I was calmly eating my pizza when I saw it.
It was in a glass frame in the corner against dirty washrags and sticky with dried soda, the refuse of a misguided fad. It had been clearly discarded, but in a place you put something when you don’t want it any longer but don’t think you should throw it out.
In bold letters, as though the course of the world was clearly charted, it read; MISSION STATEMENT.
Below that block letter heading was some non-descript gibberish about “customer service” and “product” and superlatives like “fastest” and “freshest” and other nonsense.
God, I hate mission statements.
Modern corporate gibberish was rampant in the early 1990s, as terms like “lean” meant closing or combining operations, which resulted in the need to “right-size” meaning lay-offs, which would make people “work smarter, not harder.”
About that time, Suburban Chicago Newspapers (owned by Copley Press at the time), embarked on a corporate retreat at the Pheasant Run, (not to be confused with the later full-scale, helter-skelter retreat of the late 90s.)
We were expected to participate from 9-5 Saturday and Sunday, 500 or so of us from Elgin, Aurora, Joliet, Plainfield, Naperville and Waukegan, packed into a large windowless room in the arrogant assumption we couldn’t possibly have anything else to do. This was, of course, “voluntary” so it was unpaid.
We were strategically placed at large round tables with people from other departments like advertising, production and circulation and other sites from which we would plan out the corporate direction. I could have done it in one minute. “The corporate direction is straight down. Thank you and good-bye.”
That would not have embraced the spirit of planning, however. Our CEO at the time first thanked us for coming, as though we had a choice, and affirmed that he was, indeed, a disciple of planning. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there,” he said, pausing for the polite laughter.
First task was to harness and direct the energy and considerable creativity of 500 sleepy, quietly belligerent people into fashioning a mission statement. Such a statement was necessary, we were told, because everything flows from that. So we apparently can’t say “Make a lot of money,” even though that is the only reason to be in business. That might not embrace their loyalty and dedication to the employees, most of who were later summarily fired with no more compassion than flicking crumbs off a plate.
It is good business to tell the people you dragged out of bed on a snowy morning for no pay that they are the real jewel and treasure of the company. “People are our most valuable resource,” management solemnly intoned with all the sincerity of a carnival huckster. We heard that a lot until even they couldn’t say it with a straight face.
So being journalists and thus cynical and viciously politically incorrect, we tried to fashion the most ambiguous and if possible, implicitly profane message possible. “Our mission is to service our customers until they’re satisfied” was one that was mysteriously rejected.
It took all morning for 500 people to compose a satisfactory sentence that used words like “serving the needs” and other sentiments that brought most a surge of pride but induced a powerful gag reflex among the journalists.
Mission statements are ambiguous philosophies that tell no one anything and substitute for real leadership.
I have seen them hanging on walls in places that change oil, as though someone might be unclear on exactly what they do there. They use sweet, non-threatening phrases and make vague, insincere promises of superlative service from a company that puts you on hold but assures you your call is important to them. It had the half-life of phrases like “hand-crafted” and “titanium” and the worth of pocket lint.
The Copley/Suburban Newspapers’ mission statement was still hanging on the wall in the conference room the last time I was in the empty building in Plainfield. It beamed our mission proudly the work of people who were the company’s most valuable resource until it didn’t need them anymore.
The work of 500 people who spent those two days studiously brainstorming a mission statement and five key strategies was undone by something no one could have seen coming _ the tidal wave of new media which made us all obsolete. Like military operations, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. For us, the enemy was progress.
But pizza was still pizza so why was this place’s mission statement relegated to the trash bin of misguided intentions?
Well, their pizza wasn’t that fresh.
Maybe they set the bar too high.