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Mission notes from Stuttgart

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Last month, I found myself in Stuttgart, Germany, hosting our co-located MEDTEC Europe and SudTec trade shows. Walking through the convention gave me a chance to talk with customers—and think in a new way about Canon Communications' mission.

Can we agree that company mission statements these days often represent the struggle of hope against experience? Unfortunately, these days, experience often wins as we go through the daily grind.

It wasn't always that way. Dr. David Livingstone was the 19th century medical missionary who famously disappeared into the heart of Africa. Contemporaneous reports suggested he may have been eaten alive (sound like a day at work these days?). The journalist H.M. Stanley was surprised, on finding Livingstone, that the good doctor was happy and fulfilled, and had no intention of returning to “civilization.” In Livingstone's case, hope had triumphed over experience. He truly had a mission: curing the sick with treatments they'd never heard of.

Fast forward to 2010. Every day, it seems someone is trying to eat us alive. Our traditional media competitors, predators we never even heard of a few years ago, even our long-standing customers are all ravenously hungry. It's a jungle out there. Livingstone had a mission, and he thrived. He didn't pine for civilization, and we don't have to pine for print.

So why is it that corporate mission statements are so tedious? Is it because they tend to be adopted by diffuse enterprises in search of a soul that may not really be there? Is it because they simply state what the company does, rather than why what it does matters? What we do in our industry matters a lot.

What time is it?

What could be a more simple, everyday question? However, if you were to ask a clock, you might get a surprising answer. Seeing things as a clock does, from the inside, a clock could well say, “Well, time is a collection of gears and electrical components that just keeps going, and going and going.” And the clock feels really good about telling the time.

But that doesn't answer our question about the time. You see, the face of the clock, not the mind of the clock, has the answer. Our customers may know our companies better than we do because they see us more clearly for what we really are.

There's a lot of talk these days in the b-to-b media industry about diversification versus focus. For the past several years, I've been in favor of keeping very focused and alert in the hungry jungle. At our company, we try to do one thing: make the job of manufacturing design engineers more effective. It's surprisingly hard to stay focused on that. And for all my skepticism about mission statements, here in Stuttgart today, the center of sophisticated engineering in Germany, I'm trying out a mission statement for Canon: “Advancing manufacturing technology worldwide.” Now that matters.

Do you have a statement of mission or purpose that really lays out why you do what you do, beyond self-preservation? I do think Dr. Livingstone would have ended up lunch if he didn't have a purpose for being in the jungle.

What time is it? One morning out on the show floor, one of our exhibitors asked me, “So, what does Canon do?” And I gave him my familiar rundown of how we do trade shows, print and digital media for advanced manufacturing arenas. I'm proud of Canon, and I tried to convey that. And the German exhibitor, in his literal English, asked again, “Danke, sehr gut; but what does Canon do?” And I realized he was much more interested in knowing what Canon could do for his business than what all the gears were that make Canon turn.

What time is it? I think it's time to look at our businesses from the outside, not the inside, to understand what we really do.

Charles G. McCurdy is chairman-CEO of Apprise Media and chairman-CEO of its Canon Communications unit. He can be reached at cmccurdy@apprisemedia.com.

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