Vision. Mission. Culture. Core values. Think they're fuzzy, overlapping, and slightly hard to grasp? OK, you're in good company. You might also question whether they even belong in small entrepreneurial businesses. Or if time spent thinking about, and defining, them is strictly for marketing specialists who want to use them in the company's ads.

Every expert seems to have his or her own take on what's important about these concepts. We're jaundiced consumers when it comes to companies splashing their mission statement on every sign and brochure. And our company meeting time is so precious and expensive that to devote it to the impractical or theoretical is to rob the client or siphon energy away from the project at hand.

But if you have six draft horses and want to plow a field, would the time spent harnessing those horses be a waste? Of course not. That way, you turn them into a team. Culture, core values, and vision are ways you help your team pull together, make effective decisions, and work with the true end in mind.

Recommended reading

Let me recommend a book. It's the story of how two people at an insurance firm define the company's purpose, core values, and vision. Along the way, they apply these concepts to a school and to one of their families. The book is Full Steam Ahead, by Ken Blanchard and Jesse Stoner. If you'd like people to not just work at your company but work effectively and be attracted and nurtured by your values, this is a great book for you.

As owner, you have a vision for your company. But how compelling is it to others? Your company already has a culture -- it's whatever an employee tells his brother who's interested in working for you about your operation. Good, bad, or some mixture of both, it's the word on the street.

You certainly have core values. They may include greed or generosity, respect or lack of it, the fact that clients are treated one way, employees another. They usually come from the owner, and when they're not openly defined, a strong employee may be setting up his culture and values, which may be toxic to yours.

Exceptional companies bring their positive cultures and values to the surface. There they can be lived, discussed, measured, taught. They can be powerful in retaining good staff and attracting like-thinking new-hires. Defined guidelines as to how your company does business will make many tough decisions easier. Southwest Airlines, Disney, L.L. Bean, and Ritz-Carlton are exceptional companies. All took the team and values-centered approach in their rise from competence to mastery.

Begin at the beginning

How should you begin this journey? Look at it as having two phases: the first is defining it; the second, living it. If you haven't already defined your company's purpose, mission, vision, and values and delved into the congruent behaviors that accompany them, that's phase one. Start by getting each of your employees his or her own copy of Full Steam Ahead. Hold discussions around the book, in full company meetings or by departments. Get the buzz going and decide how you want to proceed. You might bring in a facilitator to help you with an all-day meeting, or you may decide to "bootstrap" the effort and do it yourself.

It's been my experience that most (not all) employees dig right in and are enthusiastic about this effort because we all want significance in our lives. We want to work for a bigger purpose. We want to see our jobs as important. We want fair and caring rules about how we treat our co-workers and our clients.

What are mission, purpose, vision, values, and culture ultimately? They're paving stones on the road from success to significance. -- Linda Case, CRA, is founder of Remodelers Advantage Inc. in Fulton, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. (301) 490-5620;;