The Power of the Mission

Recently, I was presenting a session on expansion and I discussed the role of mission statements. The main idea is that a first step at planning significant change in our co-ops should begin with an examination of our mission statements. Does the thing that we want to do fall within the mission of the co-operative? What I suddenly realized was something quite different! Sometimes the mission might lead us to do foolish things that either hurt our co-operative or cause us to stray from the co-operative identity.

Mission statements work best when they direct and easy to remember; however, this can also lose a lot of nuance. For example, the mission statement for my co-operative is “to create jobs at a living wage or better in a safe, humane and democratic environment by providing quality transportation to the greater Madison area.” If people only focus on the initial infinitive (and sometimes people do), it suggests that it is our mission to constantly grow the co-operative. I, however, see it as part of the larger statement. Our mission is to create jobs {ONLY IF WE CAN DO THAT IN A MANNER IN WHICH THOSE JOBS ARE} at living wage or better. . . . . .

I’ve heard some suggestions to change the “to create” to “maintain” but then I wonder what happens in an economic downturn when we simply can’t maintain all the jobs at a living wage.

When our mission was first written, we didn’t have the last bit about providing quality transportation. Our consultant thought it was a bit odd that our mission statement didn’t talk about what we did or how we would interact with consumers. It was (as you can see) incredibly internalized. I think that by adding the last phrase, we created a new consciousness among ourselves. I remember a General Manager in the 90’s specifically telling me that our passengers were our “oppressors” and our enemy (and I know that he wasn’t alone in that belief); today, I doubt that a single member of our co-op would have that analysis.

As kids we learn very quickly that words have a lot of power. They can hit us harder than a two-by-four and lifts our spirits higher than a kite. We don’t always extend that power to the business world. That mission statement hanging on the wall has a power too. It is a soft power that silently creates a culture around it. The words left off of the wall have just as much power as those included. We need to be cognizant of this and understand that a discussion of our mission statements needs to happen as new members enter the co-operative. We need to pass the nuance of our meanings onto the next generation of members so that they can manage the power of those words.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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