What Comes, First Vision or Mission?

The answer to question in the headline is neither: Our belief is that Purpose always comes first, followed by Vision and Mission.

Embedded in what we refer to as Guiding Statements, Purpose, Vision, and Mission constitute a set of concise declarations that, together, create clarity, direction, alignment, inspiration, and empowerment. We would go as far as to say that developing, sharing, and living such Guiding Statements is one of the greatest gifts leaders can give to their teams.

Is There a Best Practices Model?

Most corporate executives are unsure about the differences between a Vision, a Mission, and a Purpose. If you then add other terms to the mix, such as “values,” “cultural norms,” and “cause,” it can become very confusing. While most CEOs would agree that some form of Guiding Statements are necessary, our research into the subject did not identify any accepted industry standard. So, we created our own model – one we have used with great success over the years for many clients.

Purpose is at the Core — it is the WHY.

Let’s unpack each statement for more clarity, beginning with Purpose: why we exist.

Over the last few years, the notion of Corporate Purpose has gained importance in corporate America. You might, for example, have seen the full-page ad headlined “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times a while ago.

It was signed by 181 CEOs of America’s most prominent companies as part of the Business Roundtable. Beyond making money, these leaders commit to leading their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders. Notice the order of these audiences. If the company takes care of the first four audiences, it will likely be very successful, and, in return, it rewards shareholders with handsome financial outcomes.   

A recent example of a powerful Purpose Statement is that for Vantage Specialty Chemicals, a BrandingBusiness client. Backed by a private equity company, the growth strategy of Vantage was focused largely on acquisitions. Working with the CEO and executive team, we developed a set of Guiding Statements that provided clarity on the future direction of the business.

Here is the Vantage Purpose Statement: Making life better through natural chemistry. 

Commitment to this “North Star” greatly helped the company in decision-making — and benefited all the related audiences. As Vantage evaluated its extensive product lines, products that were not deemed “natural” were eliminated. This Purpose Statement also became the guiding criterion for acquisitions. If the target company produced products that were not natural, they were dropped from consideration.

Vision (WHAT) and Mission (HOW)

Vision and Mission are very commonly misunderstood. An easy way to remember the difference between Vision and Mission is to just add the suffix “-ary” at the end of each term. 

For example, A visionary sees into the future and can visualize a clear destination. A Vision Statement answers WHAT we aim to achieve. Likewise, a missionary helps realize that vision. Therefore, a Mission Statement answers HOW we plan to achieve the vision. Make sense? 

Demonstrating Purpose, Vision and Mission with an Example

After a successful beta launch in San Francisco and Chicago, Uber, the ride-sharing company, was ready to disrupt the world of the traditional taxi industry. As the company began to add employees, drivers, and business partners, it was time to clarify its intentions by defining its why (Purpose), what (Vision) and how (Mission). 

Here are Uber’s original guiding statements:

Purpose: Evolve the way the world moves. 

Vision: Acquire 40% market share for paid rides in key US metropolitan markets.

Mission: By seamlessly connecting riders through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities and more business for drivers.

Each statement provides specific clarity and direction. 

The company’s Purpose (why we exist) communicates the emotional “driver” of being part of a disruptive new idea that will benefit the world. This is a very inspirational concept, and I’m sure it was beneficial in attracting the type of talent required to upend an entire industry. 

The Vision (what we aim to achieve) is very straightforward and clarifies the business goal. Because the Vision is measurable, attainable, and single-minded, the company is able to monitor and communicate its progress, which can be extremely motivating. 

The Mission (how we plan to achieve the Vision) outlines the aspirational depiction of the key customer benefits and differentiating initiatives. Note that in this example, the two of the audiences benefit each other: the passenger and the driver.

The combination of these three statements tells a clear, complete, and compelling story – each working together. This framework gives team members more freedom. When the entire team is clear on the Purpose, Vision, and Mission, management can rely on people doing the right thing without an extensive set of controls. The clarity of direction is firmly established yet individual creativity and innovation can be achieved and rewarded. 

The Importance of Keeping your Guiding Statements Current

In President Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech in which he declared, “before this decade is out, we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth,” the goal was clear and concise. Everyone involved was focused on achieving it, and on July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon. 

The clarity of Uber’s Purpose, Vision, and Mission statements was very effective as the team knew the destination ahead, and they quickly achieved it. In this case, new statements become necessary to guide their aspirations and growing teams. In 2016 and 2018, Uber made important updates. 

