We had just finished a three-hour session dedicated to articulating the mission statement of a successful advisory firm. We had written down the “why” statement on flip charts, and in big, bold letters we had documented the “core values” of the organization: “Utmost care for our clients, passion for what we do and excellence in how we deliver advice.”

Then lunch arrived, and a polite young man delivered boxes of barbecue and side dishes from a famous local place. The boxes said: “ABC Catering: Excellence, Passion, Care.”

This happens time and again. Firms spend an enormous amount of time crafting vision statements, missions, statements of values and “reasons why.” At the end, the vast majority of those efforts produce nothing but bland sentences full of the words: “premier,” “elite,” “passionate,” “real difference” and “commitment.” Those words offer no idea about the actual direction of a firm, the behavior of its people or the quality of the decisions they make.

Instead, I would recommend that firms take a good look in the mirror and rather than write empty statements try to answer in an honest and transparent manner the most pressing questions. Those questions may be difficult to confront and tackle, but behind them are usually the answers everyone in the firm craves. Typically, the questions are:

• What will happen to the firm when the founders retire?

• What are our biggest weaknesses, and how will we address them?

• What are the toughest competitive challenges we face, and how will we tackle them?

• What gives us confidence that we will continue to grow and be successful?

• What are the best opportunities we face, and how can we capture them?

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