A good vision does not have to be lofty

Leaders are supposed to have a vision. Every book about leadership discusses it. Leaders who work on the basis of a clear and explicit vision are often more successful at building focus and mobilizing their staff to realize great ambitions. Why is this type of visionary leadership so hard to find? Moreover, what constitutes a great vision?

Dutch prime Minister Mark Rutte doesn’t really care about having a vision. He is a pragmatic. This seems like a necessity in a fragmented country like his. In the Netherlands, you need to wait for the rare opportunity to present itself in order to push certain developments in the right direction. And when it does, you should not speak about great ambitions and long-term visions to avoid creating disappointment in advance. But Rutte’s aversion is also related to the opinion that having a vision is a bit pompous or pretentious.

I also think I may have detected this notion while meeting executives of companies I visited. That is unfortunate. Leaders who work on the basis of a clear and explicit vision are often more successful at involving their staff in realizing great ambitions.

Direction and mobilization
Surprisingly little has been written about what a good vision is about. In my view, a great vision directs and mobilizes an organization. It requires three building blocks:

1. A case for change. Why is it important to be dynamic? Why can’t we stay where we are?

2. Inspiring ambitions. Not in the sense of numbers, but in the sense of a living vision of the future that appeals to your staff. Where do we want to go? How do we determine success, and what will the result of realizing that success be like? Such a vision of the future should be in alignment with the motives of employees. Having more to offer than our competitors, being truly meaningful to our customers and to the world, building an excellent reputation. These matters are relevant to employees and should be included in an inspiring vision.

3. A credible route. What road should we take in order to realize such a beautiful vision of the future? And how will that choice influence our goals and common priorities? Employees are not looking for analyses, facts, and proof: they are primarily looking for strong leaders who believe in the choices they make.

Uncomfortable conversations
In my experience as a change communications expert it is rare to find an organization that has created such an elaborate vision. Discussing this issue with management teams often leads to uncomfortable situations because, like Prime Minister Rutte, some don’t really care about having a vision. They see a myriad of things screaming for their attention right now, so why even bother navel-gazing about your ambitions of the future? Or even worse, why bother to think about abstract questions such as What is our purpose? or What are the higher goals of our organization? Some executives do recognize the importance of an explicit vision but differ on the actual definition of one. Some executives prefer a long-term vision, others suggest a practical vision for the coming period.

Personally, I take a pragmatic stance in such discussions. An explicit vision is essential but it doesn’t have to be lofty if that isn’t in alignment with the style and preferences of the executive team. In general, there are three types of visions.

1. The value-driven vision
This type of vision is characterized by the word “WHY,” according to Simon Sinek. It focuses on a long-term vision and on transcending self-interest. Organizations adopting this vision strive for higher goals. Well-known examples of the inclusion of such a higher goal are the companies Danone. (bringing health through food to as many people as possible) and Ikea (to create a better everyday life for the many people by offering […] functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them). There are also organizations that set their higher goal at a much later stage but do seem to have embraced it genuinely. Unilever, for example, seems to have chosen sustainability as a higher goal in recent years: to make sustainable living commonplace. A goal like this does not qualify as a vision per se because that also requires a clear view of how such a goal will be realized.

2. The analytical vision
Whereas the value-driven vision appeals to the heart, the analytical vision appeals to the mind. Organizations with an analytical vision also focus on the long-term, but their visions are driven by convictions with regard to the developments of their market. A prime example is Shell, a company known for their reputable scenario-planning and system-analysis. These ideas enabled the company to picture scenarios of the future more accurately than its competitors and ensured that the company made better decisions at crucial moments. An analytical vision is also useful to mobilize an organization because it is competitive: “We want to be better than our competitors,” and because it strives to distinguish: “we do things differently.”

3. The change vision
The change vision does not envision the distant future but focuses on a specific strategy cycle that involves setting a transformation in motion. This type of vision describes the ambitions that are strived for and includes questions such as: “What kind of organization are we going to be?” and “What are the fundamental changes that have to be realized in the years ahead?” An example of my personal experience is a large construction company. A couple of years ago, this construction business realized that the construction market was changing drastically under the influence of digitization. This realization resulted in the ambition to transform the company from a traditional construction company to a market leader of innovation within a few years. The ambition was realized through four concrete priorities: increasing focus on more complex projects, directing toward margins rather than volume, digitizing primary processes at a higher pace, and replacing the existing hierarchy with a network organization. Not very lofty, quite operational, but very effective.

Practical and down to earth
The final example shows that a clear vision can be very practical and down to earth. A higher goal isn’t always a necessity in order to mobilize an organization. As long as you ensure that your staff has a living vision of the future on its mind, understand why change is necessary, and what road you will take to realize your vision. Because then the vision will provide what is necessary: direction and mobilization.

Michiel van Delden is an internal communications and change management specialist at C-Suite Leadership Communication.

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