Top business leaders embark on their role with great enthusiasm and expectations. They set out to make a difference and craft a success story. Fueled by their freedom to create, leaders draft mission and vision statements to frame their organization’s purpose. Their mission statements define their work or specialty, and their vision statements declare what they seek to accomplish (and why).
Vision is testimony to a leader’s beliefs, and it ideally trickles down to followers. It sets the tone for all company operations.
Unfortunately, many organizations with a proclaimed vision struggle to uphold it. This vision has died somewhere along the way, starting out strong but eventually losing its power. Many leaders fail to recognize the descent. Once they do become aware, they wonder what caused it.
Fortunately, with the proper approach, visions needn’t fade away. They can (and must) be kept fervently alive.
The Cost of a Dead Vision
When a leader’s vision fades into the background, the organization’s purpose can derail. Direction meanders, and focus blurs. The organization evolves into an entity that no longer resembles its inception, and it functions at a much lower level. Signs of failure begin to appear, and consequences grow increasingly painful.
Without a strong vision, the organizational emphasis on core values wanes, and less desirable values take their place. For example, if a manufacturer wants to be known for superior products in its field, its reputation will suffer if quantity starts to supersede quality. As the company cuts corners to increase production, businesses reject or return goods. Longstanding clients take their business elsewhere, and the manufacturer now faces downsizing (or worse).
When vision fades, so do priorities. New practices and procedures may defy the company’s original spirit. If a firm’s passion to provide high-value services is replaced by efforts to drive down costs and increase profit margins, its founding principles have disappeared, along with many of its clients.
Generally, these changes occur gradually. Incremental shifts are barely noticed. Leaders may not recognize the cumulative effects until a crisis hits and they’re forced to pick up the pieces. Subtle and steady gaps in organizational vision lead to totally unexpected conditions. Picture a ship sailing with a rudder stuck only 1°off course. Uncorrected, it will never reach its planned destination.
How Vision Gets Lost
At the outset, a leader’s vision sets the tone for how an organization operates, as evidenced by its plans, decisions, responses and attitudes. In the early stages of vision-setting, guiding principles rule the day.
But day-to-day operations are taxing, complicated and require great energy. Complexity can kill an original vision, notes Andy Stanley in Making Vision Stick (Zondervan, 2007). Many leaders lose track of their vision over time and simply hope to keep their heads above water. Their attention is diverted from fundamentals to details. Crises often precipitate this. When vision gets lost in the shuffle, the organization veers off course.
In some cases, leaders see so many opportunities that they dilute their company’s efforts by trying to pursue them all. As they chase too many dreams, their original vision becomes covered with dust. Like a whirling weathervane, an organization that points in too many directions points in no direction at all. When leaders are tempted to take sudden opportunities, they send their people on paths they were never planning to take. Without proper plans and resources in place, chaos renders one’s original vision unrecognizable.
Some leaders are changed by the level of success they achieve. They enjoy the feeling of winning and controlling and let it go to their heads. Personal rewards are no longer appreciated, but expected. It’s very tempting to rearrange certain aspects of the operation to deliver personal benefits (if not emotional, then certainly financial).
Ultimately, it’s the top leader’s responsibility to plant the vision and cultivate it throughout the organization. Vision dies when a leader’s support dwindles and goals are no longer emphasized. Leaders must intentionally and consistently keep their vision at the forefront of everyone’s mind, or focus will gradually disappear.
Properly Establish Your Vision
Everyone within the organization must understand its vision. Leaders must ensure this occurs, and planning is the first priority.
Ideas are better grasped when they’re simple. Complex or confusing visions cannot be easily understood. No matter how well they’re communicated, they’ll remain elusive to most people. This is the thrust of leadership consultant Shaun Spearmon’s 2013 Forbes article "Your Company Vision: If It’s Complicated, It Shouldn’t Be." A corporate vision must be constructed in a way that’s easy to understand and remember. As theatrical producer David Belasco once said, “If you can’t fit your idea on the back of a business card, you don’t have a clear idea.” Leaders need to begin with a simple and memorable vision so it can meaningfully take root in people’s minds.
