The Mission Statement as Your North Star

By Ari Weinzweig

In 1992, we called together a group of managers, staff, and owners and set out to put on paper a statement of what Zingerman’s is all about, to write what’s referred to in business books as a Mission Statement.

I was skeptical. I’m not sure why I agreed to it; probably because my partner Paul Saginaw told me it was a good thing and he is usually right about that kind of stuff.

Mission Statements were very much in vogue. Still, I retained a strong sense of skepticism. We had been in business for ten years and achieved a fair bit without a Mission Statement. And in my experience back then—and in many people’s experiences to this day—Mission Statements were little more than so-so poetry that businesses posted by the bathrooms or break rooms and then did absolutely nothing with.

(I’m not alone in this skepticism. Gauri Thergaonkar, a manager at the Deli who had a great deal of experience in corporate America, told me she was disappointed, even a little panicked when she heard that we had a Mission Statement.)

Twelve years later, I’m happy to admit I was dead wrong about the project. By the time we were finished, we had 70 or 80 staff members (out of a total of 100) involved. And together we came up with the Mission Statement and Guiding Principles that we still use today.

It wasn’t a small project. But the time, money and energy we invested was worth every hour and cent, many times over.

Vision vs. Mission

I’m talking about creating a Mission Statement, not a vision statement. (Nearly every business book is going to give a different definition of mission and vision.) I’m not interested in establishing the superiority of one over the other. What’s important is to have clarity of meaning.

Here’s what we mean by the terms at Zingerman’s:
Vision is a picture of what things are going to look like when we successfully arrive at where we’re going. If you were sitting on a magic carpet floating above your organization, what would success look like? How big would the organization be? What would it be known for? What would the community say about it? How will people be dealing with each other internally?

A Mission Statement is something different. It answers four basic but incredibly important questions that make our work more meaningful as well as more effective:
1. "What do we do?”
2. "Who are we?"
3. "Who are we doing it for?"
4. "Why do we do it?"
These questions may seem simple and rather silly. In truth, they’re not that easy. The first question—What do we do?—proved the most challenging, and the most valuable. We started with obvious answers, like We’re a deli—we serve food. But we were doing more than just being a deli. Someone suggested that what we did was give service; others argued that we couldn’t exclude the food. Someone said that Zingerman’s was about an education—we do a lot of education, but it was hard to stick with the idea that our entire mission was education. (We have a small educational organization here in town called the University of Michigan.)

After weeks of meetings and hours of hand-wringing and paper-shredding, we finally agreed on an answer. Paul suggested that what we do is to deliver an exceptional and unique experience. The work group decided to call it the Zingerman’s Experience. We agreed that, We are here to bring the Zingerman’s Experience to as many people as possible. The food, the service, the atmosphere, the staff, the signs, the information, the fun . . . they all go into making the Experience.

We went on to answer the other three questions on the list.

Who are we?

We are the people who work here. New and old, baker and bread seller, dishwasher and dreamer, accountant and assistant manager, owner and off-site caterer, sandwich maker and sign maker.

Who are we doing it for?

For our guests, for ourselves, for our community, for the folks who make the great foods we work with.

Why do we do it?

When we do our jobs well, our community, our staff and everyone else we work with is better off than when we started. And because it’s a rewarding and enjoyable way to make a living.

Who Cares?

The actual wordsmithing of the Mission Statement came next. Here it is:

Zingerman’s Mission Statement: We share the Zingerman’s Experience Selling food that makes you happy Giving service that makes you smile In passionate pursuit of our mission Showing love and caring in all our actions To enrich as many lives as we possibly can.

So, you might wonder, what difference does it make in the ever-hectic, always-short-of-resources, day-to-day life of the food business to know that we’re here to provide a Zingerman’s Experience?

The Mission Statement does for our organization what the North Star does for travelers (at least in the days before GPS and cell phones). No matter how lost or frustrated we may feel, our Mission is always there, much like the North Star, to help guide us. No matter how dark, frustrating or confusing any given day may seem, we can always locate our Mission Statement and come back to the idea of the Zingerman’s Experience. The Mission Statement helps us stay focused on the big picture.

Secondly, because the Mission Statement trumps any and all of the various details in our various and varied job descriptions, it helps clarify the true priorities in our work. For instance, we make great products, give exceptional service, do a lot of training, tasting, packaging, and cleaning. But all of that stuff—the food, the service, the atmosphere, the staff, the signs, the information, the fun, the craziness—is only successful when delivered in the context of bringing a great overall experience to customers, staff, and community. By using the Mission Statement to override all else, we can make it clear that the real job for every person is to deliver great Zingerman’s experiences to those around them.

