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Why Mission Statements Matter

Making a quietly powerful and poetic revolution in our daily reality

Blog · Ari Weinzweig


Here in the middle of the rather mad year of 2020, taking time to talk about Mission Statements might feel a bit . . . frivolous. Why, one might reasonably wonder, spend time on something like that when there are so many other urgent issues at hand? When stress levels are high, why sit down to craft six or seven lines of organizational poetry?

Former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Robert Frost wrote, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Done well, Frost’s framing is what a Mission Statement can do for an organization. And as President John F. Kennedy said in commemoration of the Poet Laureate of Vermont’s passing: 

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

It’s beautifully said. Kennedy’s words are, I believe, what a meaningful Mission Statement should do for everyone in an organization, each day. But I haven’t always thought this way—30 years ago, I was a skeptic. My beliefs have swung 180 degrees since then. In Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1 I shared that back before we wrote ours:

I was pretty solidly certain that Mission Statements were little more than a serious waste of time and one more dumb “flavor of the day” thing for businesses to do instead of taking care of their real work. As you’ll see when you read this essay, I now believe that my late-’80s cynicism on the subject was dead wrong, and I’ve since come to see the creation of our Mission Statement as one of the most important things we’ve ever done here. . . . Here at Zingerman’s, I can say with confidence, we’re radically better off for using ours as actively as we do.

The same thing holds true today. Gauri Thergaonkar, a manager at the Deli at the time, who later did a bunch of good work at ZingTrain and has since moved back home to India, had had a whole lot of experience in the corporate world before she started working with us. She told me back then: “I was so burned by the absolute worthlessness of the many Visions, Missions, and Principles I had been exposed to elsewhere, that I had decided that the very concept was worthless.” I’m happy to say Gauri and I were both wrong.

What’s a Mission Statement? There are many ways to define it. For us, it’s the answer to four basic, but incredibly important, questions:

What do we do?

Why do we do it?

Who are we that are doing it?

Who are we doing it for?

What’s the difference between a Mission and a Vision? I could go on at great length, but in brief: A Vision, as we define it, is a much longer detailed description of success at a particular point in time in the future. Our 2020 Vision was 9 pages long. Visions end. Missions though, we’ve always said, are like the North Star. We never get there—but the Mission gives us direction, so that even on the darkest of organizational days, we can keep going in the right direction. It offers clarity on what to do even when there’s no SOP; a way to step into most any situation when we’re struggling. As President Kennedy put it so beautifully, the Mission Statement serves as “a touchstone of our judgment.”

Does the Mission matter? If we want people to think like leaders, if we want our staff to engage and take action, if we want people to feel a sense of purpose . . . then a Mission Statement has a critical role to play.

If you already have an organizational Mission Statement, then the question here would be how well are you all using it? Vic Strecher, longtime friend and professor in the U of M School of Public Health, has done tons of meaningful research over the years on the power of purpose. Of the American workers surveyed in Vic’s research: 

– Only 34% knew their organization’s Mission

– Only 31% believe in it.

– Only 25% believe their coworkers believe in it.

– Only 28% feel like they support the Mission.

– Only 28% feel enabled and authorized to do the work to make it happen.

That’s a bit scary. But I’ll share some tips here on making your Mission Statement matter. If you don’t yet have a Mission Statement, then let me suggest now—yes, November of 2020, the 9th month of the global pandemic‚ just might be a fantastic time for your group to create one. The process we used to write ours here at Zingerman’s is detailed in Secret #5: Building a Better Mission Statement in Part 1.

What happens if we don’t have a Mission Statement? The same thing that can happen to us as individuals when we have no purpose in our own lives. We can go through the motions, work hard in the day to day, but have a difficult time deciding what to really do. We lose energy, we feel spiritually exhausted, and we gradually grow depressed. Life will continue on apace. But it will likely be lacking. To be clear, if you’re reading this and you’re a long term, high-level leader, you may have internalized your Mission enough that you don’t really need to write one down. But for most folks, clarity of Mission makes a big difference. We all want purpose. We all like to know what direction we’re going. While wandering in the woods can be wonderful for a short respite, it’s a more rewarding, calmer experience when you have a compass in your pocket.

