Vision Series Part 4 of 4: Executing your vision

We’ve reached the end of the vision series through which we have discussed creating a vision, developing a corresponding strategy, communicating that vision and strategy to your key stakeholders, and now all that is left (relatively speaking) is executing your vision.

Imagine this for your household vision: “My children’s bedrooms will be clean.” You’ve come up with an admirable vision based on research showing how much lower your stress level would be. You even developed a foolproof strategy to have your children clean up after themselves every time they want to start something new. To top it off, you told your children this great new vision and they surprisingly seemed to be on board. Poof, their rooms are clean, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, creating a vision, developing a strategy, and communicating it all don’t actually mean you will realize your vision. You must actively manage your strategy’s implementation in order to achieve your vision. To do so you have to understand the critical success and failure factors.

Four key success factors to achieving your vision:

  • Attain buy-in and commitment at all levels – We talked about this in the post about communicating your vision. Everyone from executives to entry level employees needs to buy-in to your vision. They need to be committed to its success and understand how that directly correlates to their success.
  • Define roles – Who is responsible for what? It seems too obvious, but it’s critical. To begin with, you must understand what the key roles are. Do you need a social media guru, a community expert, a finance wiz, a team manager, all of them? One role that everyone needs to fill is that of a change agent: An influential person (or hopefully a group of people) who is a proud advocate of the changes taking place. How much more successful would your household vision be if your eldest child started not only talking about how cool clean rooms were, but was actually cleaning too.
  • Provide the right resources – Unfortunately, most changes aren’t free, whether there is a monetary cost or a time cost, implementing a strategy takes resources. To succeed, you have to have those resources readily accessible to the people who need them.
  • Communication, communication, communication – Have I mentioned communication? Communicate successes and milestones, communicate status updates and changes, and communicate challenges and plans to overcome those. In conclusion, communicate.

Four key failure factors hindering vision achievement:

  • People don’t understand your vision and/or strategy – If this is the case you may need to step back, reevaluate your vision, strategy, and communication plan and determine where improvement is needed. Consider holding a small focus group to help steer things in the right direction. It’s important not to assume people understand. So take the time to survey your audience and check that they understand your plan before moving forward.
  • People don’t believe in your vision – The hard question you must ask yourself (and others) is whether the problem is the vision or the people. Naturally, people are resistant to change and that is something, as leaders, we must overcome. We have to help them to see why change is needed and guide them toward making those changes. However, no matter what you do some people may still be resistant – this is a people problem. If, on the other hand, many people don’t buy in to your vision, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
  • No means for measurement – What does success look like? How do you know when you’ve achieved it? What are the critical milestones? If you don’t know, no one else does either.
  • Losing focus – Launching a new vision and strategy comes with a lot of great energy, but then everyday life sets in and it is easy to lose focus. If you realize focus is fading, you can infuse new energy through communications, updates, and contests. You can also prevent your strategy from getting off track by assigning someone to oversee its progress (note: this means they can’t also oversee five other things simultaneously).

A great vision can transform an organization or even a nation, but for a vision to be more than just words on a paper you must commit to its success. And that starts by realizing that there really is so much more to a vision than words. A vision takes people, processes, technology, and resources. When you’ve created your vision, you’re at the beginning, not the end. 


Vision Series Part 3 of 4: Communicating your vision

What better week to talk about communicating your vision than this? We would be hard pressed to think of someone better at this than Martin Luther King Jr., who so poignantly communicated his vision for the country. Communicating a vision is about painting a picture that speaks to the individual. To do so you must answer three questions:

Why? Understanding why changes are needed can be difficult. To begin with, many of our employees do not have the access to the bigger picture. It is our job as leaders to give them that context. “Creating context — on a regular basis — is a critical part of every manager’s job and could be considered a core competency of leadership. Without it, you might find yourself ahead of schedule, but not sure where you are heading,” wrote Ron Ashkenas on the HBR blog. Essentially, communicating a vision without context is like using the default parent response, “Because I said so.” You may get your employees to act, but ultimately they will not understand why they are doing it and will not be committed to its success, creating more work for you in the long run.

