Is it Purpose or Mission?

Bobby Albert

Bobby Albert

Life-long Entrepreneur, Regular contributor on Fox News Radio, Keynote Speaker and Author

Have you ever spent quite a bit of time researching a subject only to come away from your research scratching your head-even more confused than before? Were you frustrated? Boy, I'm glad that I'm not the only one feeling that way.

Back in the early 1990s, I was searching out the answer to an important question for our company. I was asking myself, "Why do we exist?"

What I found was confusing. The problem was that I found people interchanging the terms purpose and mission in writings. Some sources would use mission in describing purpose while others might use the word purpose in their description of mission. Were they the same, or different?

Of course, this was well before Google's search engine, so I had to thumb through physical copies of books and articles to try to figure out what the difference between these two terms.

And I came away still not understanding the difference between a purpose and a mission.

I even asked my good friend and mentor, Jim Lundy, to help explain purpose and mission. I felt sure Jim would know. His first book was adopted by more than a hundred colleges and universities. His next two books were best-sellers, and his management consulting firms clients included 3M, General Mills, American Express, and the Albert Companies.

To my surprise, Jim just shrugged his shoulders as though he did not know either.

Why Do We Exist?

So, I had to just "draw a line in the sand" and declare that we were going to use the word, purpose, to describe "Why we exist."

I believe Jim Collins gives the best definition of purpose in his book, Built to Last: "The organization's fundamental reasons for existence beyond just making money."

Okay, I now understood what a purpose is. How about mission?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines a mission statement as "a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organization, or individual."

Wikipedia defines a mission statement as "a short statement of an organization's purpose, identifying the goal of its operations: what kind of product or service it provides, its primary customers or market, and its geographical region of operation."

WOW! After all these years, I still feel confused and frustrated reading those definitions. Did you see in the Wikipedia definition when they interchanged the terms purpose and mission in the same sentence?

In practice, I found that many businesses seem to use the terms purpose and mission interchangeably, while nonprofits seem to use the term mission. Even so, I have found many of the mission or purpose statements are

  • Too long and wordy, so that people cannot remember what it says or means
  • Too generic, trying to be all things to all people
  • Too technical

Even more confusion - and more frustration!

My Recommendation

As before, I feel that I need to "draw a line in the sand" to eliminate ambiguity between the terms purpose and mission, and create three terms: purpose, mission, and super-objectives (more on that later).

I recommend the leader of

  • A business identify

a) A purpose (using Collins' definition above)

b) And one or more super-objectives, which are the bridge between

1) your core values, purpose, and vision, and

2) your strategies, tactics, and goals.

  • A nonprofit identify their mission, as that term seems well established in that sector.

If you use a mission statement, the best ones have the following qualities:

  • Clear – Anyone can understand it.
  • Concise – It is short and can be said in one breath.
  • Compelling – It makes people want to say it again because it is delightful to hear. It begins with the words, "Every day ."
  • Catalytic – Rather than just define what you successfully do, it encourages people to "act", and it is achievable.
  • Contextual – It describes coming from an actual circumstance and going to a new circumstance, and it must be measurable once it is practiced.

When a leader of either a business or non-profit chooses to use a mission statement, I recommend that they:

  • Also have a purpose that states why they exist, per the definition above.
  • Make sure their mission statement is contextual, describing how they are "coming from an actual circumstance and going to a new circumstance."

"Words might tell a story, but actions tell the truth."

- John Maxwell

What Do You Want to Accomplish - Every Day?

Now, let's get back to super-objectives.

One day in the early 2000s, on a long bicycle ride, I found myself asking, "At the end of the day, what do we want to accomplish in our business? And could it be stated simply, so that our people could easily understand and remember it?"

I realized that bottom line, we wanted to accomplish only two things every day:

1. Delight customers

2. Increase operating profits

I called these our super-objectives, because they became the two high-level, overarching objectives for our business. They provided

  • The everyday expectations in our business as to what we want to accomplish.
  • The bridge between our

1) core values, purpose, and vision, and

2) our strategies, tactics, and goals--our drive for results.

I did not find any other company that used the term super-objectives. It appears to be unique to the Albert Companies, and it became one of our True North Leadership Essentials.

Even though in our company, every employee had an individual assigned role and responsibility, all our employees had the same super-objectives. Every day our people clearly understood what they were to accomplish.

Super-Objective in the Theater

Recently, a colleague told me that super-objective is a known term--in the theater.

Wikibooks has defined a super-objective in the theater

  • As a character's broad overall objective that stays consistent throughout the play.
  • It helps the actor solidify the motivations behind the character's actions and emotions. Some examples might be, "I need love" or "I need to have power."

In the theatre, each character has a different super-objective, but in an organization, everyone has the same super-objective(s). Nevertheless, in both contexts, super-objectives define a broad over-arching objective for the people involved.

Just like core values, purpose, and vision apply to both organizations and individuals, super-objectives do too. Individuals can ask themselves how well they did on their super-objectives, just like the company can.

Forty-Plus Years of Leadership

With over 40 years leading my company, I have found our employees wanted to know, "Do you care enough about me as a person to explain what is expected of me in my role and responsibilities?" And, "Can you communicate these expectations clearly, concisely and with consistency?"

They, like me, do not want confusion and ambiguity in the workplace.

Once everyone understood without any doubt

  • Who are we? - Our core values
  • Why do we exist? - Our purpose
  • Where are we going? - Our vision
  • What do we want to accomplish every day? - Our super-objectives

And once we applied the process of effective leadership and we lived out the four truths listed above, we saw extraordinary results beyond our imagination. And you can too!

Does your organization have a purpose and/or mission statement? Please share your purpose and/or mission in the comment section <here>.

You may not call them super-objectives, but have you defined what you want to accomplish by the end of every day? Do your employees know? Please share your thoughts <here>.

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