Back, many years ago now, before we had a cell phone in our pocket every time we left home, when we didn’t have a map to tell us what to do when we’d gotten lost, people did well to develop what was called a “good sense of direction.” Today, many of us have grown dependent on being able to get detailed directions with the push of a button—so much so that we can often get where we’re going without any sense of how we got there, other than following directions from the voice in GPS. But what if our cell phone freezes and stops working? When that happens, strange as it sounds to say it out loud, I feel the first bits of a panic attack.

Which is what, I would suggest, life is like in many jobs. People are clear on what they’re supposed to do in the day-to-day. They’re trained to take direction, not to think. In settings like that, Mission Statements are just the sort of corporate gobbledygook that got Gauri to be so cynical. As 19th century English anarchist Edward Carpenter wrote so powerfully, “To pass through one’s mortal days . . . like a slave under continual compulsion from others, is not to live; it is only to exist.” But if you encourage staff members to think for themselves, and if you want, as we do here, everyone on staff to learn to think like a leader, then people need to know where they’re going. In a healthy organization, the Mission Statement might make all the difference. It’s a call to all to action, to lead, to learn, to make a positive difference. I’m all about training and clear expectations and effective written procedures. But people still need to know what to do when the playbook is out the window, their phone freezes, or when a customer asks a question no one’s ever asked.

So, what is this elusive, Zingerman’s Mission Statement? I’ll share it here, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s the imperfect one we’ve been working with so meaningfully since we wrote it all the way back in 1992.

We share the Zingerman’s Experience

Selling food that makes you happy

Giving service that makes you smile

In passionate pursuit of our mission

Showing love and care in all our actions

To enrich as many lives as we possibly can.

What does it all mean in day-to-day reality (the only reality that probably really matters)? Here’s what I wrote in Part 1:

The first question—What do we do?—proved the most challenging of the four [for us to figure out], and probably also the most valuable, as well. We started with the obvious answers, like, “We’re a deli—we serve food.” But of course, what we were doing at Zingerman’s was more than just being a deli. . . . After many weeks of meetings and hours of hand wringing, eye rolling, rewriting, and paper shredding, I’m pretty sure it was Paul who suggested that what we really do is deliver an exceptional and unique experience. The group called it the “Zingerman’s Experience.”. . . The food, the service, the atmosphere, the staff, the signs, the information, the fun . . . they all went into making the experience of coming to Zingerman’s something special.

Once we had that first question answered we went on to the other three:

Why do we do it? Because we believe that if we do our jobs well we can leave our community, our staff, and everyone else we work with a little better off than when we got here. And because it’s a rewarding and enjoyable way to make a living.

I’ll add here now, with more understanding, that this “Why” is also known nowadays as “purpose.” We thought it was important way back when. Today, we know it’s critical.

Who are we? We are the people who work here at Zingerman’s. New and old, baker and bread-seller, dishwasher and dreamer, accountant and assistant manager, owner and offsite caterer, sandwich maker and sign maker.

Who are we doing it for? For our guests, for ourselves, for our community, for the folks who make the great foods we work with.

About the time this enews comes out on Wednesday afternoon, I’ll be teaching our orientation class for new staff. Welcome to Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, we call it. In the 2-hour-plus class, we will get to what we at Zingerman’s call the Business Perspective Chart. When we do, I will reference the Mission Statement, reinforce its import to those in the class, and say, as I have for decades now:

If they take only one thing away from this orientation class, it’s the seriousness of that statement—that while we clearly need to do baking, accounting, and sandwich making well, I need them to understand the most important part of our work is to make great experiences happen for literally everyone we come into contact with— customers, coworkers, suppliers, or anyone else we might meet.

This approach is so different from what most staff members have been taught in other jobs that I usually reiterate it two or three times. And you know what? They get it. And you know what else? They go out and do it! I guarantee that the mindset behind the Mission actually alters the way most everyone here looks at their job. When people comment (which they do regularly) that our employees act like owners, the acceptance and internalizing of the Mission among those who work here is one of the main reasons why.

