Bread Loaf Construction lets all employees participate in defining the company's mission, then encourages them to use it as a long-term -- and day-to-day -- strategic-planning tool

Contrary to popular belief, mission statements can be more than cotton-candy platitudes. Sometimes a corporate constitution can give purchase to organizations floundering in chaos. Just ask the folks at Bread Loaf Construction Co., in Middlebury, Vt. Their lofty proclamation rings like poetry in every employee's ears because each employee had a hand in writing it.

"This mission statement was the culmination of two and a half days of discussion about who we are, what we aim to be, and how we plan to get there for the next 10 years," explains CEO Mac McLaughlin. "A tremendous amount of work went into choosing every single word."

Back in 1989 Bread Loaf was riding a construction boom and raked in $27 million in sales -- six times the revenues brought in in 1984, when McLaughlin and John Leehman, vice-president, took the helm. Long-range planning was a low priority as the company struggled to keep up with orders.

As the construction market began to soften in late 1989, the two owners wanted to be prepared when bad times knocked on their door. Explains McLaughlin: "We had been doing annual planning since 1981, but we realized in the last three years that it wasn't working. If we were going to continue to grow, we needed more than a one-year window to take advantage of opportunities. Going international, for instance, takes years to pull off. We wanted to control our destiny a little more."

Meanwhile, employees were wondering where the company was headed and what their role in it could be. Not only were communication gaps cropping up and widening between management and employees, but field and office staffers increasingly found themselves at odds with one another.

So, to begin coming up with a group strategy, 20 employees representing a cross-section of salaried and hourly employees -- new and old, field and office, management and laborers -- were invited by the two founders on a weekend retreat. Beforehand, each person interviewed three coworkers about the possibilities and problems they saw for the company's future, and what the impediments to their personal progress were. Those attending the retreat were asked to imagine where they would be in 10 years. Living in a house? Would they have a family? Would they still be at Bread Loaf? "It helped show employees who hadn't thought seriously about Bread Loaf for the long term that there was opportunity to grow here," explains McLaughlin. The group then envisioned the future of Bread Loaf as an international player, a company doing more than the run-of-the-mill general contractor was, a company involved with the community and sensitive to the needs of employees. After consensus was reached, the group addressed the key question: How do we get there?

"We agreed to expand our territory, pursue new niches, and flatten the organization," remembers Leeh-man. Ad hoc teams would be formed -- once again with a cross section of employees -- to research and launch the programs that would help bring long-term plans into focus. One team would address ways for Bread Loaf to become more involved in the community; another would research new market niches; another would launch a wellness program.

The final exercise at the retreat was to boil down the enlightening discussions into a mere three sentences, featured on the following pages. There, Leehman and McLaughlin dig into the subtext of their mission statement and explain how the various ad hoc teams have anchored the lofty proclamation to the company's day-to-day operation.

We are Bread Loaf, a family of building professionals dedicated to and empowered by the strength of our people.
We seek challenges to create innovative solutions which make statements demonstrating our commitment to excellence.
As we grow into the 21st century, we shall continually focus upon employee wellness, community responsibility and a sensitive balance between personal and professional fulfillment.
What We Are
"The people at the retreat thought the word family captured the feeling we wanted," says McLaughlin. "But since then, others have let us know they feel uncomfortable with it. It connotes a casual approach to work, they say, and the organizational structure of a family unit doesn't help us toward our goal of flattening the organization. We plan a revision, changing family to team. We need employees to take responsibility for their actions, not to relinquish it as children do. And team better captures the drive to attain our goals."

Remembering to Enunciate the Basics "When we wrote this (As we grow . . . ), we pretty much took growth for granted. But in the 1990s it quickly became evident that profitability was the determining factor in many of our decisions," says Leehman. "We are revising this to read, 'We shall continually focus on profitability, employee wellness, community involvement. . . .' We want that right in the mission statement because it is, in effect, the list of priorities on which we act, day to day. We will move '. . . as we grow into the 21st century' to the end of the paragraph -- it's still an important message to send."

Institutionalizing Values "We see Bread Loaf as a vehicle for change, not just profit," says McLaughlin. "These goals summed up the myriad suggestions made by employees on ways Bread Loaf could perform better as a company. A wellness team was formed to tackle our goal of lowering health-insurance claims. Among other things, it came up with a cookbook full of favorite, nutritionally sound meals, as well as organized hikes and walkathons that serve the community. Like all our ad hoc teams, it disbanded when the programs were launched and incorporated into the organization's day-to-day activities. Our community goals included taking better care of the environment. For that, an ad hoc recycling team was established. Employees took it upon themselves to figure out ways to recycle -- not just office paper but construction waste, like dumpsters full of drywall."

Working from the General to the Specific "We want our people continually challenging the status quo; otherwise, our long-term goals will be stalled. For instance, if you say in casual conversation, 'In 10 years I'd like to be working up and down the East Coast,' " says Leehman, "chances are, you won't be doing that. But if you put that aspiration into a 10-year strategic plan, then during your annual planning meeting you can ask, 'What can we do this year to expand our territory?' The most difficult things for people to see sometimes are the possibilities."

In Search of Excellence "This was a particularly difficult phrase to agree upon (which make statements demonstrating . . . ) and an even tougher concept to put into practice," says Leehman. "Each department has its own goals, but we want to encourage all departments to work together to achieve overall high quality. One of our engineers came up with a new way to pour concrete floors that would minimize cracking, and the innovation greatly improved the quality of our work and provided something our competitors didn't. But it meant more work for the laborers, and they needed to understand and accept the necessity of it. Another definition of excellence for us was figuring out how to overcome all the negative associations people have with general contractors. We came up with a number of possible ideas, such as improving customer service and starting Bread Loaf University, an educational institute to teach construction techniques."

Continual Reinforcement "We're aware that, although the retreat was essential to detach ourselves from the day-to-day and get a picture of what the future can look like, we need to maintain that vision in the face of ongoing adversity and opportunities," explains Leehman. "So we organized a 'vision-threading' team, with a rotating membership. Its job is to sew the vision of the future Bread Loaf throughout the organization. To re-create the experience of the retreat, the group regularly takes 10 or 12 employees on an Outward Boundtype weekend to build trust and to get all employees used to taking time to look 10 years out, professionally and personally. It becomes easier to hold and implement the vision when they return to work." Also, to further reinforce the consensus reached on the first retreat, McLaughlin and Leehman put $16,000 into a kitty for the ad hoc teams to use to follow through on their tasks. Each team elected a representative to a "provisional congress," which then met to decide how to divvy up the money. Each year new members to the provisional congress are elected to review the year's performance and determine whether the mission statement is being fulfilled.

Balancing Priorities "Part of the reason we organized this retreat in the first place was because employees didn't know where Bread Loaf was headed or if they had any future in it. They felt lost," says Leehman. "We wanted to make it a clear part of our mission that we understand how closely intertwined personal and professional fulfillment are and that people usually have more to offer a corporation than what managers -- possessive of their own precious territory -- want to deal with. We want to institutionalize respect for fellow employees."

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