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Leaders and Organizational Vision: Losing Your Leadership License

February 26, 2018

Leaders and Organizational Vision: Losing Your Leadership License | LinkedIn

 

Without a sense of purpose, no company can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders. 2018 Annual Letter to CEOs – Larry Fink, CEO, Blackrock, $6 trillion assets-under-management

 

These days it has become expected for leaders to put forth a compelling, purposeful #vision. The idea of vision is certainly not new but the idea that leaders should all have one just might be. Problem is that we all don’t – or at least at certain times and in certain seasons we find ourselves lacking what former President George H. W. Bush called “that vision thing.”

 

With purpose-focused Millennials now exceeding 50 percent of the workforce, the cost of being vision-deficient continues to climb. Whether corporate short-termism, accountability-challenged non-profits or partisan-gridlocked Washington D.C., leaders are increasingly at risk of losing their leadership license by stakeholders frustrated by misplaced purpose.

 

Case in point, behind the awful Florida school shooting with the contentious call-for-action by affected parents/students, looms the larger question: “Leaders, what is your vision for student safety?” Disagreement and divisiveness thrive in a vision-anemic environment. 

 

The urgency for a compelling, purposeful vision is so great that some leaders find themselves “faking it.” I heard about a CEO feeling much pressure to come up with such a vision, hurriedly crafted a vision statement and promptly plastered it on the C-suite executive business cards. Subsequently he met with a fellow CEO and as they exchanged business cards this wise peer saw the prominent vision statement and said, “So, you’ve been having challenges with vision.”

 

Busted.  Faking it, whether in the boardroom or the bedroom, is an obstacle to authentically addressing the problem. Vision statements are easy – true vision that moves the organization purposefully and energetically forward is hard and at times elusive.

 

The very idea of leadership – whether for business, non-profit, church, family – presupposes movement from a current place to a more ideal, future place. Vision is a compelling description of that desired place. Karl Albrecht describes it as “shared image of what we want the enterprise to be or become… an aiming point for a future orientation.”

 

Burt Nanus calls it an idea so energizing that it in effect jump-starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents, and resources to make it happen.” Vision provides direction and energy to overcome the distraction, divisiveness and fatigue of day-to-day challenges by focusing on the greater, purposeful good.

   

Vision is larger than BHAGs (big-hairy-audacious-goals) about revenue growth, profits, stock price (or winning an election). It is more compelling than strategy – new market, product or building. Vision is the answer to the compelling and energizing question of “why”?  It cannot be dictated or manufactured, it must be discovered.   It is a search for something that links an animating force inside us to compelling needs that exist outside of us – in the marketplace. It does not need to be unique but it must be meaningful.

 

It has been my experience that a crisis of vision often comes from one or more of three key circumstances:

 

No Vision, No Priority: Most often the absence of clear vision is because the chief executive has not made it a priority. There are many reasons. Some leaders distrust the “vision thing” seeing it as soft, fuzzy and not all that crucial. Sometimes there are so many urgent challenges that strategic vision work is purposely delayed until the crisis and chaos – cash shortage, product busts, customers defections – subside.

 

Clearly today’s rapid rate of change makes discovering vision both more difficult – and crucial. Generational change means dealing with stakeholders who have widely divergent views, values and expectations (think Millennials).  Technological change has altered how stakeholders interact, transact, and the speed and volume of information available. Often new competitors emerge to exploit these new technologies or market needs – free of the baggage of old stakeholder groups or technology (think Amazon). Also challenging are organization life-cycle changes – from small to large organizations (think Facebook) or cool/dominate to old/shrinking (think newspapers, mainline religious denominations). The absence of a compelling vision statement only exacerbates these challenges.

 

Empty Vision Statements: Getting the words right in a vision statement pays off only when it produces energy and direction to move the organization forward by guiding large and small decisions and actions. Empty or ignored vision statements are organizational hood ornaments, benign at best, and at worst, seen as hypocritical, feeding cynicism and distrust.

  

Filling vision statements with shared, animating meaning requires two things. First it requires a process to engage stakeholders. CEO Scott Miller at Interstate Batteries shares their search for purpose: “It was a nine-month process where we gave all stakeholder groups and every individual in the organization the opportunity to speak up and put our values into words...” Not all take nine months, but the need for buy-in necessitates engagement. Second, it requires leaders who continuously breathe new life into the vision by advocating, reminding, making decisions and taking actions that animate it. Meaningful, aligned action is the oxygen that keeps purposeful vision breathing.

 

Competing Visions: Some organizations are held hostage by key stakeholders pursuing competing visions. Whether a split at the board level or between powerful executives, the organization’s energy is sapped by two efforts: one is the in-fighting between adversarial groups. Second is the energy expended by those caught in the cross-fire – walking on eggshells, attempting to avoid becoming collateral damage. Periods of leadership transition like mergers and succession are notoriously seasons of competing visions.

  

Unfortunately, most organizations go through painful, dysfunctional seasons of competing visions. The key is taking on this challenge as the highest priority, at the earliest possible time, at the highest level.  It is impossible to please both sides – nor should that be the goal. Sometimes the highest-level governing authority (CEO, Board, Executive Committee) must make a call – choose one side or the other. Other times it means embracing “constructive dissatisfaction”: optimally dissatisfying opposing parties in the name of making the enterprise optimally successful. Sometimes two visions exist because neither, stand-alone, is sufficient: choose one or blend two.

 

The reality is at times our vision is missing, incomplete, out-of-date, contested, not embraced or hypocritical.  There is no shame in finding yourself with an under-performing vision, but there is increasing risk that stakeholders will revoke your leadership license if you don’t fix it. 

 

 

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