If we use it well, the Mission Statement means that we’re engaging everyone here in the work of bringing great experiences. It’s all of our jobs to do it. And as a I wrote about the Mission Statement in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2:

This construct does not leave a lot of room for passivity, and even less so for a victim mentality. While these tendencies do still turn up, the people who evince them generally don’t last long. Most everything we teach is about living actively and collaboratively, all the while mindfully making the business better in the process. That mindset is right there in our Mission Statement (see Secret 5 in Part 1)—everyone here knows that they’re fully responsible for bringing a great Zingerman’s Experience to every customer, co-worker, supplier, and neighbor that we come into contact with.

In Vic Strecher’s extensive research the three most important factors in workplace engagement were, dignity, purpose and autonomy. The Mission, I would suggest, should do all three.

Speaking of dignity, purpose, and autonomy . . . It turns out that the North Star played a big part in the Underground Railroad. As the National Park Service guide to the subject says:

As slave lore tells it, the North Star played a key role in helping slaves to find their way—a beacon to true north and freedom. Escaping slaves could find it by locating the Big Dipper, a well-recognized asterism most visible in the night sky in late winter and spring. As the name implies, its shape resembles a dipping ladle, or drinking gourd. From the gourd’s outline, the North Star could be found by extending a straight line five times the distance from the outermost star of the bowl.

When people trying to get to freedom felt lost in the dark, the “drinking gourd” gave them direction.

The Big Dipper and North Star were referenced in many slave narratives and songs. Follow the Drinking Gourd was a popular African American folksong composed decades after the War and based on these anecdotes that memorialized the significance of these stars.

The old folk song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” in theory would have come from this attempt to stay on course on the quiet nighttime route to the north and freedom. There are wonderful resources if you want some music and history to keep your kids learning and engaged. For more on the Underground Railroad in Ann Arbor check out this page. And also this one. You’ll see some names that now are mostly known only for streets in town—Geddes, Glazier, and Eber White—that played prominent Underground Railroad roles here. If you find yourself at a loss for what to do with your kids these days, you could do an Underground Railroad driving tour around town.

At the end of the day, it’s not really what I have to say about Mission Statements that matters much. To find out what it means to others who work here, I asked some staff members. I don’t have room to fit everything they sent, but here are a few excerpts. It was interesting to see that as with all good poetry, each person was inspired by a different part, but in the end it engaged all of them in a meaningful way.

Leah Fox at Zingerman’s Mail Order shared:

I’m a new employee in the Call Center—finishing up my third week. I am a pianist and music director that would normally have loads of holiday gig work this time of year. I have always had a lot of pride in my music work and in what that art contributes to the world . . . As I learn more about the ZCoB and its place in this community, I see “love and care” not as empty words, but as living values. I have never been treated more respectfully or patiently by colleagues than I have in this job. On the phone, I hear so much love and care from guests who want to send exactly the right thing to people they love, as they will be separated from each other during these holidays because of COVID. . . . So, I am thankful for the clarity of the Mission Statement values. It impacts me and my work because I have the freedom, as an employee, to give guests excellent service, get them precisely what they need, and, hopefully, enrich their lives during this very difficult time for everyone. It allows me to do work that is consistent with my personal values.

Jenny Tubbs who makes Zingerman’s Press work:

I know the Mission is our North Star. It’s always helped me to know what my “first job” is: to deliver the Zingerman’s Experience (and how). I’ve often told the story of when one of our web team members first came to work here. She recalled you telling her that her job, first and foremost, was to deliver the Zingerman’s Experience. Not a web developer, accountant, sandwich maker, artist . . . Keeping that in mind helps cut out the noise, to equalize all our roles, and erase the lines of departments, businesses, jobs, and so on. That’s where its power lies if we teach it and live it that way.

Andrea Forbing from Zingerman’s Mail Order:

As I enter into the first few shifts of my 13th holiday season, I reflect back and find myself sticking on the word “ENRICH” in our Mission Statement . . . I think that at Zingerman’s and for myself personally, I resonate with that final line of our Mission the most: “Enriching as many lives as we can.” YES. Voila! This is the KEY piece. 