WIFM? As President of Natural Encounters, Steve Martin, wrote, “What’s In It For Me? That question drives most every decision you make. From the moment you wake up in the morning, “What’s in it for me” is the subconscious mantra playing quietly in the back of your head.”Engagement starts with understanding “what’s in it for me” or WIFM. When you are communicating your organization’s vision, you must also be answering questions like, “How does this new strategy impact my job role? What will be expected of me moving forward? How will this benefit my division?”

Employees only have so much time in the day or room in their head (and inbox); if they don’t understand the personal impact of something, it becomes a lower priority. Think about it, if you think something doesn’t affect you, how much do you care?  

How? This doesn’t mean that you have to outline the day to day for every employee. What you do need to do, is provide strategic direction. Explain the steps that are necessary to achieve your goals and what are the critical success factors. Then let your employees determine how they can complete those steps. This gives your employees the opportunity to take ownership of the vision and its success. It becomes more than something other people developed, it becomes something they are a part of.

A vision and its strategy will fail without the buy-in of your employees. If Martin Luther King Jr. never communicated his dream for the country, it would be only that, a dream. If people walked away not understanding the “urgency of Now,” not believing in a better world for their children, not inspired to go back to their homes “knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed,” then the world would be a different place. The picture that King painted, spoke to the individual, it spoke to a nation, and that is what made it successful. As leaders, we too, must help our employees understand our visions and empower them to make it their own.

Vision Series Part 2 of 4: Developing a Strategy

Now that you’ve created a vision for your organization, you need to develop a strategy to help you attain that vision.  “At general management’s core is strategy: defining a company’s position, making trade-offs, and forging fit among activities,” wrote Michael Porter in the 1996 Harvard Business Review. A vision says, “I’d like to get to point B” and a strategy says, “Follow this path to your destination.” To create a strategy you need to first address the following:

Step 1: Where are we now? Can you imagine giving someone directions if they couldn’t tell you where they were? It would be impossible (turn left?). The same is true of developing a strategy; you can’t do it without understanding where you are starting. Back to Business 101 again: Remember the SWOT analysis, that handy quadrant where you analyze your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? That is precisely what you need to do. Determine how each of these plays into your vision. Does your strength in customer service differentiate you from your competitors; are their gaps in your procurement process that need filling; is there a new market you could enter? These are all questions that need to be answered in order to create the path to your destination.

Step 2: Where do we want to be? Hopefully you have a grasp on where you want to go as a result of creating your vision. A strategy allows you to outline, in detail, your goals, objectives, and means for achieving those. While a vision may focus more on aspirations, goals focus on measurable outcomes. Your goals should be:

  • Quantifiable: By how much do you expect to grow? How many new clients do you want to take on? By what date you expect to achieve the goal? How much will it cost to implement?
  • Achievable: Is it realistic? Is it within the realm of possibility without capsizing your organization or alienating your employees or clients?
  • Owned: Who is responsible for this goal’s success? Who is impacted by this goal?

Your goals may be to fill gaps you realized as a result of your SWOT analysis. They may highlight your key differentiators and strengths or address competitive threats. Think of goals as the stepping-stones on your path to achieving your vision.

Reminder: Strategy is all about balancing risk & reward. Changing requires taking on risk, but it is impossible to grow as an organization (or an individual for that matter) without taking some calculated risks. Great leaders accept risk and do their best to manage it. Developing a strategy is about making choices, often with trade-offs, as Porter noted. You simply can’t do everything all the time, but great leaders and great strategies don’t try to.

A vision without strategy is just an idea, a hope with no means for actualization. By understanding where you are now and where you hope to go, you can create a plan to achieve your vision. Next week, we will discuss communicating your vision and strategy in a way that inspires action and cultivates change.

Vision Series Part 1 of 4: Creating a vision

This month, I’ll be writing a series of blog posts about vision, from the beginning stages of creating a vision to its execution. 

For a minute, let’s go back to Business 101. A vision at its most basic level is no more than a way of conveying an organization’s direction that is often, but not necessarily depicted in a statement. But hopefully we all know that a vision represents much more. When carefully crafted, a vision demonstrates the organization’s values, inspires its people, and resonates with its clients. It is not the “how” we do what we do, but the “why” we do what we do and what we are striving to achieve. For all the leaders out there, this is a very important tool (should you use it correctly).  So how do you create a vision that’s more than just words on a paper?

