A Company's Strategic Core: Vision, Mission, Values

Updated December 26, 2016

I recently led a workshop for the JuntoCompanies on what I call the "strategic core": a firm's vision, mission, and values (VMV). I usually don't teach in our program nor deliver formal presentations so this was an exception.

It's because in the past year, we increasingly discovered that a number of the JuntoCompanies struggled with - or didn't have - one or more of the VMV. There were various symptoms, all of which can be improved by having the strategic core.

  • Some companies and/or their leadership teams weren't aligned;

  • Others lacked the ability to clearly describe and define their company's culture.

  • They weren't making decisions based on consistent criteria.

  • And some were having a hard time hiring people that "fit" the company.  

Vision, mission, and values - the core elements of a strategic identity - are briefly discussed in a few of our classes and come up periodically in mentoring sessions. But they aren't formally a part of our Apprenticeship program, which was originally designed based on what growth-stage companies told us they wanted to learn. Over the past year, however, it's become obvious to us that the subject matter needs to be covered.

So before deciding how to most effectively include it, we experimented with the workshop to see how many companies would attend and how they would respond. Fortunately, more than half did and the response was positive. Now we're tasked with figuring out how to integrate it into our program.

Meanwhile, I believed that other startups and growth-stage companies could benefit from some of the material that was covered. So starting with this blog post, I'm publishing a three-part series on the strategic core.

An important note to start: much of what I will share in these posts are what I believe. In my view, there is no right or wrong way to address the strategic core; I just believe it's necessary for every company.

The three elements are unique and distinctive but I don't believe that they must have specific names. I use "vision" to describe a long-term, aspirational statement like others use "big, hairy, audacious goal" or "endgame" or other similar labels. I use "mission" to describe a more current, practical statement while others use "purpose" or "cause" for the same idea. And I use "values" to describe operational and behavioral statements like others use "principles" or "beliefs". 


A vision is an articulated picture of an organization's desired future state; what it wants to become or achieve. To me, the easiest way to remember what a vision is - and to distinguish it from the mission - is that it's "what we will be".

A vision often focuses on a noun being the centerpiece of what is a highly aspirational statement, something that is virtually impossible to achieve but inspires the company to strive for. Typically used for internal purposes because it has little marketing or promotional value, the vision is used to set the direction for the entire company so people know why certain decisions are made, what they're trying to build, and why they exist (note: I differ with some people on that last part, which is often used to describe the mission; I'll explain that difference in my next post).

Some examples:

  1. Starbucks - To be America's third place.

  2. Microsoft - To put a computer on every desk and in every home.

  3. Amazon - To be earth's most customer-centric company.

  4. Stanford - To become the Harvard of the West.

  5. The Junto Institute - To be a global ecosystem of growth and improvement.

It's eerie to think that Starbucks, Microsoft, and Stanford have actually come close to achieving their vision (and Amazon is getting closer everyday). But when those were crafted (Microsoft's has long-since changed to something far more boring), they were big, bold statements that anyone might have found to be impossible to achieve.

Note that most of them use a noun as the centerpiece: place, computer, company, Harvard, ecosystem. Microsoft's is the only one that doesn't use the word "be" or "become" but, in my opinion, that doesn't take away from the boldness and visionary aspect of the statement.

Again, that's the purpose here: to craft a statement that is aspirational and in the distance. The metaphor I like to use for a vision is the horizon: something that we can see and believe exists, however, is impossible to reach no matter how long we try or what resources we use.

Like the ones above, most companies decide to make the vision statement a pithy, one-line, inspirational declaration. In recent years, however, a different approach has emerged, thanks to Ari Weinzweig, co-owner and co-founder of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

He has developed, and teaches, his own version of visioning through which a company articulates what it will look like in a certain number of years, most often three, five, or ten. His approach results in a longer, essay-type vision that describes in detail what the company will have achieved in that time frame, and is written from the point of view of that point in time (see the above photo for an example).

While I'm still partial to the one-line approach because it's simpler to use on a day-to-day basis, I see the value of Ari's method. To me, it doesn't matter which one you choose, only that you do choose one.

Part two of this three-part series is on the mission.