Your mission, should you choose to accept it


Lead with the big picture and use it as a reference point for practice success.

There's an old story about a man watching a bridge being built. He approaches one worker after another asking each of them what they're doing. "I'm putting in my eight hours," says one. "I'm working on a team," says another. "I'm providing food and shelter for my family," answers the third. The last man says, "I'm helping thousands of people travel safely to work then return home to their loved ones."

Tracey O'Driscoll-Packer

They're all moving beams and swinging hammers. If the observer worked with them, he'd eventually see the job through their eyes without posing the question. But by asking them directly, he quickly uncovers their values and motivations. He goes straight into mission-statement territory: the underlying spirit and intent that form their daily activities.

Whenever I come across a well-crafted, thoughtful mission statement—one that's both succinct and dynamic—there's an immediate sense of recognition. Aha! Got it! I have a mental picture of what you do and how you do it—insight! Unfortunately, most mission statements either leave me groaning or finishing them inside my head with, "blah blah blah."

The most common problem with mission statements is a lack of focus. Throwing together a random array of adverbs and platitudes will neither define nor motivate your team. In fact, if your mission statement is perceived as irrelevant or insincere, it works against you.

Mission statements grow up

The mission statement became popular in the last 10 years or so largely because of the elegant simplicity of the concept. Why wait for clients to draw conclusions about your practice when they can get it from the source? Why rely on others to interpret who you are and what you do when you can state it outright? Mission statements give everyone—business owners, managers, staff members, and clients—a reference point for expectations and direction.

Mission statements are the darling of business strategists. In fact, an entire industry has emerged to make sure you know you must have one. Unfortunately, most mission statements have suffered as a result. The practice of writing them has been both oversimplified and overcomplicated. There are consulting services, software programs, seminars, templates, and a wide assortment of interactive tools designed to lead you click by click toward your own frameworthy declaration.

Some of these tools have merit, particularly in the early stages of identifying your practice message. But it's not always easy to distinguish the legitimate tools from the parodies—a famous one being the "mission statement generator" at, the online home of the Dilbert cartoon character. (Editor's Note: The mission statement generator isn't on the Web site right now. Check to see if it comes back.) Remember: Good mission statements aren't one-size-fits-all.

These days, mission statements have become everything from egotistical free-for-alls to prepackaged templates. Some run one or even two pages long. Some fit on a bumper sticker. Fortunately, good ideas have a way of outlasting the bandwagon. The mission statement has emerged from its awkward teenage years with a renewed sense of purpose and a fresh ability to define and energize day-to-day business. So why don't you have one?

The mission of the statement

A good mission statement is a simple and compelling declaration of who you are and what you do. The most concise and effective statements are three to four lines. That's enough.

It sounds almost too simple, doesn't it? Haven't you covered that in your practice brochure and on your Web site? Heck, even the phone book states who you are and what you do. The key here is to be compelling. A mission statement offers a personal glimpse into your practice. It conveys the driving force and the shared purpose behind the services you offer. So don't make it what it isn't. A mission statement is not:

> an explanation of all the services you perform

> your company history

> a marketing campaign

> a management edict

> a statement of your ambitions

> a company motto (although it can serve that purpose).

When carefully constructed and diligently applied, a mission statement is a powerful tool for lending focus to your practice. Going on record in this way guides your team members' actions and strengthens your bond with clients. With a bit of forethought and a few common sense guidelines, you can create a message that will serve as an enduring glimpse into the soul of your work.

Missions first, statements after

If you already have a clear sense of what drives your practice and you're satisfied with the message it sends, then it's just a matter of giving words to what's already in motion. If your sense of direction isn't completely clear, however, don't start writing just yet. You risk either revealing your uncertainty or declaring a mission that you aren't really on.

Many equine practice owners simply haven't thought much about what they do. "Let's see. I go to work, treat horses, take care of clients, run my business ... I'd like to think that speaks for itself." It might. There are plenty of committed practitioners out there running successful practices and living their missions without spelling them out. But you might find it rewarding to look at your practice through fresh eyes. This is an opportunity to take stock, revisit your priorities, clarify your goals, and determine how to accomplish them.

Your statement should convey an idea that you and your team can rally around, but does that mean it should be a group project? Probably not. Take time for introspection and put your own ideas on paper first. You need to begin by knowing your own heart. After all, it's your practice and you're ultimately responsible for charting a course and setting the tone.

Put pen to paper

As you brainstorm, start by writing down a simple description of your practice. If you ran into an old classmate at a professional meeting, how would you describe your practice? You'd begin with the obvious: whether it's a referral or ambulatory practice and whether you specialize in certain areas such as race care or reproductive work. You don't have to use this in your statement, but get it down on paper.

Look at where you excel. Is client service a strength? Perhaps you've developed advanced diagnostic or surgical capabilities. List your strong points and areas of interest. Think about your clients and what seems most important to them. What draws them to your practice? If you aren't certain, ask them. Write down what they say.

Now that you've identified your core competencies and the focus of your practice, you're ready to put some passion behind your thoughts. What qualities resonate most with your sense of identity? Excellence? Reliability? Experience? Compassion? Find one or two you're the most committed to, rather than trying to cover all the bases. Attempting to convey too much only results in a loss of focus—and identity. (See "On a Mission")

On a mission

Reflect on your priorities before inviting others' input or cluttering your mind with too many words. You can't live someone else's mission, regardless of how terrific it sounds. Cut-and-paste mission statements can fail you; worse yet, you can fail them.

Assembly required

Once you have a loose framework of key points, you're ready to involve others and get more ideas flowing. Your team members' range of perspectives about the practice identity may surprise you. Listen carefully and keep an open mind as everyone shares ideas. Whether you modify your original idea a little or a lot, be prepared to write multiple drafts before it feels right. It's worth the time so don't rush.

Test it. Before you share it with the world, let your completed statement sink in for a few days. Then return to employees who participated in its development and ask them to say it to you. Did it come to them easily? If you worked on it together, the underlying message should be familiar, even if they can't repeat it verbatim. If the spirit and intent has already slipped their minds, you probably have more work to do.

Launch it. This is the fun part. Talk with your team about how the message applies to different areas of the practice and where you'll display it. Your employees are the faces behind your message. Show them you're committed to living your mission alongside them and that you believe in them. Refer back to your statement frequently and keep breathing life into it until it becomes a part of daily practice.

Live it. (You knew this was coming.) As the practice leader, you have the authority to define the mission, but don't delegate it. A mission is a promise and if you expect your staff to keep it—well, you know the rest.

Few things can be as powerful as a simple and compelling statement of your identity and purpose. Lead with the big picture and use it as a reference point for practice success.

The bottom line

Don't let your mission self-destruct

When you're crafting your practice's mission statement, remember to:

> Take some time for introspective thought.

> Gather team members' perspectives and ideas.

> See if it sticks. If not, go back to the drawing board.

Tracey O'Driscoll-Packer is an equine management consultant based in Pismo Beach, Calif. Send questions or comments to

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