That preempts the all-too-common that’s not my job that you hear in most organizations. The quality of the experience is everyone’s job. Job title, age, experience, position on the organizational chart, etc. . . . all are completely irrelevant. We’re each fully responsible for making sure that each individual we come into contact with is going to have a great experience. Period. First day on the job, last day on the job, managing partner or part-time dishwasher, we all have the same mission.

The real question is, Is it meaningful to the people who work in the organization—does it help them to do a better job, to feel better about their work, to help themselves as individuals and Zingerman’s overall to succeed?

The answer can only come from the staff. The skeptic, Gauri Thergaonkar, quickly realized, Not only were the vision, mission and Guiding Principles relevant, they changed how I behaved. They gave me guidance on days when I wasn’t sure what to do, they explained how I played a role in the organization and what my contribution was, what it could be, what it affected. Dan Satwicz, who receives orders on the back dock, said, The mission has been a big part of why I’ve been satisfied with my work for the past seven years. Charlie Frank, a manager at the Bakehouse, told me, When I approached Zingerman’s about a job, the statement was a signal that this was a great fit for me.

Making the Mission Statement Meaningful

How do we make the Mission Statement meaningful?

A. We teach it.

Over and over again. I review it in the new staff orientation. We go over it in every training class. We talk about it in ZingTrain seminars. It’s in the staff handbook and probably 50 other places I’ve forgotten. It’s incorporated into job descriptions, service programs, etc. so that each of us sees and thinks about the Zingerman’s Experience every day.

B. We talk about it.

We’ve integrated the concept into our work so extensively that it now comes up in casual business conversations at all levels in the organization—in planning meetings, in project management, and probably even in break-room bitch sessions. One manager shared, I hear it regularly referred to in discussions, especially the phrases ‘passionate pursuit,’ ‘love and caring,’ and ‘enrich as many lives as we possibly can.’

C. We do it.

We’re not perfect at it. I’m always trying to improve my effectiveness in living the mission and the same can be said across the entire organization. Erin Fairbanks, an assistant manager at the Deli, told me, I worked with companies that made me memorize their Mission Statement as part of my training. But they never made me learn it. At Zingerman’s, you are taught the mission when you start. But a few months down the road, when you run into it again in a class or something, you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘Well, jeez, I do that every day.’

Tips for Creating a Mission Statement

A. Get help.

If you can afford it, get someone from outside the organization to help you manage the process. Someone who’s very good at process work can help you—as the leader in your organization—to focuson the content of the mission work and let you be active in the discussions without needing to keep track of the group dynamic, of timing, etc. (Editor’s Note: Stas Kazmierski, a managing partner of ZingTrain, is very good at this work.)

B. Get as many people involved as possible.

The more you involve others, the more effectively they will buy into the results. By getting staff involved, we ended up with a mission and principles that belonged to the entire organization, not just to a select few at the top. Kathi Dvorin, customer service manager at Zingerman’s Mail Order, was part of the work group. She said, I was a teenager that had been with Zingerman’s for less than a year; I was surprised I was being asked to help. I kept thinking, ‘Why does my opinion matter?’ My experience in the workforce had never shown me that the thoughts and ideas from a new person would be welcomed or even considered.

She continued, It hit me just how incredible it was that my leaders had asked for input from a new front-line employee. Shoulder-to-shoulder with other front-line employees, managers, partners and co-founders, we created something special.

C. Don’t bother doing one if you don’t want to use it.

Doing a Mission Statement and making it meaningful is not a small project. Nor is it one you can delegate to a low-level staffer. It’s worse to write a Mission Statement and not use it well than it is to not do one at all. If you get people involved and spend time and money creating a Mission Statement, then let it languish, you will leave your staff discouraged and down instead of engaged and upbeat.

By the way, we don’t post our Mission Statement anywhere that customers would see it. If we deliver a great experience to our guests, they will know it. The proof is in the performance, not in the posting.

Even the best Mission Statement is not a panacea, nor is it a magic pill that will solve all organizational issues. Yet it is a valuable tool, teacher, and guide. To quote Todd Wickstrom, a managing partner at the Deli, The mission is played out in real ways each and every day, by the founding partners, managing partners and our entire staff. It helps us know why we are doing what we do.