Purpose: Evolve the way the world moves. 

Vision: Smarter transportation with fewer cars and greater access. Transportation that’s safer, cheaper, and more reliable; transportation that creates more job opportunities and higher incomes for drivers.

Mission: We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.

Note that Uber did not change its Purpose statement as it is still very relevant. This example also emphasizes our belief — a Purpose statement is such a big idea that it could last forever as it may never be fully achievable.

What did change, however, was that within a few years Uber had surpassed its goal of acquiring 40% market share for paid rides in key US metropolitan markets. As of 2019, it had a 69% market share for passenger transport. The company also rapidly expanded internationally and now operates in more than 60 countries. 

Going beyond passenger transportation, Uber introduced several innovative new services, including Uber Eats, which in 2023 had a 23% market share in the food delivery industry. 

The new Vision extends beyond cars and into smarter transportation, such as Uber Transit (partnering with public transit agencies), Uber Health (partnering with healthcare organizations), and Uber Freight (partnering with freight carriers). 

Combined with the resilient Purpose statement, the new Mission and Vision statements provide Uber team members with the right balance of clarity, direction, and freedom to lead their industry.

Developing Guiding Statements

Rather than relying on one statement to do all the work, we recommend using all three statements (Purpose, Vision and Mission) with each serving a unique and clear duty. This structure provides the opportunity for each statement to be concise, single-minded, and memorable. It is important to remember that these statements tell a complete story together. 

Developing a Purpose Statement

Purpose (why we exist) is bigger and deeper than any business goal. When an organization has a clear Purpose, it attracts talented personnel, strategic alliances, and loyal customers.

Guiding criteria for developing a Purpose Statement:

  • Not a business purpose — instead focus on people, either internal team or customer-driven
  • Non-competitive — other organizations could have a similar version
  • Statement could be relevant forever — might never be attainable
  • Creates a desire for collegial teamwork — bigger than the individual
  • Highly motivating in that people are excited to get up in the morning and charge the day
  • If possible, speak to the human soul

Examples of Purpose Statements:

  • Merck: To preserve and improve human life. 
  • Disney: To create one of the most special memories in a person’s life
  • 3M: To solve unsolved problems innovatively. 
  • Mary Kay: To give unlimited opportunity to women. 
  • LensCrafters: To give the gift of sight to those who have the least and need us the most.
  • Microsoft: To empower every person and every organization to achieve more.
  • Twitter: To give everyone the ability to be heard, seen and share their thoughts and experiences as they happen.

Developing a Vision Statement

A Vision Statement (what we aim to achieve) is a depiction of a desired result that motivates, energizes, and helps an organization describe its destination. 

Guiding criteria for developing a Vision Statement:

  • Measurable — how would we know if progress is being made
  • Attainable — must be able to take it seriously
  • Inspiring — must engage people emotionally
  • Cultural — must fit with the organization’s unique style
  • Single-minded — must be focused
  • Vivid — must be clear and easily understood

Examples of Vision Statements:

  • Walmart: Become a $125 billion company by the year 2000.
  • Microsoft: A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.
  • LensCrafters: We will be the best at helping the world see better.

Developing a Mission Statement

A Mission Statement (how we will achieve our vision) is an aspirational depiction of your key customer benefits and differentiating initiatives.

Guiding criteria for developing a Mission Statement:

  • Focus on the primary strategies or initiatives and make sure they are clear enough so people can understand and become motivated by them. 
  • Don’t try to pack everything in as it will become too burdensome and ultimately forgettable. 
  • Focus on an encompassing idea(s) that ties back to your vision.

Examples of Mission Statements: 

  • Google: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • Merck: To discover, develop and provide innovative products and services that save and improve lives around the world.
  • Facebook: To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
  • Intel: Delight our customers, employees, and shareholders by relentlessly delivering the platform and technology advancements that become essential to the way we work and live.
  • Amazon: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online. 

Conclusion: Harnessing the Power of Purpose-Driven Leadership

In today’s dynamic business world, Purpose-driven leadership is paramount. By developing and nurturing clear, compelling Guiding Statements, we believe that organizations can foster alignment, inspire action, and drive meaningful impact with the people that matter to them. By embracing this model, it will enable leaders to navigate complexity with clarity, empowering teams to realize their full potential and create a lasting legacy of Purpose-driven success.