One reason that many CEOs remain skeptical of the vision process despite copious evidence that it leads to success is because they’ve seen it fail many times before in other organizations they’ve worked for, or perhaps even in their own. So where does the process break down? How can you avoid the pitfalls that keep an organization from successfully implementing a vision? To begin with, let’s consider two data points that seem, at first blush, to be contradictory. One study found that 94 percent of CEOs report “a great deal of discomfort working with the vision process.” A second study, conducted by the Conference Board, polled seven hundred global CEOs and found that, for the past three years, their number one marketplace and management issue was “engaging employees in the vision.” Perhaps what both studies are saying, from the executive perspective, is that “I believe in the need for vision, but I cannot get myself in gear to make it happen.” Connecting the desire to create and implement a vision with the internal energy necessary to get over all the barriers can be immensely frustrating, as I’ve seen over and over again in my work as a management consultant.
I remember a conversation I had at a dinner years ago that has stuck with me ever since. I was seated next to the chief marketing officer of a Fortune 50 company, who confided to me how alone he felt at the top: “We’re hitting our revenue targets, we have obscene share of market in most of the areas in which we operate, but our stock price doesn’t reflect how well we’re doing. The outside world doesn’t understand who we are, why we’re unique, how all our pieces fit together, and what we stand for. On the inside, we’re operating like sixty different silos. My CEO says our vision is to provide shareholder return . . . but that’s no vision; shareholder return is something that we get rewarded for as a result of executing against a proper vision. I’ve got to believe he has some vision of who we are. [long pause] But he can’t unlock his thoughts and feelings about it to us. And if he can’t begin to get us thinking about a real vision, then I’m afraid of what lies ahead.”
When it comes to executing a plan for growth, most CEOs can talk the talk. Vision committees crank out vision statements and post them on their websites and on the walls of conference rooms. Usually, however, this is about as far as the process gets. And that is where the cynicism so many have for the corporate vision takes root. Having a shiny paragraph that articulates a vision is far cry from weaving that vision into the daily fabric of organizational life, which is what makes the difference.
When relatively superficial—what I call myopic—visions are used as a rallying cry for the troops, the vision process isn’t unleashed with the full force and power it’s capable of, and the transformative power of the vision is left untapped.
My experiences with CEOs and executive groups have made me realize that it’s often difficult for them to stretch their thinking toward the future. They’re grounded, realistic people, more drawn to the idea of a mission, which enables them to describe what an organization does, rather than toward a vision, which forces them to describe why their organization does what it does. The former feels comfortably action oriented and masculine, whereas the latter is more thoughtful, vulnerable territory.
My Fortune 50 dinner companion commiserated further: “Just because we’re so obsessed with planning, tinkering with our plans every year, and holding division leaders accountable for achieving their plans, the executive suite has a collective mentality that we’re very strategic. Because the culture has us so focused on planning, they think that’s visionary! As head of marketing, I need to position the corporate brand with a far longer horizon, but I’m clueless how to do that when everyone’s thinking about next year or barely five years out.”
Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University, found that strategic plans invariably fail when there is no overarching vision driving them. Not only do they fail to motivate those within the company to reach further and be their most innovative, and to pull together disparate parts of an organization, but they also fail as analytic planning documents. (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Free Press, 1994).
Visions that truly motivate an organization must describe the desired long-term future of the organization, a future that typically feels out of reach in the moment, but also not so fantastic as to seem like a pipe dream. Developing a vision requires imagination, a mental capacity for synthesis, a trust in intuition, and a deep emotional commitment to that desired future. And this is partially why the vision development process is such a leadership balancing act—and another reason why it can be so hard to implement. Visions need to challenge people and evoke feelings that draw them toward wanting to be a part of something greater than themselves.
When a vision is framed as something that is achievable within a set amount of years, particularly less than a decade, then it falls into the terrain of a strategic plan. That is why the overwhelming majority of organizational visions fail to deliver the impact: they are rational, time-bound, and highly impersonal. For vision to inspire, it has to reach—if only ever so slightly—beyond one’s grasp.