Mission, meaning, and Millennials

Mission, meaning, and Millennials

Posted by Sonny Chheng and Alyson Daichendt on April 6, 2017.

People need meaning and purpose in their lives to do worthwhile things. Why we do what we do, and what good it creates, are essential parts of being human. This also holds true for our lives at work. The corporate mission is not just for show—mission statements matter. When well-articulated and intentionally activated, they enable us to sit inside a nest of meaning that helps motivate us to work toward something worthwhile. If the mission is just about making money, it is not deeply meaningful.

From our experience working with leaders around the world, we have found both skepticism and inspiration in employees’ reactions to their organizations’ mission statements. For some, mission statements are vague, interchangeable, and inauthentic. For others, their organization’s mission serves as a gravitational pull toward a greater purpose—one that attracted them to the organization in the first place, and one that gives them a reason to stay.

Attracting and retaining the best talent have well-documented business and organizational benefits. Deloitte’s research shows that “mission-driven” organizations have 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of engagement, and they tend to be first or second in their market segment.11 That is why it’s important that so many leaders—from startups to incumbent companies—are intentional about their mission. It can make or break their organization.

The new generation of workers serve as a powerful reminder to pay more attention to the corporate mission. Deloitte recently published The millennial majority is transforming your culture, in collaboration with the Billie Jean King Initiative. The survey found that purpose is first and foremost, with nearly two-thirds of Millennial respondents saying they chose their organization because it seemed purpose-driven. Of those who perceive their organizations as lacking a sense of purpose, only 20 percent report being satisfied. Although working in a purpose-driven organization is important for all generations, it tends to be a clear differentiator for Millennials.

So how does an organization use its mission statement to drive inspiration? While there are no silver bullets, we have found three common components essential for mission statements to resonate effectively: clarity, inclusivity, and authenticity.

  1. Clarity: A clear mission statement conveys a company’s reason for being. While there may be hundreds of competitors offering similar products or services, every company started with (or evolved toward) a distinct reason for being. Some leading examples of a clear mission statement include:
    • Patagonia: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
    • Southwest Airlines: Dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service, delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.
    • Facebook: Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

    Reading the mission statements of Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and Facebook provides clear expectations about what each organization cares about, the type of people who might want to work there, and the cultural anchors that help shape the experience of employees.

  2. Inclusivity: From time to time, leaders should re-evaluate their mission to reflect major changes in their organization’s aspiration. This may be triggered by a merger, spinoff, or significant shift in strategy. As with any major change, it helps to include people along the journey to get their buy-in to the destination—because the mission will only have meaning if it resonates with the people that live inside it. According to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, only 27 percent of Millennials plan to stay at an organization for more than 5 years. However, 88 percent of those with intent to stay report higher satisfaction with their organization’s sense of purpose. Inclusion is especially important for the Millennial generation. As digital natives, Millennials have a high level of expected participation in how their organization is shaped, what it wants to achieve, and how it goes about making those achievements.We recently worked with a large global technology company that used internal social media, multi-level dialogue, and cross-border conversations to evolve its mission to articulate its new purpose and aspirations. The company could have saved time by having a few trusted leaders create the new mission in a room and impose it across the organization. But, the inclusive process resulted is a far more compelling mission that truly reflected employees’ beliefs, resonated with reality, and inspired the will to work together toward a common purpose.
  3. Authenticity: While clarity and inclusivity can be achieved through effective articulation and broad-based involvement, authenticity is typically achieved through action. Ultimately, the words that make up the mission statement only have impact when they are intentionally practiced and experienced in people’s everyday work lives. And this starts at the top: leaders’ actions should demonstrate the writing on the walls. When employees see leaders practice what the organization preaches, loyalty increases. New research rates transparency of leadership as one of the most important drivers for company loyalty among Millennials.2 Those words, when demonstrated by tangible leadership behaviors, must anchor what it means to be successful in the organization—from who gets hired, to how people are rewarded, and who gets promoted. Just as important, the values and cultural expectations stated in the mission should be front and center in how business decisions are made, especially when deciding between difficult choices.

The Gift of Hope, a not-for-profit organization based in Chicago, has a very clearly articulated mission: To save and enhance the lives of as many people as possible through organ and tissue donation. Even with this specific mission, Kevin Cmunt, CEO of Gift of Hope, works intentionally and inclusively to make sure that the words are anchored to the daily experiences of every employee. Cmunt believes that the mission effectively attracts talent to the Gift of Hope. “But the shine wears off after about two years,” said Cmunt. “And the stakes are higher when you lead a mission-driven organization. If you don’t live up to the promise, you will lose the highly motivated Millennials that you worked so hard to recruit.” Cmunt and his management team actively engage employees across the organization—from Administration to Organ Recovery—to help them clearly understand how their individual actions connect to the mission, even if they do not work directly with families and nurses on a daily basis.

Much has been written about the importance of mission and meaning to attracting and retaining Millennials. We have found this to bear out in Deloitte’s own research. But the need for meaning is not just a priority for one generation—it is a universal human need for every generation. Yes, most people would not willingly work if they do not receive fair compensation, but companies can usually offer competitive pay. After a while, work without meaning is simply not sustainable, and people will likely start looking elsewhere to take part in something that really matters.


Sonny Chheng is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital practice. He works with clients across industries to develop and implement organization and talent solutions that deliver the business benefits of transformation efforts.
Alyson Daichendt is a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP, specializing in the engagement and culture offerings for the US Human Capital practice. She has led work in culture transformation, organization strategy and effectiveness, talent, and leadership development.

1 Josh Bersin, “Becoming Irresistible: A new model for employee engagement,” Deloitte Review, Issue 16, January 26, 2015.

2 Ibid.

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