Know your desired impact – What do you want to do? No, what do you really want to do? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not just to build widgets. The work your organization does presumably is done to have an impact on the world. NASA doesn’t just put people on the moon and collect space rocks. They help us to understand the universe and our own planet in ways that advance medicine, science and engineering and improve our lives overall. That’s the impact. Without taking the time to understand your purpose and desired impact on the world, you can’t create a meaningful vision. NASA’s vision directly addresses this:

“To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

Benefit all humankind? Not bad for space rocks.

Tie it back to your values – An engaging vision, one that captures our hearts, does so because it clearly resonates with our core values. When a group of people discover they share the same values, there is a significant increase in energy, commitment and trust,” wrote Jesse Lyn Stoner in her blog post on creating an enduring vision. At IBM, instead of a traditional vision statement, we have our values:

  • “Dedication to every client’s success
  • Innovation that matters, for our company and for the world
  • Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships”

Values are what your employees and clients relate to and believe in themselves. This is what gives the vision reach. Perhaps you don’t understand everything that IBM does, but you do understand trust and dedication, and you know those are important to you as well.

Make it a team effort – To truly ingrain a vision in a culture, you can’t create it alone.  “The only visions that take hold are shared visions—and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. The best leaders are able to bring their people into the future because they engage in the oldest form of research: They observe the human condition,” wrote James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in their 2009 article in the Harvard Business Magazine. Not only will a diversity of opinions make your vision stronger, it will make it more meaningful to the people you hope will be a part of achieving that vision.

A vision: a direction, a goal, a place you hope to be, is critical to driving a successful organization. It’s not something to rush through; it takes careful thought. Once developed it takes even more care to successfully implement, but more on that to come.

Great Leaders: You, Not Me

I have already discussed the traits of leaders in comparison to managers:  Authentic, courageous, great communicators with vision and charisma. But do leaders come on a continuum of success or are all leaders created equal? History will tell us that there certainly is a continuum. Some leaders go on to accomplish great things, while others flounder and fade away. So what makes great leaders? It is the ability to understand it’s not about me, it’s all about you.

Great leaders create a vision that’s meaningful to you Leaders create visions, what they believe the organization should aspire to be. But a vision alone is not change. The vision has to be applied to everything an organization does in order to create a significant change. This is why great leaders know that in order for their vision to succeed; they must have the buy in of their employees. And they do that through creating a context.

  • Adaptive perspective:  “The contextual lens [leaders] create is often focused on a desired outcome. They help the team envision the ultimate goal and then challenge their brightest teammates to build strategies to get there regardless of current adversities,” said Mike Maddock in his article on Forbes. To provide the context, leaders have to think from their employees’ perspectives. They must start first by asking questions like, “How will this impact the day to day work of my employees?” or “Why should this matter to the individual?” Through questions like these, leaders can form the context that makes a vision truly meaningful.
  • “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This was Simon Sinek’s take on what makes great leaders inspire actions. And it’s true, over and over; we see that the most engaged employees are the ones who believe in the organization’s values – not the ones who are paid the most, not the ones who know the most, the ones who believe the most. When John F. Kennedy spoke at his inauguration in 1961, he was facing strained relations with Cuba and a war against communism. However, he didn’t tell the nation to go enlist, instead he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” This now famous quote is an example of how great leaders can motivate desired behaviors through speaking to shared beliefs and values, in this case civic duty, instead of simply an end goal.

Great leaders work to make you successful – Leaders are often measured on numbers: the quantity of widgets they sold, the money they made, the expenses they cut. But great leaders know that to create results, they have to first create great people.

  • Bring out the best in others: By creating an environment that encourages growth, innovative ideas, and mutual trust, great leaders can create great employees. Employees have to feel safe enough to take on challenges and try new things. You can’t teach a child to ride a bike through a Power Point presentation (on slide 1, see how you brake). It has to be done through experience. It may be scary, slightly dangerous, and they may fail completely, but through that practice they will learn and excel. The same applies to employees.
  • Prepare for the future:  A day will come when leaders will be ready to leave and someone else must take their place. A true test of a great leader is the success of the organization when they aren’t around. Great leaders prepare their organization for longevity, and a future that is not dependent on one person today, but on the people who will be here tomorrow.

There are leaders and there are great leaders, and likely many in between. Great leaders understand and act on the belief “it’s not about my success, it’s about yours,” because they know that their own success is entirely dependent on the people around them.