6 Mistakes Financial Institutions Make With Their Mission Statements

Most banks and credit unions have defined a mission/vision statement and list their core values. Unfortunately, many of these are written so poorly that they don't help define the organization's culture, nor guide staff in any meaningful way. Why? Because they are often loaded with platitudes and perfunctory puff. Here are six of the most common mistakes banks and credit unions make when crafting their cultural strategy.

1. Confusing Mission and Vision Statements

A mission statement should describe what you are doing today, whereas a vision statement should outline some ambition(s) for the future. Many financial institutions don’t acknowledge or understand the difference. You can find many banks and credit unions that have two statements — one they call “mission” and the other “vision” — but they seem to have the same tone and perspective.

The mission statement isn’t usually where financial institutions struggle. A mission statement could be a rather straightforward description of what the organization sets out to accomplish on a daily basis. A vision statement, however, should have aspirational qualities. A vision statement should outline some future goal and inspire staff to achieve something greater than they are already doing today. It should be used as a rallying cry.

Consider TCF Bank, who has the following vision statement:

“We will be a sound, well-capitalized, principled bank that gathers core deposits and lends under the fundamental concept of diversification that enables us to consistently achieve superior returns for our employees, customers and shareholders.”

Is this really a vision statement? Or does this sound like something they are doing (or at least should be doing) already? What’s motivational or inspirational about this “vision?” Nothing.

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Similarly, Heritage Bank uses the following as part of its vision statement:

To be a financially viable, independent community bank that is committed to improving the quality of life of the communities we serve.

That is a perfectly acceptable mission statement describing what the organization does today, but it isn’t an aspirational goal outlining any kind of vision for the future.

Wells Fargo says its vision is ” to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially.” Does that mean Wells Fargo doesn’t already satisfy customers’ financial needs?

2. Using Superlatives, Hyperbole and Hollow Corporate Clichés

Most corporate culture statements are full of trite, feel-good expressions. They only get approved because they say nothing unique, original or courageous. For instance, a typical bank or credit union mission/vision statement might read like this:

“We will be the premier provider of world-class banking products with unmatched service and a superior experience that you won’t find anywhere else.”

Yeah, right…

No one is going to buy it. Why? Because this is buzzword bingo. Platitudes, hackneyed phrases, tired idioms and banal statements don’t communicate anything. You have to dump the corporate mumbo jumbo.

3. Listing Basic Antes as ‘Core Values’

Core values should define an organization’s philosophical ideals. One easy easy way to define a core value is to simply finish this sentence: “We believe in ___________ .”

But to say that you believe in being “honest” and “trustworthy” is hardly daring. There is nothing bold or interesting about it. People expect their financial institution to be honest and trustworthy — it’s called “fiduciary duty.” These types of terms and phrases may feel good, but they are throwaways. In banking, there are certain things you have to be and do just to get to be in business and get to first base. You could call these things “antes” — the chips you have to throw in the pot just to play the game. To put it another way, if you aren’t “honest” and “trustworthy,” how long do you think regulators will let you keep the doors open?

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Do you really need to waste space telling folks you’re honest and trustworthy when you could be swapping in other core values that will help staff understand how they can deliver an experience that differentiates your institution from all the other “honest” and “trustworthy” institutions out there?

Some examples of core values that might help differentiate your cultural strategy include: simplicity, passion, loyalty, fairness, leadership, family, diversity, innovative, balance, cooperation/teamwork, community, accountability, relationships.

4. Empty Rhetoric

All too often, banks and credit unions pump out their mission/vision statements and core values, then swiftly ignore them. They may get mounted in a pretty frame in the boardroom or in a fancy display in the branch lobby, but they don’t have any real significance in how the organization operates.

Your core values will be meaningless unless you use them as criteria to evaluate prospective employees, and then measure employee performance accordingly.

Say, for instance, one of your core values is “Teamwork.” You need interview questions that explore a job applicant’s experience working in teams:

  • Do you prefer working in a team? Or are you more comfortable working independently?
  • Why do you like working in teams?
  • What size team(s) are you most comfortable with?
  • Have you ever been part of a team where something went wrong? Can you give me an example? What could have been done differently?

If you aren’t screening applicants according to your brand and its core values, what good are they? Remember: anything that isn’t measured and rewarded doesn’t matter.

Be sure to give new employees the training they need, so that they understand how they are expected to live out the organization’s mission/vision statements and core values. And then be sure to provide all staff with on-going training — a consistent drumbeat of cultural communications orchestrated to reinforce the organization’s principles and ideals. If you can’t fit it all on a double-sided business card, you should probably go back and edit it down.

5. Too Long and Super Wordy

You can find some banks and credit unions that have mission/vision statements and list core values that go on for pages — thousands of words. Not good. These should be used as tools to build and guide your corporate culture. Inasmuch, you need to streamline and simplify. Keep it short — something staff can remember and recite.

6. Going Through The Motions

The confusion surrounding mission/vision statements and core values can be traced back to the strategic planning sessions where they were born. Many times a consultant is brought in to lead the C-suite and board through a process that defines the organization’s mission, vision and values. But when the consultant doesn’t know (or care about) the difference between a mission or vision statement, there will be problems.

The consultant typically asks the group for input. And in many situations, they may have heard identical responses from countless financial institutions before. They should say, “This sounds trite and commonplace. It won’t help you differentiate or define your culture.” Or they may hear lofty phrases that don’t ring true, and fail to push back on the group: “Are you really about [X]? Do you seriously deliver [Y]? Do you truly believe [Z]?”

It’s not always a consultant’s fault either. Many senior leadership teams can make a mess out of their mission/vision statements and core values without any help from an outside consultant. How is this possible? Two reasons.

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First, the process is perfunctory. Many banks and credit unions develop a mission/vision statement and define their core values because… well, isn’t that what organizations are supposed to do?

Second, there tends to be an obsession with building a “consensus” that waters the entire process down. The politics in the boardroom can be numbing. If the CEO or board chair makes a suggestion, is it open for debate? Or is it simply swallowed by the group as gospel? Alternatively, in an egalitarian culture, everything that everyone says and suggests can find its way into the final draft, which isn’t a good idea and will probably result in a strategy that is long, wordy and incongruous.

The best mission/vision statements will be a labor of love — an arduous process fueled by hearty debate and intense (sometimes uncomfortable) discussions.

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