Purpose, Vision and Mission

Purpose, Vision and Mission

Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Values – isn’t this just corporate mumbo jumbo?


Every organisation needs a guiding beacon – strategically and tactically. If you are a “one man band” it is fairly easy to stay the course and be guided by your inner vision and values. You have a gut instinct of what is right or wrong in starting, building and growing your one-man organisation.

Businesses and organisations are different as they generally involve a team of people. Starting with 2,3 or 4 people and a whiteboard can quickly evolve into a number of staff members, shareholders, customers and business partners. How, then, do you glue all these stakeholders together to most effectively achieve the purpose and goals of the business? Start up’s and growing businesses often fall into the trap of quickly moving into a “grow as fast as possible” vision. In the early days, founding members spend a lot of time and energy in articulating what they want to do, which opportunities they want to take advantage of and how they want to begin tackling these. Whether it is to potential funders or early staff members, the “dream” or “vision” is what people buy into.

This quickly dissipates. As the complexity of growing, managing and scaling from even 5 to 20 increases, these initial conversations on visions and dreams are deprioritised to make way for problem solving, debates, fire-fighting and all the other short-term urgencies involved in execution mode. Soon founders look around them and they have a fast growing group of people making decisions, carrying their brand out to market and partners, designing, developing, building.

The core question is: how can we, the founding members of this foray, the parents of this child, trust all these people to carry our baby and not drop it?

One of the key components of the answer to this question is have a clear and aligned purpose, vision, mission and values. The guiding light and beacon that keep all our sailors on course – even when the captain is sleeping… So, what the hell is the difference between vision, mission, purpose, and values?

Let me first explain what it isn’t: I was once involved in a very robust debate with some Board members who insisted that their purpose, vision and mission was to be “opportunistic”. I can immediately feel all the visionaries out there perk up and take notice. However, you cannot grow, guide or run a business with a vision of being “opportunistic”. Running a company that sells women’s shoes versus a mining exploration company, a bakery, a stock brokerage – a vision that tells the organisation to simply be “opportunistic” is really not very helpful or practical.

The development of your purpose, vision, mission and values is not scientific. It is art. It encompasses quantitative opportunity, qualitative capabilities and strategic insight, competitive advantage, etc etc.

Don’t get caught up in the semantics of “is this a vision or a mission statement???”. Call it your beacon statement. Call it your statement of intent. Call it your hymn sheet. The purpose of having worked through the thought and debate that goes into formulating guiding principles for your organisation is far more important than the label you give it. The discussion here is really to unpack the nuances across the spectrum and to help you come up with a more holistic and useful set of guiding principles for your organisation. Lets quickly look at some basic definitions, compliments of Oxford:

Purpose: The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists

Vision: The ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom; A mental image of what the future will or could be like

Mission: An important assignment given to a person or group of people

Values: Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life

It becomes quite apparent why these are important to any group of people working together to achieve a common goal.

Let me attempt to translate Oxford to business. As you will see and question, the terms purpose, vision, mission and values are quite interlinked. The terms are often used in a variety of ways in business. I am going to try my best to adhere to Oxford as I have found this to be most helpful. You will see many organisations use the blanket term “mission statement” when sometimes this refers to a company vision or purpose. And vice versa. As with anything on this blog – a level of practicality and judgement must be applied. This isn’t science. Grapple with the concepts and philosophies; and then figure out what works for you. Don’t judge anything as right or wrong but rather as helpful or unhelpful to you, your business and your unique context.


The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists

Why does your business or initiative exist? If the answer seems simple, then you need to give it more thought. Make sure your statement of Purpose has real intent (action oriented) and is specific. This is not what you wish to achieve. This is why you exist as an organisation. What do you contribute to the world or the market?

McDonald’s purpose is not “to make hamburgers”.  Jimmy Choo’s purpose is not “to make shoes”Barack Obama’s purpose is not “to be President”..

