AN EFFECTIVE LEADER has the ability to present a vision with which team players can connect emotionally. Such a vision is not a business strategy or a five-year plan, but a broader concept that has the power to unite people and rally them around a common cause. Such a vision can be used to define the future, influence interactions between colleagues and inspire employees to higher levels of achievement.
Experienced leaders realise that operational practices and corporate goals will always be subject to change, but long-term success comes from communicating an overarching vision of how things can be.
Many companies claim to have a vision but, on closer examination, it is often nothing more than a bland mission statement or a list of obvious goals. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to become “the leading provider of xyz”, something important is missing. The goals are anchored in the present and often represent little more than a continuation of what is already happening.
In the classic Harvard Business Review article, “Building your company vision”, James Collins and Jerry Porras offer a framework that any organisation can use to create a vision. The key elements are a core ideology and an envisioned future.
Core ideology This comes from having core values that define what the company stands for, or the guiding principles and beliefs. In the case of Apple Computer under Steve Jobs, the core values obviously include innovation. From the MacBook to the ubiquitous iPhone, the company has succeeded in turning entire industries upside down with its products and services. Although it may not specify core values in its annual reports or promotional literature, these are evident time and again, and have come to define the company’s methods and its public face.
Only a few core values are needed. They might include a focus on quality, service excellence, encouraging individual initiative, allowing a work-life balance or creativity. The only criterion is they should be constant. One way of assessing your company’s core values is to ask whether these would be the same if the business environment were to change tomorrow.
If the answer is no, then you are probably confusing core values with business strategies. As a general rule, the values that define your company today should be the same in 10 or 20 years.
The second part of your ideology should be a core purpose. This is essentially why your company exists. It is not to be confused with what your company does. Manufacturing toys or providing IT solutions are not a core purpose. They are the outcome or sum of your work. The example of global consulting firm McKinsey & Company illustrates the difference. Its core purpose is much more than providing consulting services. It can be better described as helping “business leaders address their greatest challenges”.
Your organisation’s core purpose, like McKinsey’s, should be inspirational or motivational. The aim is to give people a reason for coming to work each morning and to keep the team going even when times are tough. For Nike, it could be to help people experience the emotion and thrill of competing at sports. That is far more motivational than selling shoes.
To create your company’s core purpose, start with a statement, such as “We make x” or “We do y”. Then, consider why that is important. Work out multiple answers to this question – one of those will spell out the core purpose. However, do not make the mistake of believing your purpose is to maximise shareholder returns. That may be a business priority but, realistically, it is not the sort of thing that inspires the workforce.
Envisioned future The concept of the envisioned future also comes in two parts. The first is to have a bold mission or a number of so-called big, hairy, audacious goals. Most companies have goals, but what makes the difference is their scale. Make sure your company’s big goals are far-sighted, but achievable at a stretch. As an example, the bank which evolved into today’s Citigroup set a goal in 1915 of becoming the most powerful and far-reaching world financial institution there had ever been. At the time, that was definitely a stretch, but as it turned out, not an impossible one.
Your core ideology is identified through a process of discovery, but the big goals need a dash of creativity. They must be compelling, challenging and capable of touching people’s emotions and convictions.
There is no need to analyse them deeply, in the manner of monthly sales figures or return on investment. The objective is to motivate staff to put in their best and to orient them in the same direction. In some ways, it may not matter if you never reach the big and audacious goals. Just trying to get there will have made a stronger organisation and led to better results along the way.
The other part of the envisioned future is the vivid description. This involves using words to build a picture of the company’s future. For example, you might refer to winning certain industry awards, being the employer of choice for graduates, or making it to the Fortune 500 list. By communicating a vivid description, you will be able to establish a stronger, emotional connection with the workforce.
Make sure, though, that the description of the idealised future for the company is specific, easily understood, and not so messianic as to inspire secret ridicule. People must see where things are heading and want to be a part of it.
Any corporate vision should have both a core ideology and an envisioned future, which go hand in hand. By taking this approach you will be able to unite diverse strategies and practices in a way that inspires your people and gets them thinking about what can be done in the long term. A vision is what brings a company to life. It should act as a catalyst. In the end, according to Collins and Porras, building a visionary company requires 1 per cent vision and 99 per cent alignment. Vision is critical, but a leader must also recognise that the real work is in ensuring alignment.
TIPS TO WIN
Path to success The phrase “now, be, how” is a smart summary of what it takes to transform a good team, division or company into a great one. It refers to knowing where things stand today, where you want them to be in three years, and how you plan to get there. The “now” part can involve examining management processes, sales, business development, operations, employee training and more. In looking ahead, each of these categories should be studied for areas to change and improve. These goals should not be visionary, but specific, measurable, attainable, result-oriented and time-definite. The “how” should be a list of necessary action points, clearly assigning responsibility for each item to teams or individuals.
Cut out jargon When composing vision statements, people automatically lapse into corporate jargon, forgetting that in every business, there are two languages. And those are not Chinese and English, but everyday conversation and the language of the workplace. From the minute we clock in, we talk in acronyms, abbreviations, and technical terms specific to our company and industry. At lunch, or when chatting during breaks, we switch back to the vocabulary and idiom naturally used in any non-business setting. As a leader, you cannot stop using corporate jargon completely, but you do need to strike a balance when communicating with your teams. Therefore, a vision statement should use simple, short and specific words, which leave no room for ambiguity. Plain language can also be more persuasive. It allows you to connect directly and you also avoid creating scepticism when a message is filled with insiders’ business jargon.
Vision for a team Vision statements are not the sole preserve of multinational corporations. Start-up companies, divisions and even project teams can each have a vision of their own. To create a vision statement for your team, arrange a brainstorming session and invite a representative sample of the group to take part. Start by deciding on five or six core values, and allow each person to have a say. Then discuss and agree on your team’s core purpose, define a long-term goal and come up with a vivid description. This does not have to be a time-consuming exercise. Record the results and share them with the rest of the team. There is no need to prepare posters or run an internal marketing campaign to spread the word. If the vision is right, the idea will hit home and people in the team will get the message.