Earl Bakken, inventor of the world’s first battery-powered pacemaker, wrote a 140-word mission statement for Medtronic Inc. in 1960. Today his words are etched on glass in several languages.

David Brewster, Star Tribune

Medtronic's enduring mission statement

  • Article by: JANET MOORE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 16, 2010 - 9:54 PM

It may seem inconceivable today, but 50 years ago Medtronic Inc. was a fledgling company, both financially and strategically.

After the exhilarating growth of the external pacemaker in the 1950s, and then its implantable cousin, by 1960 the medical technology company was stuck. A money-loser, it had just 50 employees and, worse yet, was deeply unfocused, according to co-founder and pacemaker inventor Earl Bakken.

"We pretty much operated by the seat of the pants," he later wrote. "Ideas, innovations and relationships were more important than direction, oversight and control."

Sounds like a company in desperate need of a mission statement -- only in those days, these now-pervasive corporate mantras weren't exactly the norm. "Back then, there was no such thing," Bakken said in a recent interview.

So Bakken, company executives and board members set about to codify what they felt Medtronic stood for, and what it would represent in the future. That mission statement -- which in part calls for the company to "alleviate pain, restore health and extend life" -- has stayed remarkably relevant for the past 50 years.

At the company Christmas party Friday, Bakken, now 86, will present several hundred new employees medallions bearing part of Medtronic's mission statement. It's a ritual he finds deeply satisfying.

Few companies can boast of a mission statement so enduring, according to Jack Militello, a management professor at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business and director of its executive MBA programs.

"A good mission statement should tell you what the company wants to be, not what it is today," he said. "Medtronic's statement does that."

Militello says corporate mission statements didn't gain traction until the go-go 1980s following the publication of the bestselling business book "In Search of Excellence" by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. Publicizing a corporate mission, a kind of higher business calling, became de rigueur.

But just because these statements are trendy doesn't necessarily mean they're effective. "A lot of mission statements are BS," Militello said bluntly.

A good mission statement should clarify a company's goals, but those goals also should be aspirational, perhaps a bit out of reach, he says. "The key issue is relevance, and this is where a lot of mission statements are absolutely useless. They hang on a wall, or they are printed on the back of business cards and nobody ever sees them, and no one really cares."

Bakken hopes Medtronic's mission statement will spur employees to give back to the community. The Fridley-based company's Mission in Motion program, for example, focuses on hands-on outreach projects, donations, matching gifts and disaster relief all over the world. Bakken himself has given away $27 million of his personal wealth to various causes.

Miletello says companies that truly practice their mission can use that passion to attract the best employees, as well as customers with a desire to do business with an ethical partner.

Still, some mission statements can turn out to be downright embarrassing. Enron's motto was "Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence" -- a bitter pill for former employees and shareholders.

And not all mission statements are high-minded. Militello remembers one business whose mission was: "To make every employee independently wealthy."

From his perspective, that's a perfectly fine mission. "Hey, at least people know what they're signing up for."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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