Any and every good organisation, company and brand stands for something. This is their purpose. The WHY behind what they do. Here is the well-known Simon Sinek TED Talk on Start with Why. If you have seen it before, watch it again. Get your team to watch it. Get your managers to watch it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sioZd3AxmnE

And here is a great Harvard Business Review article on how Purpose differs from Vision, Mission and Values.  https://hbr.org/2014/09/your-companys-purpose-is-not-its-vision-mission-or-values

So how do you go about articulating your purpose? A well known framework from ex-Monitor EMEA Chairman and CEO, Nikos Mourkogiannis, looks at four different moral traditions on which a purpose may be based: Discovery; Excellence; Altruism and Heroism. Have a read through Nikos’s article: http://www.nikosonline.com/the-search-for-purpose/

1.     Discovery centers on the search for the new

2.     Excellence focuses on providing the best possible product or service

3.     Altruism is built on compassion

4.     Heroism sets the standards for everyone else to follow

An organisation or initiative doesn’t have to choose just one guiding moral tradition. And, it is obvious to see that running a successful business requires a complex combination of all four moral traditions, at different times at different levels in different divisions. I would be quite concerned if my finance department was founded on a basis of altruism…! However, the question is:

What do you want to be known for? What will be your area of distinction?

How will you position your purpose in the market or the world to deliver distinctive value? What will your brand represent in the hearts of people?  As you develop your statement of Purpose, refer back to Nikos’s moral traditions and try to draw out what your primary and secondary areas of distinction will be. See if this debate helps you build a more specific and resonating Purpose for your existence.

Here are a couple of Purpose statements that I feel served their organisations well. REMEMBER, many of these organisations have been around for ages. Their purpose has stuck – even if they no longer deliver it. Think back to the initial stages of the company and how these Purposes served the companies in growing into the successful corporations they are today.

  • IBM: We strive to lead in the invention, development and manufacture of the industry's most advanced information technologies, including computer systems, software, storage systems and microelectronics
  • Ford: Manufacture machines that change the world
  • Walmart: We save people money so they can live better (from mission statement)
  • Walmart: If we work together, we’ll lower the cost of living for everyone…we’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and have a better life (from founder Sam Walton)
  • Disney: To make people happy
  • Sony: Deliver useful technology to the general public

It is interesting to note that you can start each one of the above purpose statements with: “In everything we do, we…”


The ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom; A mental image of what the future will or could be like

The view of how the company or organisation will fulfill its purpose. The “How” in Sinek’s framework. Now that we have a sense of why we exist, how are we going to benefit society? As we saw above, Sony made this clear in their purpose statement. They were going to enable more enjoyment and functionality in people’s lives through the use of technology. IBM too was focussed in their purpose that Information technology would be their “How”.

It is generally very helpful to link your purpose and vision statements. The vision statement answers the obvious “how?” question that would follow a statement of purpose.  Upfront, it is important to note that a company aligns capabilities, structure, systems and culture around a purpose (see my commentary on the McKinsey 7S framework), in the longer term purpose generally stays constant while the organisation's medium term vision may change. Let's look at an example:

An interesting case study is the evolution of Nokia over the centuries. Nokia began as a wood pulp business in South-western Finland. Through the years, Nokia evolved and changed to include business lines in rubber manufacture, telephone and electrical cables, electricity generation, robotics, plastics, televisions, chemicals and consumer electronics. While Nokia is most well known to day for its early success in mobile telephone technology, it has a long history of manufacturing excellence. Nokia’s current mission statement includes references to “creating”, “connect people and things” and "technology". This is quite relevant to many of their historic businesses.

Hence, although Nokia has had many visions along the way, its purpose has been fairly consistent.

