Imagine a leader going up a mountain and staying there for a long time, only to reappear with a vision for the future.
CEOs and senior leadership teams have historically done something similar. They go on retreat, set the organizational vision and then bring it down the mountain with much fanfare and little conversation around how everyone will implement it.
What’s more, the vision can get tied up in revenue goals and not focus enough on who is going to implement it and why people should be excited about achieving it.
Retreats are still important to focus on the big picture and to align senior leaders and board members with the intended direction of any organization. To truly create and champion a successful vision, however, CEOs and senior leaders must understand whether or not they have the right people in the right roles to deliver the vision.
Crystallizing the vision
Today’s CEOs must be just as attentive to the way people work and excel within their organizations as they are to market expectations. Customers expect sophistication, top performers expect new opportunities, and owners expect growth. Leadership from the mountaintop breeds mistrust. Mistrust leads to employee disengagement.
Without a sense of purpose or personal meaning, employee engagement decreases — particularly among younger employees who have a greater sense of global and social responsibility than generations past. They are more likely to move on if the only reason for staying is financial security. Organizational experts like Michael Porter, professor at the Harvard Business School, emphasize the need for alignment of financial and social concerns to ensure employee engagement with the vision and high performance.
Viewing market and customer demands as well as the motivations of employees, the CEO defines what success looks like — where the organization is headed and why. He or she crystallizes the vision, but the work doesn’t stop there.
Speaking the vision
CEOs must first gain agreement on the vision with members of the senior leadership team as well as board members and any other stakeholders such as outside owners. That’s when retreats can be effective.
However, the next critical step is to communicate the vision to the rest of the organization in a way that gets people excited about moving in that direction. Human resources needs a seat at the retreat — or at a minimum post-retreat — to understand if the vision matches reality in terms of talent and implementation.
The biggest mistake executives make with visioning is to deliver the information as a lecture or monologue instead of a dialog. If employees can’t put their own fingerprint or interpretation on the vision, it will lack personal meaning to them.
They need to understand how they, personally, will contribute to and benefit from achieving the vision. People only change if the pain of not changing is great or if they truly believe the benefits are worthwhile.
After the initial vision retreat, leaders should conduct ongoing conversations with managers and employees to ensure a consistent understanding and excitement for how the vision is realized through their day-to-day activities — and what they will gain. These conversations will invariably result in questions about roles, capacity and implementation challenges.
Living the vision
In its practical application, a vision is the measuring stick for decisions. It helps the CEO understand who is “on the team,” who isn’t, and who should be. And it helps inform HR decisions about talent and skills needed to carry out the vision, additional resources needed and timelines.
The vision also helps leaders head off investments and initiatives that are off track. For example, training opportunities, outsourcing decisions, investments in technology or marketing and strategic partnerships should align with the direction of the organization.
Although the vision of the organization must include a values-based view for how the organization makes a meaningful difference to clients and stakeholders, it can still inform the analytical decisions required to accomplish it in terms of money, people and time invested.
Refining the vision
Because the vision for any organization should be an ongoing conversation, it can be impacted by outside factors such as the economy or innovations. There are companies that no longer exist because they didn’t adapt their vision to changing times.
Regular review and refinement of the vision will continue to engage employees and leaders in the larger picture of what they do every day. Like a good parent raising a child, CEOs look out for the best interests of the organization, backing up investments in resources, talent and opportunities that support the vision.
Focus must be on the end goal with every big or small decision — even if such decisions create short-term conflict. For example, during discussions regarding talent and roles, some organizations may discover that certain leaders or individuals are no longer a good fit for the direction of the firm. CEO support is critical to ensure proper transitioning of outgoing employees and proper search and selection of new hires.
So in effect, successful CEOs keep their eyes on the view from the mountaintop while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the day-to-day realities on the ground of their organizations.
CEOs who work with their human resource team are better able to model this paradox in a way that gets everyone in the organization to do the same.