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How to create an agency mission statement that will be of real interest to employees

Most business owners understand the importance of having a purpose for their business. In recent years, some of the most successful business founders have shared how having a purpose has made a difference in their organizations.

Defining a business purpose can be challenging. There are many conflicting frameworks for what "mission" and "purpose" mean, not to mention finding something that's genuinely yours.

I'm not here to say which version is right or wrong, but for the purposes of this article, here's how I define each term:

Purpose: A long-term reason for a business's existence that transcends ideas like "make lots of money" or "build a big business that we can sell."

Mission: A clear, compelling medium-term (usually around 10-15 years) objective that serves as a focus for the business. Jim Collins calls this a BHAG, or Big Hairy Audacious Goal, in his remarkable book, "Built to Last."

There's plenty of evidence suggesting that having a strong purpose can lead to commercial success. According to Deloitte, "Purpose-driven companies gain greater market share and grow three times faster, on average, than their competitors, while also achieving higher employee and customer satisfaction."

I don't dispute how empowering a purpose can be for businesses of all sizes. It unifies a team and sets in motion a strategic momentum that aligns its activities.

One problem I've encountered is that many of the purpose statements we hear about are wildly aspirational. For most small to mid-market businesses, it's hard to compete with lofty purposes like "solve world hunger" or "organize the world's information."

Although my digital marketing agency, WebMedia, has had a clearly stated business purpose for almost 8 years, I've experienced long periods where it meant little to most of our team. After all the buzz about defining what I thought would be a transformational north star for everyone in the business, it ended up being little more than an expensive framed poster.

If I'm brutally honest, I believe most people are primarily motivated by factors that directly impact their lives. When their employer presents a purpose that has little overlap with their interests, it risks becoming obsolete.

In this article, I'll share what I've learned about how to connect what matters most to staff with their employer's business purpose in a way that drives both individual engagement and meaningful business improvement.

How WebMedia Arrived at Our Purpose

Like many who have run a business for several years, I've experienced ups and downs. The highs have been some of the best moments of my life. Seeing your hard work and vision pay off in the form of a profitable business and a great team is exhilarating.

But the lows are what led to WebMedia's purpose: "Create Georgia's most unstoppable brands."

Among the many challenging phases, there was one around 2011 when a series of negative financial, staffing, and legal events nearly drove us to bankruptcy. I almost gave up on the business.

Fortunately, things turned around, leading to more prosperous times. It was during these years that I began having more serious discussions with other business owners who had experienced similar challenges.

These discussions led me to two conclusions:

First, I care deeply for other business owners, particularly when they're going through the dark periods that business challenges bring.

Second, I believe WebMedia has the toolkit to deliver the marketing and communications framework that our clients need to build a long-lasting, thriving business.

From there, we identified our purpose: "Create Georgia's most unstoppable brands."

Communicating the Purpose

Every February, our leadership team holds an annual vision meeting. Starting at 8:30 a.m. and running for 90 minutes, it's an overview of our values, purpose, and what we aim to achieve for WebMedia in the coming year.

After each vision meeting, we conduct a retrospective survey to gauge how motivated and engaged the team is by the vision presentation. I must admit that, for many years, I struggled with the amount of negative or indifferent feedback we received from the team. It was clear that, in many cases, there was a gap between my level of inspiration and that of many team members.

While this has always bothered me, I came to accept that no one will care about the business as much as I do. However, after having conversations with many of our team members, I realized that the issue is the disconnect many staff feel between the business purpose and their day-to-day work. How does their daily work connect to WebMedia's purpose?

What Really Matters to Staff?

Although everyone has unique motives, I believe there are a few common factors that strongly influence employee satisfaction. Unless all of these factors are addressed intentionally, you're unlikely to have a motivated team that wants to stick around for the long term.

Based on my experience, these factors can be broadly categorized as follows:

1. Salary
Much has been written about how money isn't a primary lever for driving productivity or employee engagement. However, salary alone rarely has the power to impact performance without the other factors mentioned below. If you play at the lower end of the expected salary range for any role, you'll face an uphill battle to motivate your team. Staff will generally feel a lack of loyalty until they believe they're being fairly compensated.

