’s an example from me: When an MVV works together as three interlocking documents, it forms a Purpose Pact. These documents contain the principles that tell outsiders who a company is, what it does and how it gets that work done. In addition, they can also provide employees with a framework for action and a simple common vocabulary: a solid company philosophy that monitors group behavior and gives creativity a place.
When written in practical and realistic language with actionable core values and measurable goals – rather than vague and even misleading language with unidentifiable and unachievable goals – these statements create alignment by becoming the default mindset for the entire company. They can inspire employees, attract and retain talent, and drive growth. In the end, that’s just a good thing.
Francine Maroukian, a two-time James Beard Award winner, is a former food and travel writer turned commercial pragmatist who now works as an operations researcher for large retail C-Suite executives.