The Bible tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” According to Steven Covey, one of the “seven habits of highly effective people” is to “begin with the end in mind.” Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins, and countless other self-help gurus have pitched the message that if you focus enough on what you want, you’ll get it.
Obviously, this may or may not be true. But it’s a seductive idea, and since the mid-1980s, a chorus of academics, consultants, authors, motivational speakers, and business leaders have echoed the same theme. They assure us that the future will belong to companies that have a bold dream, a huge ambition, a stretch target, a strategic intent, a powerful purpose, a “BHAG” (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”)—or, to use the commonest term, a vision.
At the same time, we’ve been told that visionary leadership is critical for success. So for a firm to be a winner, it needs a leader who has the foresight to sense where his industry is going and can figure out how to seize the juiciest bit of it. Who challenges convention and refuses to accept the status quo, abhors what others take for granted, sees possibilities where they see only problems, and has the courage to lay big bets and venture into unchartered territory.
This line of thought has become an article of faith in business. When a company does well, you can be sure the leader’s vision will be cited as a key reason. If things sour, the leader will be accused of lacking vision. No fix is worth considering if it doesn’t include work on a vision. Developing, reviewing, or tinkering with a corporate vision is normally the first step in a strategy process.
Often, when a CEO briefs me, he’ll say, “We need a new vision. We have to re-focus and re-energize the company.” What he’s looking for is a point of view about how to move forward: possibilities for product or service innovation, whether to get out of a mature business or into a new one, or whether to expand overseas, adopt a new technology, outsource work, restructure or re-brand his organization, or explore alliances. And he wants a set of words that will point his team in a new direction and fire up their spirit. (Clearly, he’s not sure of that vision himself.)
When I ask people lower down in a firm why it’s not performing, I know what to expect. “There’s no vision at the top,” they usually say. We don’t know where we’re going.” They couldn’t care less about a glitzy new vision statement. They want to know they’re being led by someone who knows what lies ahead and what to do about it, and will take them on an exciting and successful ride.
Visionary leadership has become a Very Big Subject—but for all the chatter, it remains a slippery one.
Vision, we’re told, is a quality that sets leaders apart from mere managers. Individuals who “have vision”—however you determine that—are highly valued. But vision is widely held to be a trait people are born with, not one you can teach. So if you want it, you have to find someone who’s already got it.
But wait. Before you take off on a quest for one (or more) of these rare birds, or dive into yet another “visioning” exercise, think about what you really need to do to improve your company’s prospects, and where you should focus your attention. You might be starting in the wrong place.
BACK TO BASICS
In theory, a company’s vision should spur it to explore new opportunities, outperform its competitors, and achieve far more than it has in the past. It should give employees a sense of meaning in their work, and inspire them to be fully engaged and passionate about it so they’ll perform to their full potential. All fine, stirring stuff!
In practice, most vision statements do nothing of the kind. In fact, they’re about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. Far from focusing and motivating people, they confuse them and make them even more cynical and distrustful than they were. And while they should lead to action, what they really lead to is snickers among employees who see them as just more management bullshit.
In practice, too, many so-called “visionary leaders” turn out to be value destroyers. They’re so busy peering into their crystal balls and making silly predictions about where their firms will be in five, 10, or 20 years that they fail to deal with issues that scream for immediate attention. They bog their teams down with new projects—that often don’t hang together. They mis-read how things will unfold, embark on lunatic ventures, and get high on their “blue sky” “out of the box” cleverness.
It is true that some firms struggle to do well, or get into trouble, because they lack vision. Or they run into difficulties because their vision is out of kilter with emerging realities. Or they set their sights too low and settle for ho-hum achievements. But I’m willing to bet that much more often the cause of their woes is nothing to do with vision, or a lack of it. It’s more immediate, more down to earth, and closer to home.
It’s that they just don’t do what they’re in business to do. They don’t understand the “rules of their game,” and don’t excel in them. They don’t deliver on their promises to customers.
Simply put: they fail in the basics.
To use an analogy: think of a company as a car. Shareholders and management imagine that if it had wings it would take off and soar away from its competitors. But the real problem is that the driver doesn’t know how to drive. The engine is firing on four cylinders, not eight. The gas tank isn’t full. The tires are flat. So wings are not going to help.
Now, don’t get me wrong: every organization does need to know where it’s trying to go. A sense of purpose—of “why we exist”—is vital. You do need to look ahead for new opportunities. You do need to give your people some idea of which “hill” you’re aiming for, so they know where to focus. You do need to ensure that they “do the right things” and don’t just “do things right.”
