Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Linking Brand To Business: USAID's New Mission Statement

It was great for me to hear that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had finally come out with its new mission statement and core values. It's a project I helped launch and worked intensely on throughout the research phase last year.

Here's the mission, which is almost lyrical. Truly, it is so simple and beautiful and accurate:

Source: USAID website

At Devex, Michael Igoe analyzes the mission statement and its implications fairly accurately. He revisits what he calls the old statement:
“On behalf of the American people, USAID is helping to accelerate human progress around the world by reducing poverty, advancing democracy, empowering women, building market economies, promoting security, responding to crises, and improving the quality of life through investments in health, agriculture, and education.”
As I recall there were several old statements, none of them recognized as the "real" old one. That is why, when we renovated the website, the mission statement was an issue. Nobody was sure what to put there. 

I do know that one was the worst of them. We referred to it as "#2," i.e. #2 out of 3 when we went around the room talking about possibilities. I remember that I wrote something up early on and we used it as a baseline. 

That project was delightful for me, because it was branding, organizational development, management, leadership and business all rolled into one real-life seminar. There could not have been a better way to learn on the job.

Success Factors

At the time I wanted to write down all the things we were doing, because I could feel that they would one day be a case study. Now that it's done, I will share briefly the elements that I believe made it work:
  • Head of the agency was 100% behind it as a business objective - i.e. it wasn't just fluffy words. It was clear that having a focused, simple, clear reason for being would help people commit and recommit to the job and would help when it came to allocating resources. It would also serve as an ongoing rallying point for leadership, a central and aligning theme.
  • It was spearheaded by a seasoned, about-to-retire executive who was respected throughout the Agency. Being about to retire, he posed no threat to anyone. Being extremely experienced, he had street cred -- not some overpaid outside consultant who would be perceived as being out to make a quick buck. Low-key, diplomatic, an asker of questions - who wrote down and remembered what people said in response. An incredible recall of that information. Friends in the Agency, everywhere.
  • A deliberate qualitative methodology that seemed spontaneous, but was repeated over and over again. It was really the executive's approach, and he refined it but also stuck with the formula - giving people pre-reading, inviting them with a distinctive email font (blue comic sans), having them comment on simple documents while they were there, dividing the session into short digestible highly interactive bits. Keeping the group small.
  • There was a sense of urgency about it. USAID is a small agency, with many different kinds of people who work there, multiple generations, and many different sub-missions. It was critical to get matters in hand and get everybody singing from the same song sheet. Or even to know what song they were singing.
  • Total empowerment of me and very clear role definition for my part in the project. I know what I do well, and that is to quietly use technology to bust open the walls. I didn't try to mouth off about branding theory or facilitate the discussion because those are not my strong points. Rather, I took out my computer and typed exactly what the people in the focus groups said and transplanted those words to Google docs parked on a simple but wide-open (internally) collaboration site. Without this executive's support, I would never have been able to get away with this kind of a plan.
  • Quiet grassroots operation, not a big microphone. We didn't make a big thing of sending daily updates announcing this focus group and that. We started with one, and then another, and then another. We posted one set of transcripts, asked for comments, posted the next. An email was sent back and forth. Shhh.
  • Total honesty was asked for and accepted. To get to a mission statement and core values set that means something you have to talk about people's honest feelings. Honesty often means negativity, frustration, even anger. People invest their whole lives in one Agency. They give up other careers. They want it all to mean something. That honesty was respected as far as I could tell. (Who knows, maybe someone got beat up when they got back to the office and their boss saw what was on the collaboration site...I don't know. But it didn't seem like it.)
  • The presence of Google Apps, with Sites and Docs included. The setup was very simple. It made it easy to collaborate in a way that was seamless and user-friendly.
  • A fairly brand-savvy crowd. It wasn't really necessary to educate people about what a mission statement and core values were or why they were important. They walked in knowing, like mini-consultants themselves, and there had already been previous branding, mission statement and core values efforts in the Agency.
Of course a statement is just a statement and words on paper can mean nothing if your actions contradict them. 

Business Alignment

So, as the Devex article points out, USAID is doing more to align its actual programming against its stated mission and prioritize - looking for activities that produce results in the most-needed areas and focusing on those. 

Specifically, the Agency is using an Administrator's Leadership Council to guide decision making. Branding professionals will recognize this as a classic Brand Council, which is really a business management council, although Agency folks tend to think of the word "brand" as strictly meaning a logo.

The ALC is supported in its decision-making by an "open-access, internal database to catalogue all of USAID’s various initiatives in a way that tracks their respective contributions to a common set of extreme poverty-related goals to help determine where funding can be most effective."

Core Values

I don't want to neglect these. They were deliberately chosen as words, followed by bullets that elaborate as to what they mean (the below is copied verbatim except I added numbers):

1. Passion for Mission
  • We come to work to foster sustainable development and advance human dignity globally.
  • We each contribute uniquely in advancing our mission, whether by working in different sectors or by supporting global operations and management.
2. Excellence
  • We strive for efficiency, effectiveness, and meaningful results across our work.
  • We aspire to lead international and US Government efforts to advance the economic, political, social, and environmental well-being of the world’s most vulnerable people.
  • We continually seek to improve our operations and increase our impact.
  • We take pride in our work and our accomplishments.
3. Integrity
  • We are honest and transparent, accountable for our efforts, and maintain a consistently high moral standard.
  • We are ethical in all that we do.
  • We are fair with colleagues, partners, and those we serve, building relationships of trust.
4. Respect
  • We demonstrate respect for one another, our partners, and the people we serve in communities around the world.
  • We recognize and acknowledge the strength that comes from diversity.
  • We value all people equally and treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • We consistently demonstrate professionalism and respect in our communications and in our behavior.
5. Empowerment
  • We elevate all voices striving for global economic, environmental, and social progress.
  • We seek to ensure that all voices are heard.
  • We strive to strengthen the voices of the marginalized and vulnerable.
  • We value every team member and seek to ensure everyone can fulfill their potential.
6. Inclusion
  • We value our differences and draw strength from diversity.
  • We support programs that engage people across societies and benefit whole communities and countries.
  • We value every member of our team, learn from their experience, and foster their active engagement.
  • We advance equality, foster equal opportunity and address inequality within our Agency and in our work.
7. Commitment to Learning
  • We seek to improve ourselves and our work continually through reflection and evaluation.
  • We design and assess programs with an eye towards constant improvement.
  • We recognize that professional development is fundamental to team satisfaction and success.
Branding Is A Business Activity

USAID offers a case study on how to approach branding initiatives: See them as management activities that begin with employees and end with data.
  • Engage employees in focusing the brand
  • Distill that into mission and values
  • Funnel that up to a leadership team that administers the affairs of the organization
  • Establish a database that can be used by the leadership team as a basis for objective decision making. It helps answer the question: Given the things that are most important to us to do -- and given all the activities we're engaging in and their return on investment -- which should we continue to fund?
Communication is very serious - not something to be manipulated or treated as insignificant. While no person and no Agency is perfect, everyone can learn from the example USAID is setting about the connection between identity, communication, collaboration, decision-making, and an orientation towards results.

And I can honestly say that from what I observed during my time there, everything in the mission and core values reflects genuine reality as well as the Agency's intentions and aspirations. 

* All opinions my own.