Leaders next must communicate this vision to their people. A great idea that remains a secret is as useless as a bad idea that everyone hears. Gather people together, and explain your vision. Let them understand its meaning, your reasons for it and the impact it should have on their daily roles.
As Andy Stanley emphasizes, an effective vision expresses concern about a problem in the marketplace and offers a solution. Visions yield value when they solve problems or make something better. A vision implies that failure to follow it creates substantial setbacks.
Walmart offers an excellent example of vision in its slogan: “Save Money. Live Better.” The company’s vision is clear: to help as many people as possible experience a better life by saving money on things they need. It’s simple, memorable and solves a problem to which everyone can relate. Who doesn’t want a better life? Who doesn’t want to save money?
Leaders must emphatically propose their vision to ensure its longevity. Vision should emotionally engage people to convince them of its importance. In other words, vision cannot take hold if people fail to understand its vital role in solving the identified market problem. It cannot be separated from the organization’s planning, practices and personality. Selling a vision with this kind of impact helps ensure it will have a longer life.
Effectively Maintain Your Vision
Keeping the corporate vision active and powerful takes effort, diligence, intentionality and desire, all of which must be initiated by the top leader. With daily distractions, challenges and opportunities that impact staff, you must remember that a casual approach to monitoring your vision is inadequate. Start by getting your leadership circle on board.
Keeping the vision on everyone’s mind requires a consistent focus (pointing activities and outcomes back to it). You benefit by establishing policies and procedures in ways that reflect your vision. For example, if your vision is to improve diabetic patients’ health with your extensive line of nutritious products, position all activities to deliver on this promise. Your decisions to partner with retailers must be based on helping diabetics live healthier lives. Your product development and testing should be aimed at helping diabetics stay healthy. All of your meetings, budgets and plans must be designed to support consumers’ lives. Your vision becomes a mantra that no one can ignore.
Wise leaders boost their vision even further by eliminating any activities or projects that don’t support it. As tempting as new ventures may be, spreading yourself thin by chasing too many of them always weakens the focus on your primary vision and diminishes overall outcomes.
Maintaining this mindset requires your vision to be openly and continuously promoted long after its introduction. Update meetings, signage, posters, newsletters and websites to keep your vision at the forefront of people’s experience. Some organizations state their vision on their letterhead and standard forms. Make sure it’s ingrained in the staff’s consciousness.
As advantageous as open reminders are for maintaining your vision, nothing is as compelling as a personal message from you. Direction and culture originate at the top, so your testimony carries more weight than all other promotional efforts combined. In staff meetings, periodically describe your passion for the vision. Send a video message to your employees through company email. Let them see how important the vision is to you and how their involvement is part of a greater cause. These strategies ensure your vision remains fresh and vibrant in people’s minds and, by extension, their work.
Multiply Your Vision
Vision will fade if a leader is its sole supporter. This is particularly true if you lead a large organization. Vision thrives only when everyone believes it and collectively promotes it. It must multiply beyond yourself so you’re not its only curator. Every employee must become its ambassador, passing along a passion for it.
Make sure your people are “all in,” compelled to nobly promote the cause in lieu of focusing on self-interest. When your character reflects a concern for others over yourself, your vision writes a compelling story that people trust, believe and adopt. Enthusiastic followers are voluntary promoters, often without realizing it.
Your vision also multiplies when you reward compliance. Lead by example so your behaviors, attitudes and performance are contagious. Celebrate achievements that reinforce the vision, as Andy Stanley suggests. Publicly recognize people when their accomplishments steer the organization closer to your vision’s reality.
Let people know that you expect them to make the vision their central focus. When each person is commissioned to fulfill the vision through clearly stated policies and practices, the seeds produce a bigger harvest. Use performance assessments to review people’s support for the vision in their work.
There’s no need for one’s vision to stall or die out. When you keep it fresh and alive, you can steer your organization toward accomplishing every goal.
Creator of the KASHBOX: Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills, Habits
Helping You Realize Your Potential
I help people discover their potential, expand and develop the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve a higher degree of personal and professional success and create a plan that enables them to balance the profit motives of their business with the personal motives of their lives.