“A show of a certain amount of honesty is in any profession or business the surest way of growing rich.” – La Bruyere (Characters, 1688)

Mission statements are de rigeur among the feel-good management crowd. They express to outsiders and employees alike the noble purpose of the business. Most mission statements I’ve met are dressed pompously with phrases like “industry leader” and “excellent” this and “excellent” that. Maybe that’s why the mere utterance of the phrase, when spoken seriously, leaves me feeling suspicious. Mission statements are the corporate equivalent of the quotidian “I hear you” or its more ardent cousin, “I can feel your pain.”

What I suppose I’m saying is this: I understand the need for mission statements, but I am often disturbed by the way they are formulated.

It’s the same with personnel managers. Every organized company needs one. But why would you call them human resource directors? Just the sound of it . . . so creepy.

If I were Minister of Corporate Culture — and I should be — we would have no more human resource directors. Nor would we be plagued by mission statements or paradigm shifts. In fact, if it were up to me, I’d have an international commission track down and execute the people who created and proliferated such neologisms.

That said, every business needs employees, flexibility, and a purpose. And when a business gets to a certain size (see Message #266), it needs a more-or-less formal approach to those things. So I don’t object to the idea that a business should have a self-conscious raison d’être — and I’m even OK with putting it down on paper. But I’d much prefer to see it called something like, “What We Do” or “Business Goals and Intentions.”

Or I would be happy with a phrase that is gaining some acceptance, promoted perhaps by fledgling culture czars like me: the very sensible “Positioning Statement.”

“Positioning Statement” sounds less fanatical and has the virtue of pointing out that its chief purpose is to create in the public’s mind a certain perception. In “Selling the Invisible,” Harry Beckwith makes the following statement:

“Almost every mission statement I’ve ever read uses the phrase ‘market leader.’ It’s a statement that has been repeated on countless brochures across the country. But businesses cannot do that. Businesses cannot position themselves as a leader for a simple reason: No company can position itself as anything.”

Beckwith argues that your position in the marketplace is decided for you by your customers and your potential customers. “Don’t start by positioning your service,” Beckwith advises. “Instead, leverage the position you have.”

He gives an example:

Avis Rent-a-Car could have taken “market leader” as its position statement, but the public would have never believed the claim because it wasn’t true. Instead, Avis came up with a campaign that told it like it is: “We’re Number Two. We try harder.”

To make a benefit out of the position you already have, you must do a few things:

1. Describe the position you actually occupy in the hearts and minds of your customers. Be realistic. Get objective information. Don’t flatter yourself.

2. Describe the position you would one day like to occupy. Be honest with yourself. Describe what you really feel.

3. Ask yourself honestly if there is any way you can get from where you are to where you want to be.

4. If your answer to No.3 is “yes,” plan to make the move gradually, making sure you construct a marketing and PR campaign that starts off from where you are, not from where you want to be. (If the gap between your market position and your positioning statement is too great, no one will believe you.)

Get started today by defining your position in the marketplace in brutally honest terms — something like this:

“[Your company] is a small service company that caters to smaller clients who want pretty good quality but cannot afford to pay too high a price. Its management is younger and less experienced than that of XXX. Its cash flow is weak. Its . . . .”

Get the picture? You must start with a description like this, one that is realistic to the point of being pessimistic. The purpose of doing it at all is to improve on it.