Blue Light Special on Buzz Words

Kresge Foundation Logo

The Kresge Foundation is a great organization. They seek to strengthen other non-profit organizations by helping them to grow and improve their operations. It’s the philanthropic world’s version of the old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This is all very good stuff.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell with you, the Kresge Foundation grew from the wealth of the Kresge family, the “K” in KMart. Decades of hailing shoppers to blue light specials made the Kresge’s very rich. And the foundation is their way of paying the world back. Good for them.

But a bunch of this breaks down into a mish-mash when you hear their ads on National Public Radio:

The Kresge Foundation helps organizations to catalyze growth, connect with stakeholders, and challenge greater support.

Huh? Catalyze? Stakeholders? Buzzword Bingo!

I have talked about this before, but as soon as you start to over-think your mission statement, it’s broken. I constantly see organizations who have spent way too much time at an “executive offsite” stewing over their corporate vision or mission statement. There are even consultants who make most of their living from traveling the world helping people run these offsites.

As soon as you start to over-think your mission statement, it’s broken.

I’ve been to many of these things. They start out with the best of intentions, and then go down hill from there. The consultant usually whips out the same tired flip charts they’ve used 300 times before, leads the group through the same tired exercises, pushes them toward some conclusion without even understanding the organization, and moves on. The executives go into these meetings thinking they are changing the world, or at least their little corner of it. And they over-think the thing, and leave the meeting with a mushy, overwrought, jumble of buzzwords.

Even worse, they then call a huge corporate meeting and announce the thing like Moses coming down with the word of God. And the employees go insane. They marvel at the fact that the leadership of their organization has time to spend stewing over this stuff. They try to imagine what kind of people it takes to create this crap. They ask themselves how much money, at the exec’s obscene pay rates, it cost the company to come up with this thing. They wonder about the hundreds of better ways that money could have been spent, or the exec’s time could have been used. Then they go back to work.

Visions are best when they are simple, direct, and abundantly clear to everyone.

This might make you think I don’t find value in mission statements or corporate visions. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a huge fan of figuring out what your organization is trying to accomplish, writing that down, and making sure it’s widely known, well communicated, and referred to constantly. But like almost everything else in business, visions are best when they are simple, direct, and abundantly clear to everyone. If they are not, what you get is this drivel, that is often worse than having no vision at all.

The saddest part of the Kresge Foundation example, is that their web site has a super statement of their mission right at the top of the home page:

The Kresge Foundation’s mission is to strengthen nonprofit organizations that advance the well-being of humanity.

Simple, direct, and understood by everyone. And it is definitively NOT pompous or trying too hard. They should be using that instead of trying to catalyze their stakeholders into a catatonic state.

3 thoughts on “Blue Light Special on Buzz Words

  1. Juddy

    Chris:

    So, okay, I will submit myself to your critical judgement… COPT’s new Mission (Core Purpose) Statement is five words: “Creating Environments That Inspire Success”.

    We like that while it suggests the hard assets of real estate development (creating environments) but also points to any “environment”… like the one I am creating now by sending to you a response, all the subtle messages that flow not just from the written words in emails, but also the hallway conversations, the phone calls, and any interaction, where we can aspire to leave a positive foorprint… Too corny?

    The intent was to capture our business as a relationship verses transaction based company. The open undefined quality of it (we may not always be just a real estate compnay), yet the moment to moment aspiration to do the best we can at how we treat one another. What do you think?

  2. Chris Williams Post author

    I like that it’s clear, short, and uses common words. I also like that it targets a result, you want those that inhabit your environments to succeed.

    My objections would be twofold: 1) You don’t talk about what you do clearly enough, and 2) “inspire” may be too weak. These objections stem from the purpose of a mission statement: to define clearly for all involved what their job is, and to let them make day-to-day decisions in a clear context.

    1) “Creating environments” is a bit vague… how about “creating workplaces”? I know you say you won’t always be a RE company, but the mission doesn’t have to last forever, it just has to be good today and for the reasonably visible future. Today you are Corporate Office Properties. You create offices. Today, I’m betting you want someone in the org who says “let’s build a low-income housing unit” to know right off the bat that that’s not part of the core mission of the company. So I think you should be a little crisper.

    2) Does “inspire success” allow people to make a decision on a daily basis? If I have a decision to make, can I look at this and say “yep it fits” or “nope, back to the drawing board”. I can probably make a lot of things fit “inspire success”. It’s just a little beyond “allow our clients to succeed”. How would you NOT allow them to succeed? I would prefer a word just a bit more proactive. Perhaps “promote”, “lead to”, even “result in”. But mostly I’m just quibbling. “Inspire” is better than many choices.

    Assuming you go with this mission, which is really fine, the next step is for the leaders to use it. I encourage you and your peers to actually use it in daily decision making:

    “Hey, should we change this carpet?”
    “Hmmm, will changing it make the place more inspirational? Will it help them to succeed?”
    “I think so, so let’s do it”.

    Constant reinforcing and active daily reference will get everyone in the company on the same page, reinforce your choice of mission, and (most importantly) get them to make these decisions on their own. That’s the whole goal of the mission statement.

  3. Nancy Williams

    If your mission is to help people in business or other people-serving occupations figure out how to improve image and performance you’re doing a good job. This response to the response is clear and would seem to be helpful to not only the person who wrote, but to others who will read it. It’s good guidance. Thank you.

Comments are closed.