“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”
Following on from my last article, Why Company Mission Statements Suck, we now take a look at how company leaders can improve their vision statements.
The most celebrated CEOs and entrepreneurs on our planet have been those that have dreamed a vision so big, that when it finally materialised, it transformed human life.
From Steve Jobs with the iPhone, Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Google right back to Henry Ford envisioning everyday people being able to afford a car.
Yet, while the world has admired leaders who have courageously invented products that have changed humanity, the majority of organisations seem disconnected to this critical purpose.
Companies exist to create products and services that serve humans. At their very core, their role is contribute to society. Otherwise, commerce wouldn’t exist. As Peter Drucker famously said “The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.”
An organisation can only be successful if customers are given what they want and that the purchase fulfils its value proposition. Yet, if you look at most company vision statements, their dreams for the future, there’s a misguided focus on the bottom line, beating the competition and becoming number one.
Few people jump out of bed in the morning excited by making money for their employer. Furthermore, good people struggle to commit to organisations with self-centred, superlative spewing vision statements that only nominally reference the customer based on their own corporate agenda. This is a formula for mediocrity that aims too low.
One of the most important contributions a board and the C-suite can do as part of their fiduciary duties to their organisation is to ensure the long-term prosperity of the firm. This means developing an enduring vision that both develops people and the institution to create a thriving organisation that can adapt, prosper and grow.
Over ten years ago, a group of idealistic University friends decided to create a company based on a broad social vision of a sustainable business. After looking at a range of options such as dry cleaning, they ended up modelling Zipcar in Boston, as car sharing resonated with their vision. Flexicar was born.
Monique Conheady, the former CEO and founder of Flexicar says “A big vision takes you beyond looking at what you can do with your skills and forces you to realistically evaluate; who will buy? Are there enough customers? Do we have the skills to match? We started with something bigger than ourselves. Then, we worked out what we needed. You can attract people to that and it’s easier because it’s not about you, but how you can connect to your customer.”
Ultimately, a vision is a force that invents the future. It’s a thought so big, that it takes people’s breath away. And takes years of dedication to achieve. It’s so exciting that it persuades people to join a cause and work tirelessly to achieve it.
Yet, few companies harness the inherent power within vision statements and miss the opportunity to generate tremendous energy and meaning within their own organisation.
Creating a Meaningful Vision
All of the longest-lived companies we have on this planet have all been focused on the customer and improving their lives. Companies such as Levis, Proctor & Gamble, 3M and Apple.
The only way to make a vision compelling is to link it to an ideal that improves humanity. In doing so, it clarifies the businesses true reason for being and why it deserves to survive long-term.
Paradoxically, a laser like focus on serving humanity transcends a fear of the competition. But if you focus on how your company can compete on improving its social responsibility, then making the world a better place, suddenly becomes a whole new game.
Best practice vision statements define the optimal future state of what the company wants to accomplish long term. They function as a “north star.” Even if leadership changes, a compelling vision still aligns the organisation to what’s important.
Alzheimer’s Association: “Our Vision is a world without Alzheimer’s disease.”
Microsoft: “Empower people through great software anytime, anyplace, and on any device.”
Oxfam: “A just world without poverty.”
Google: “To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Walmart: “To give ordinary folks the chance to buy the same things as rich people.”
Use the Power of Imagination
“Your imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all that we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Einstein
A big vision is when you can see everything and aim higher than the status quo.
Successful entrepreneurs use their imagination to envision the future, and turn it into reality. Many are so fervent in their vision that they magnetically enlist others to join their cause. After all, it’s much easier to get people to commit to causes, than dry strategies and plans.
However, for many business leaders, it is hard to visualise a new and bigger company. It’s easier to resort to the default position that’s safe and familiar.
This means forecasting incremental growth for the next year, by looking at the current sales figures and tacking on an achievable target such as 3.5% -15% growth.
But that’s thinking small. It won’t expand your mind, or your workforce, of the true possibilities of what the company and its people can achieve. It’s also pretty lazy.
High performance companies know that if they want to keep their top performers challenged they have to stretch and inspire them with difficult goals. When employees start focusing on the wrong tasks and issues and seem bored in their jobs, it’s time to create a big, scary vision.
This means picturing a step change, a change so big, that you are forced to creatively devise new ways to fulfill your potential.
Developing a Big Goal
CEOs are responsible for setting the vision for the organisation and then getting both the board and executives to help them on their quest.
The best visions are communicated through one compelling, memorable goal that can be repeated constantly and focus everyone on what needs to be achieved. This involves brainstorming the question: What is one clear, compelling and measurable goal that will be accomplished when the vision becomes a reality?
In our fast moving world most big goals are achieved within an average timeline of 3-5 years, depending on the industry.
Unlike the vision, they tend to focus on a financial or operational metric to track performance.
For example: Red Balloon Days, an organisation dedicated to improving the happiness of customers by providing interesting experiences had a goal 10 years ago of “2 million experiences to be sold by 2015.” Their dedicated focus meant changing how they served customers, sold experiences, communicated to employees and a complete revamp of the business. Was is worth it? Given that the goal was achieved ahead of time and Naomi Simpson, the CEO and founder is famous for her business nous, you could say “yes!”
While in America, KFC’s vision to transform their restaurants meant reimagining how customers saw and consumed their products. They decided to tie their vision to the measurable goal of increasing customers eating in their stores from once every 55 days down to once a week. The process saw the development of new recipes and focus on more family style cuisine. Their goal was reached ahead of time.
As the CEO of Yum Brands, David Novak says: “Remember, it’s easier to make powerful ideas practical than to make pedestrian ideas powerful.”
Developing Your Vision
In an era where engagement levels at work are low, yet people desperately want to be engaged by what they do, creating a life-serving vision that makes a difference easily pulls people forward into a world of exciting possibility.
It takes courage and imagination. It’s about dreaming big and getting out of your comfort zone. For it to be successful, it needs to be connected to both your mission and values.
As Jim Collins said in Good to Great, repeated commitment to a vision is a key mechanism of successful companies and must become an institutionalised habit – a way of life. High performance companies know that if they want to continually motivate and engage their top people, they have to keep lifting the bar.
Without an inspiring mission, stagnation and politics sets in and the company begins down the path where mediocrity rules and innovation stalls.
As Blake said, “Everything that now exists was first imagined.”
What can you imagine for your company?