Words matter, of course, but actions matter a lot more. And when words and actions contradict, confuse, or distract, they call attention to a classic leadership shortcoming: the challenge of “walking the talk.”

Nowhere is this more important to get right than in the art and science called “Vision, Mission & Value-Setting.” Most organizations have their version of these, and recently, we’ve been busier than normal helping our clients refresh and revitalize these very public statements.

What Vision, Mission, and Values Really Mean

Vision represents an organization’s highest ambitions; its mission is a statement of purpose or a reason for being; and its values the intended norms required for a desired culture. Successfully framing these into a single coherent, compelling statement offers a picture of the where, why and how essential for driving strategy.

Ideally, executives are rewarded for the effort of defining this statement by achieving a unifying and galvanizing focal point of alignment – with consistent execution that follows. Yet all too often (think Volkswagen, Wells Fargo or Samsung, if you need a reminder), a company’s lofty aspirations fail to translate into behavior and action that can be counted on – particularly during a crisis.

The Criteria of a Good Statement

Much like good managerial goal-setting, an organization’s stated intentions and aspirations need to meet certain criteria. The words need to be credible, realistic, clear, concise, and most importantly, personally meaningful to the individuals responsible for their execution.

And they need to be modeled consistently at the top: this is the first place employees will look to gauge their response. It might help to illuminate by recalling several false starts we witnessed in client companies.

Three Examples of Vision & Values Statements Gone Wrong

Lost in Translation

One hospital we worked with embarked on the crafting of a vision/values statement during an executive retreat. The top managers cloistered for three days, first drafting and then wordsmithing a two-page document. When they returned from their sojourn, they came down from the mountaintop with their stone tablets firmly etched.

Employee reaction to this effort was lukewarm, at best. Close scrutiny revealed a “commitment” to treat all employees as “equal partners” in the organization’s efforts. It seems some people took this quite literally and assumed it meant something it clearly didn’t. To this day, management is still trying to explain what their version of “partner” actually means.

The $10M Problem That No One Cared About

Not too long ago, we were involved in a corporate cost-reduction program. A vision statement was crafted for this campaign, which stated, in part, that the primary goal of the program was to “save the business $10,000,000 within the next twelve months.”

While perfectly meaningful from a management perspective, employees had a hard time signing on. It seemed that many felt chronically underpaid and underappreciated. Historically, cost reductions were equated with downsizing and reductions in benefits and compensation.

A powwow between leaders and followers resulted in a “re-framing” of the program’s intent: “Our program’s purpose is to improve the viability of our business and the security offered our employees by identifying new ways of operating more efficiently and effectively.” This seemed to be more meaningful and participation in the program grew enormously.

Asking the Important Questions Too Late

A final incident describes the risk of putting the cart before the horse. In a software company, a series of meetings were scheduled to discuss organizational aspirations. The stated commitment had been made to “grow the business exponentially” and to do so within a relatively short period. The challenge in front of their employees was to begin designing processes, organizational systems and requirements to support the lofty growth objective.

After endless hours of planning around resource allocation, when it looked as though there truly was a consensus on strategy, one of the managers had the nerve to raise the question, “Why do we want our business to grow so fast?” Nobody, including the president, had a good answer to this, and at that point, we watched support for the plan wane considerably!

The Power of Vision, Values, and Mission

Clinical psychologists have long drawn on the technique of “visioning” one’s desired outcomes as a tool in psychotherapy. Executive coaches rely on the same technique. This approach can be a powerful means for shaping behavior in a constructive direction, yet it requires a close collaboration between all parties, and the intended beneficiary better be on board.

The idea that attitude and outlook strongly influence behavior and action is highly dependent on how the vision translates: what I think I’m saying to you might not be what you’re hearing. In business, all too often, senior leaders miss this point. Further, because their roles require them to model the very behavior they expect, any gap between the walk and the talk is startlingly obvious and detrimental.

If leadership is not fully prepared to live up to the compact implied by their words, then no one should expect followers to follow.