The Importance of Mission
A popular topic at last month’s Space on White panel with emerging NYC theater companies was mission statement.
It seems obvious that an artistic company – or any company – would need a defined mission statement, but there were directors in the room who had been producing work for two years without defining what that work was or who it was supposed to be reaching.
Mission is vital because it defines what you do, and sometimes more importantly, what you don’t do. When constructed correctly and adhered to consistently, it creates a foundation of integrity for your audience, your work, and your team.
When you’re met with change – both positive and negative – mission shapes your plan of action. It prevents you from being short-sighted and at its best, can prevent you from making decisions that could ultimately undermine the healthy areas of your endeavor.
For most companies, it’s useful to create two versions of your mission: Internal, the more detailed declaration of culture, and External, how that’s relevant to the public.
This is your code of conduct, your company culture, your driving force. This is what you communicate to potential employees and collaborators so you know your decisions will ultimately be beneficial for your company.
My friend Derek Warburton really nailed this point home for me. The NYC-based style guru behind Derek Loves Shopping, he’s quickly getting noticed as a very different voice in a fashion & TV world that’s glutted with the Snarky Gay. But that’s no accident.
Derek’s internal mission is just six words: Help, teach, inspire, love, have fun. Simplicity equals clarity, and that’s enabled Derek to make quick and solid decisions on what he will and won’t do, from clients to alliances to employees to projects. He’s turned down more than a few enviable opportunities… but that’s the point.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what your message is, but it’s absolutely important to have that mission statement, to have that philosophy behind everything that you do," says Derek. "I’ve turned down so many things because they had the wrong message behind it. If you’re not someone who can spin something into your favor [in a PR sense], stay away – it’s a big say-no situation.”
In short, you can’t sell out if you’ve defined precisely what “selling out” means to you. Betsy Capes of Capes Coaching, the career coaching firm for artists, refers to this as defining your standards – relevant to both companies and individual artists.
"Early on in your career, you should define what your standards are," says Betsy. "Write down 4 or 5 clear statements about what is most important to you when it comes to your career or company; essentially, what your bottom line is. It can be as simple as 'I get paid for my professional work.' That way, when something comes up that doesn't quite resonate, you have a solid 'instruction manual' to come back to and your decision becomes clear."
This is how your audience understands what you’re about. How they evaluate whether your work is right for their tastes. And by audience, I'm not just referring to ticket buyers, but potential employees, artists, the press - anyone whose attention you are trying to capture with your work. As explained in a previous post, you can’t have everyone, so narrow your focus to those who match your mission.
This is both an element of and guiding force for what us marketers refer to as Branding: once your mission is clearly defined, the job of promoting yourself becomes infinitely easier.
For example, if your mission is to entertain, the way you promote your projects – and to whom you promote them – becomes quite different than if your mission is to provoke… to produce classic American plays off-Broadway… to give kids confidence through improv. Can you imagine how much easier it will be to get the attention of the right people when this is communicated through all your external materials and actions?
THIS IS A CRAP MISSION: Awesome Dance Company showcases new works by emerging choreographers. (yawwwwn)
WHEREAS I CAN TOTALLY GET ON (THE) BOARD(S) WITH THIS: Awesome Dance Company uses the art of movement to create culturally, politically relevant work to show young audiences how the arts can be an agent for change. (hooray! this totally aligns with where my foundation would like to grant $20K to a culturally relevant institution!)
“Consistency, staying on message, and follow through, are the strongest tools you have in business,” says Derek.
It’s true: stand for something or you’ll fall for anything, as it’s been said. So take a moment to define your mission, then make it part of the DNA of everything you do.