2. Culture
Agency culture often encompasses everything from ping pong tables to free snacks and drinks, and even weekly massages. While these perks are nice to have, they have little to no impact on how deeply an individual feels connected to the business's core values. Good culture, by my definition, exists when a team of like-minded people share similar values, beliefs, ethical standards, and practices. This, in turn, creates a sense of belonging and a feeling that they're part of something that matters to them.

3. Self-Actualization
At the top of renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is "self-actualization." His theory suggests that to achieve true fulfillment and become the best version of ourselves, we must find a vehicle to express our talents, capabilities, and potential.

I believe it's a workplace's responsibility to provide not just the environment, but also the leadership, guidance, and training to help each individual achieve this sense of self-actualization. Failing to do so will lead high-quality employees to eventually feel unfulfilled and seek it elsewhere.

4. A Well-Run Company
Any high-performing employee will eventually grow frustrated when they are surrounded by chaos, inconsistency, and a lack of professionalism. This doesn't mean strict rules and guidelines, but it does require agency leaders to be clear about their standards and stick to them. This includes hiring/firing practices, systems, processes, and office etiquette (cleanliness, pets in the office, work-from-home standards, working hours, etc.).

We're in an era where there's room for a diverse range of these practices. However, staff need to understand what these practices are before starting employment and know they will be upheld. When this doesn't occur, they often feel misled and lose motivation.

Relationships
Whether it's with co-workers or leadership, staff will eventually lose morale when there’s a disconnect in their work relationships. A 2022 survey by Goodhire found that 82% of American workers said they would potentially quit their jobs because of a bad manager. This backs up my anecdotal sense from employee exit interviews that staff have an overwhelming need to feel safe, understood, and respected by leadership. When they don't, there's a risk of disengagement.

The relationship with co-workers is also important. Similar to salary, this is an important factor, but it’s unlikely to motivate or fully engage an employee on its own.

The Great Disconnect

So why is it that so many businesses find it hard to engage their team with their business purpose?

While I believe reasons such as a poorly defined purpose or lack of clear, regular communication play a role, my experience shows that there's an element that's frequently overlooked.

That element is the mission or BHAG I mentioned earlier.

When used properly, the mission acts as a bridge between the aspirational purpose and the more personal factors that directly impact staff. It serves as a way to bring the team closer to the purpose with a more actionable focus.

WebMedia’s Mission

The approach we've taken to developing our mission likely doesn't fit any textbook definition of what a mission should be. But from my experience, the key to something that engages our team is finding something that is uniquely ours.

In the past, we've defined mission statements that felt more like we were trying to follow a formula or replicate what other, sometimes significantly larger, companies had done.

In 2022, we began brainstorming what we wanted the business to look like in 10 years.
After many iterations, we decided to focus on three overarching objectives:

50% of our clients are WebMedia's "ideal clients."
Our team feels deeply trusted and valued, and has a clear purpose.
We deliver undeniable, game-changing value to our clients.


After agreeing on these objectives, we decided that the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework, which we use across our business, was the best way to make our progress actionable and visible.

We defined a range of Key Results for each Objective and then presented them to the team at our 2023 vision meeting. We spent the remainder of 2023 working through them. By the end of the year, we had completed over 80% of what we set out to do.

While I can't give a precise measure of the improvement compared to previous years, I have strong anecdotal evidence that this approach has resonated with many in our team.

Speaking with team members one-on-one at the end of the year, I was struck by how many expressed genuine enthusiasm for an actionable road map to the things that truly made a difference in their lives.

But by far the biggest indicator of success was the number of team members who stepped up to take on one or more of the key results we defined. These people became more engaged in activities outside business as usual and thus played an active role in driving positive agency change.

The Key Takeaway

While I continue to be an ambassador for Purpose, I’m even more passionate about it only being worthwhile if an agency leader has a realistic plan for how to engage their team with it.

A token purpose might be on a wall poster, or ticking a box from a business coach or mentor. But it will ultimately be no more than a distraction. It will confuse and annoy a team, waste time, and cause frustration.

If an agency leader intends to share a Purpose with their team, the best way to bring true engagement is to marry it with a medium-term Mission. It connects the team with the purpose and leads to actionable outcomes that align everyone more with the purpose year after year.

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