What to Consider When Writing Your Mission Statement

You need purpose—and so does the business you’re launching

These days, corporate mission statements are as important as a revolutionary product or a charismatic CEO. The right one can attract purpose-driven professionals in a brand-new way. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, "In part, professionals are demanding more meaning from their careers because work simply takes up more of life than before … traditional sources of meaning and purpose, such as religion, have receded in many corners of the country." A good mission has the power to crystallize your brand, attract investors, and capture thoughtful employees.

But how to create one? The statement needn't be long, but it should be compelling and clear. Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Ann Kwong left a senior position at Vertex Pharmaceuticals to found and run two companies: TREK Therapeutics, PBC, dedicated to creating affordable medicines, and InnovaTID Pharmaceuticals Inc., which focuses on "Innovative Thinking for Innovative Drugs" and provides education and consulting advice to help scientists turn their ideas into clear-cut strategies to create drugs—essentially crystallizing their own mission statements.

Get personal. If you're launching your own business but aren't quite sure what your motivation is (a common phenomenon), recall previous situations that frustrated you, and you felt helpless. "Don't start with the needs of the world. Think about what bothers you," she says. "Remember times when you thought, 'This isn't optimal: Something could be done about it, but I'm not in a position to do it right now,'" she says. What were they?

Identify a pattern. Once you've pinpointed things that have frustrated you, look for a core problem they share. This problem should point to the specific issue you want to address; use language that pinpoints a challenge and a solution. "Implicit in every mission must be a problem," Kwong says. For her firm TREK, for example, the mission is "creating affordable medicines for all." This stemmed from a clearly outlined problem: Hepatitis C drugs are too expensive and most people in the developed world can't get treated.

Streamline your goals and your words. After you've identified your problem and solution, encapsulate it in the leanest language possible. Good examples are phrases like the simple but effective "No Child Left Behind" or Vertex's "The Science of Possibility." Your mission should be the absolute focus of your business; everything else is secondary. By limiting yourself to roughly four to six words, you'll force yourself to prioritize your goals in clear, compelling language—alluring to customers and an exercise in clarity for yourself.

Consider your audience. "Your first audience is yourself. Then it's your employees. Then it's your partners and customers," says Kwong. "It should elicit an emotional response," she says. If you're not emotionally attached to your words, chances are nobody else will be attached to your ideas.

Be open to change. Allow your mission statement to morph based on the passions of your team. Kwong lines her office walls with whiteboards and encourages employees to write down their thoughts. "A mission is a living document. It's a way of guiding us as a group. A mission statement isn't just something you can write down and then turn your back on. It's a live thing, a conversation," she says. Use it to keep yourself honest and as a barometer of your business' success: If your mission stops resonating with you or if you're getting mixed feedback, don't be afraid to change it.

Tags: career