But the first task for the leaders of most companies should be to “do things right” and make today’s business work as well as possible. After all, that is their “growth engine,” and it has to generate or attract the funding needed for tomorrow’s ventures. What’s more, it probably has greater potential for further growth than is realized. Anything that distracts managers from getting it to peak performance should be treated warily.
This is especially important in these tough times, when sales are hard to come by and customers are skittish and shopping around. Your current customers are vital to your future. Keeping them is critical, as is winning their enthusiastic support. To lose them or piss them off because your “engine” is sputtering is daft.
This isn’t a message that goes down well. After all, it’s hardly a big turn-on, and thinking big thoughts is much more exciting. But it’s one you need to consider carefully before you shoot for the moon.
If you don’t think it worth your time, ask yourself:
Why do so many customers have such a hard time buying almost anything—from the very companies that spend so much trying to attract them in the first place? Why do they have such lousy experiences with the products and services they buy? Why are they so disloyal?
If that doesn’t convince you, ask this:
Why does product development always seem to run late in so many companies? Why do their inventories keep swelling, while their out-of-stock level of key items gets worse? Why do their sales people make so few calls, and why are their calls are so ineffective? Why do their debtors’ days keep moving up? Why do their suppliers let them down so often? Why do their machines keep breaking down? Why do their warranty costs keep rising? Why is there so much scrap and waste in their plants? Why is the volume of paperwork growing? Why do their teams work in silos? Why does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?
And the list goes on.
Surely this doesn’t make sense. Surely it points to internal weaknesses that could and should be fixed. Surely it suggests massive opportunities—right under your nose—to make your organization stand out from the crowd and steal a march on your competitors. (And if you think your company is different, maybe talk to some of your customers, suppliers, distributors, or employees!)
If your business is in good shape, many things are possible. If it’s not, your most brilliant ideas will never take off.
BABY STEPS…AND ACTIVE WAITING
No strategy lasts forever. You have to prepare to change when it’s necessary. But you also have to acknowledge that:
- You know less than you think about the challenges and opportunities ahead
- There’s no way you can be sure that the direction you choose will turn out to be the best one
- The more radical your vision, the bigger your risks.
The fact is, most winning companies get there not by making bold leaps, but by methodically putting in place the building blocks for the future. They take one small step at a time, and they make every step count.
Track the history of almost any firm, and you’ll see there’s not a straight line from where it started to where it is today. A leader may intend to follow a specific path to a glorious future, but that seldom happens. Strategy is only partly about hard choices and trade-offs, and largely about adaptation to new circumstances. There are many detours, blind alleys, and dead-ends.
If there’s one industry in which vision should be a very serious matter, it’s information technology. Yet consider how four extraordinary leaders have dealt with the matter of vision:
- Bill Gates labelled it “trivial.”
- When IBM got into trouble two decades ago, analysts said that the only course was to break up the company and sell the bits. Lou Gerstner took the helm and spent six months travelling the world to talk to customers and staff. He faced enormous pressure to spell out a new vision for the company. But he famously told analysts, “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? he explains that “if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct …. execution is really the critical part of a successful strategy. Getting it done, getting it done right, getting it done better than the next person is far more important than dreaming up new visions of the future.” Gerstner did lay some big bets, but job #1 was to get on with making “Big Blue” a great computer company again, selling both hardware and software.
- Steve Jobs was widely admired for his vision and his obsession with design. Yet he was always reluctant to comment on where he intended taking Apple. Instead, he said that he was “waiting for the next big thing.” And while customers, competitors, analysts, and others never let up on trying to figure out his “long view,” he was busy building one of the world’s most effective engineering companies, obsessed with detail and operational excellence.
- When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was asked why he wouldn’t sell shares in the company in its early years, his consistent answer was, “We have no idea how big this thing will become.” No amount of visionary thinking could have told him that or prepared him for where he is today. Neither he nor anyone else can possibly know what Facebook will look like tomorrow.
In each case, these leaders focussed the present, on doing a great job one day at a time. Not on making crowd-pleasing statements about a future nobody could see. The lesson is an important one. More companies and leaders would do well to listen up.
Visionary leaders can make a huge difference to a firm’s fortunes. They can also cause it to plunge to earth. You might think that visionary leadership is what your firm needs right now. But maybe it’s the last thing you should seek.