Vision for Success

A Vision for Success: Seeing Eye to Eye

By Kimberly Douglas, SPHR

How's your vision? And how is the vision of your company? Leaders play an incredibly important role in articulating and effectively communicating a vision for success. And, just as importantly, enlisting their organizations to make that vision a reality.

But what is this thing called vision and why is it so important? What makes a vision compelling? And how can you see more clearly to find the right one for your organization?

If your mission determines which path you take, then your vision is the mountain that you see off in the distance, the one that you set your sights on climbing. In his book, The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes defines vision as "an image, a picture of what could be." Kouzes understanding of vision extends to "a standard of excellence…an ideal and unique image of the future." Here's an image for you. James Mapes, in The Creative Communicator, compares a vision to a lighthouse -- both providing illumination rather than limitation.
How to Improve Your Vision...
  • Aim for an ideal state.
  • Establish a unique image in the minds of stakeholders.
  • Choose a timeframe that is not so nearsighted that you simply continue business as usual, and not so farsighted that its out of reach. Three years is a good start.
  • Make it a team effort.
  • Write it down.
  • Fine-tune the vision so that stakeholders can find WII-FM: "What's in it for me."
Why is it so important to articulate a vision? Well, at an organizational level, a vision clarifies the leaders picture of the future and thus guides all strategic planning efforts. With a strong, clear vision, leaders can empower others to act and to make informed decisions without having to micromanage. At an individual level, a vision provides a sense of purpose and gives meaning to ones work. Kouzes finds that the most important role of a compelling vision is to "give focus to human energy". It gives employees something to believe in, a reason to give their discretionary effort on behalf of the company.

What distinguishes a vision that compels action from one that doesnt? All visions arent created equally. The most compelling visions aim for an ideal state and create a unique image in the minds of stakeholders. Now, to address time frames for a companys vision. If youre too short-sited - looking only a year out into the future, youre not creating a vision so much as you are focusing the organizations efforts on continuous improvement. The result is that you continue to react to the present, rather than create the future you seek. But contrary to popular belief, a compelling vision isnt dependant on an infinite time horizon -- the world is simply changing too fast to set a vision too far down the path. While long-range planning may be on the magnitude of ten years for very large organizations, a more practical time frame for most companies is reflected in a vision of about three years.

To create a more compelling vision for your future, include your team in the creative process. A vision statement that simply hangs on a wall is like artwork - the more you pass by, the more you take it for granted. The vision must compel action to achieve results. The level of commitment by an organization to actually implement a vision is significantly enhanced when the team comes together to define it in the very beginning. As Warren Bennis says in Visionary Leadership, "Action without vision is stumbling in the dark, and vision without action is poverty-stricken poetry."

Bring your leadership team together in an off-site meeting for the sole purpose of creating this vision. Like many companies, you may want to take this opportunity to also revisit your mission statement and core values for the organization - then work on your vision. Imagine this team, three years from now, stepping up to the podium to receive an award on behalf of the company. What is the award for? What are they saying in their speeches? Where are you in this picture? The power and energy in the room when everyone shares their vision with the rest of the team is amazing. As a leader, you can learn so much about what is important to each person and their own vision of success. Go ahead. Try it right now. What pictures of success come to mind for you?

Recognize that drafting a vision statement is an iterative process. The goal of an off-site planning session is to establish the core of the message, not to get lost in fine-tuning every last word. This is a forum to uncover, express, and discern ideas that are fundamental to team commitment going forward, not a course in Wordsmithing 101. An impartial facilitator brings expertise to involve team members in productive ways and to keep the group on task, so that, as a leader, you can engage, listen, and participate fully.

Give the resulting draft some time to take its final shape. When you share it with your various stakeholders, make sure that they can hear their favorite radio station (WII-FM), otherwise known as Whats In It For Me? Invite their feedback. Is the draft true to our founding mission? Is the draft consistent with our core values? Does it inspire? Is it doable? Where do you see yourself in this vision?

With your final vision statement in hand, your team is now ready to identify the most critical strategic initiatives required to close the gap between where you are today and your future picture of success. How will you define the goals and objectives to measure your successful completion of these initiatives? Developing action plans with activities, timelines, and accountabilities will put you on the road to realizing your vision. Keep your critical stakeholders involved throughout the process.

Does your organization see eye-to-eye with the vision you have in mind? Robert Townsend perhaps sums it up best in Reinventing Leadership: "Vision grabs. Initially it grabs the leaders, and through their enthusiasm, followers and other stakeholders start paying attention." Your vision can be a powerful tool to point the organization in the right direction, enlisting the support of everyone on the team to make that vision a reality. 
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