Walking away from ANY exchange—via email, phone, text, or face-to-face, knowing that in SOME manner, I have enriched them. Just like a good loaf of bread—enriched with freshly-milled flour and a whole lot of love.

Brad Hedeman, longtime Marketing Manager at Zingerman’s Mail Order

I don’t know if I’ve revisited the Mission Statement lately, but that’s only because I don’t need much more of a reminder than that first sentence to sum up what we’re here to do—that first line is so good, it’s all I ever need.

Grace Singleton, Co-Managing Partner at the Deli:

The last two lines stand out—“Love and care in all our actions”—

“Enriching lives” (not just with food, but knowledge and joy) 

“As many as we can”—this reminds us that we enrich and love and care for all (internally and externally). So really, we should expect to not only give, but also get this love, care, and enrichment. Full circle . . . that’s what I love and it is what keeps me going.

Zack Gabanyicz, who’s new to the crew at the Creamery:

I love how our Mission Statement is really an internal tool. It isn’t plastered up one wall and down the other. I don’t even know if it’s posted anywhere other than the ZCoB website.

Michelle Yurcak from Mail Order:

I am only on my second week in ZMO and I have printed the Mission Statement and have it in a 5 x 7 acrylic stand on my desk so I can see it all throughout the day. While I know we sell food, my first impression is that Zingerman’s represents the creating of food that makes people happy.

A Mission Statement on its own, out of context—with an unhealthy, low-hope culture, an uncaring staff, and a host of negative beliefs—is like a fancy label on a low-quality chocolate bar. Embarrassing, if you pay attention. Pretty words, but, in practice, pointless. But added into an array of other support systems, thinking tools, training, framing, servant leadership and the like, a Mission Statement is a huge help. It does what Peter Drucker directed us to do half a century ago when he wrote: “The purpose of an organization is to enable ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things.”

The magnitude of what comes from the Mission Statement when it’s used thoughtfully by so many people who continually take daily action—without waiting to ask some sort of mythical permission—is boundless. It gives people cause, it clarifies purpose, it authorizes immediate action, and it alters the balance of kindness in the community. Combined with our asking folks who work here to “break the rules when they are in the way of getting great service to guests” (yes, there are exceptions for safety, sanitation, stealing, and being stoned at work), I’m realizing that living the Mission in meaningful ways is really a revolutionary act. 

University of Pittsburgh professor Mohammed Bamyeh, puts forward three characteristics for what makes a revolution:

a) “decisions made in environments that spontaneously produce the knowledge needed”

b) “new knowledge emerges out of pure presence, which is to say, an unwavering mental focus, that characterizes the revolutionary climate, on the present alone—not the future, the past, the consequences of one’s actions, or any other distracting thought.”

c) “knowledge appeared so intuitively true and immediately accessible, without authorities, leaders, organizations, mediators, or complex intellectual work.”

Our Mission Statement, I’ve realized, does all three every day. Of course, in the same way the Communist countries of Eastern Europe made official statements about democracy—but in practice, never allowed anything of the sort to happen—most corporate Mission Statements merely pay lip service to a staff member’s role and individual liberty inside the organization. But when we offer up a meaningful, heartfelt Mission Statement, and truly turn people loose to live it, that is a revolutionary activity of significant proportion. Because, in the words of modern-day anarchist Howard Ehrlich, “Who will make the anarchist revolution? Everyone. Every day in their daily lives.”

All this is what Gustav Landauer wrote before he was killed by the German Army near the end of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919: “During revolution, people are filled with spirit that differs completely from those without spirit.” In line with what Peter Drucker wrote 50 years later, Landauer declared that “During revolution, everyone is filled with the spirit that is otherwise reserved for exemplary individuals; everyone is courageous, wild and fanatic and caring and loving at the same time.” Compare that second-to-last line in our Mission Statement: “Showing love and care in all our actions.” Caring and loving. Love and care. Everyone is courageous. Pandemic or no pandemic, I’m honored to work with so many caring, committed people to bring positive experiences to enrich as many lives as we can every single hour of every single day.

Secret #5 in Part 1 details more on Mission Statements.
Both the book and the pamphlet are also available at the Deli, Roadhouse, and Coffee Company.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!