The Vision statement should flavour your statement of purpose and give further specificity into where you are going to play or how you are going to deliver your purpose (why) to the world. The Vision for the entire organisation can be quite overarching and broad. Here are some "Vision statements" from some well-known companies:

McKinsey: Our mission is to help our clients make distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements in their performance and to build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people

Amazon: Our vision is to be earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online

Coca-Cola: Our vision serves as the framework for our Roadmap and guides every aspect of our business by describing what we need to accomplish in order to continue achieving sustainable, quality growth.

  • People: Be a great place to work where people are inspired to be the best they can be.
  • Portfolio: Bring to the world a portfolio of quality beverage brands that anticipate and satisfy people's desires and needs.
  • Partners: Nurture a winning network of customers and suppliers, together we create mutual, enduring value.
  • Planet: Be a responsible citizen that makes a difference by helping build and support sustainable communities.
  • Profit: Maximize long-term return to shareowners while being mindful of our overall responsibilities.
  • Productivity: Be a highly effective, lean and fast-moving organization.


An important assignment given to a person or group of people

I have seen a variety of Mission statements – I believe the broad spectrum of what these cover is what has given “Mission statements” their bad reputation.

I personally believe that organisations, as a whole, should have a guiding Vision Statement. But it is far more useful to give divisions, countries, regions, offices, etc Mission Statements that articulate what they are trying to achieve in the medium term in order to contribute to the Vision of the country. This shifts us into the “What” space of Simon Sinek’s framework. As Oxford tells us, this is our current macro assignment. Let’s consider a society of explorers:

Purpose: To explore, research and document unknown territory

Vision: To be the vanguard of mountaineering and explore and chart the greatest peaks on Earth. (as opposed to exploring the deepest ocean trenches, most formidable deserts, most remote islands or deepest jungles)

Mission: Climb and document the West Face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes

An organisational mission could be to establish a sustainable office in a new territory (number of people), to target a particular industry and launch new products (market share), to distribute into a new geography (customers served), etc.

I personally believe that a good mission statement gives people a solid medium term direction to direct their activities, efforts and targets. I believe Mission Statements have been a little bland because they don’t contain enough specificity or goals to be meaningful. While Purpose and Vision should endure over the long term, Mission Statements should be revised and updated every 3 to 5 years to maintain relevance to the frontline of the organisation. The obvious question is “But, isn’t that specificity the aim of budgets and targets?” If you have an organisation that finds budgets and targets inspiring, please tell me how you have done it!

A Mission Statement should elicit direction, inspiration, focus and commitment. It is the strategic story that surrounds medium term budgets, capital requirements, capital allocations, budgets and targets. It is the greater milestone that the organisation rallies around and, once they reach it, pop champagne! While I would frame and hang my Purpose and Vision Statements; I would be referring to the Mission statement in Executive Meetings, in company townhalls, in Quarterly and Annual strategic reviews.

It’s a working document, not an ornament.


Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life

How do you as an organisation and its people wish to conduct yourselves in order to live your purpose, achieve your vision and complete your missions? What should be top of mind in any interaction? In recruiting people, conversational language you use, management systems and structures, employee engagement efforts and performance management?

The VIA Institute on Character has one of many online values assessments. These tests are useful to find a comprehensive list of values that are worth considering and prioritising in defining your organisations top 5 values.



BE CAREFUL! Focussing your organisation on particular values and their associated behaviours means they may not focus on others!

Consider a highly competitive company culture. While this can attract highly ambitious, hard working and resilient people, striving to reach targets and progress while eliminating any obstacles in their path – the potential shadows of this focus is corporate politics, back stabbing, lack of collaboration, and little focus on important aspects such as belonging and community, etc.

Again, there are no rights or wrongs here. If you don’t articulate these elements clearly, you are leaving it up to your people to make it up as they go along. Giving it thought, considering trade offs and having discussions around values and how they translate into desired behaviour in the various areas of your organisation (even your brand identity and personality) will give you far more control in shaping the kind of organisation you want to be to fulfil your purpose and achieve your mission’s goals successfully.


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