Crafting an aspirational vision and mission statement is a crucial goal for leaders. Leadership teams often spend hours creating their business' vision, mission, and strategy, only to discover that employees disparage the message and complain about lack of direction. Executives are often surprised to receive this feedback and immediately return to the drawing board and spend more time revising and crafting the perfect statement. This misguided approach makes very little progress in clarifying their people's perception of a clear path forward to their dismay.
Ted, CEO of a technology consulting services firm, was excited about his and his team's vision and purpose at the off-site leadership meeting. They had thought deeply about their organization's core competencies, researched competitors, and identified what the future should look like. They spent hours discussing each point and communicated the output of their efforts with the workforce. However, within a year, many employees started to say the company lacked direction. Frustrated, Ted arranged another off-site meeting to gather his leadership team for another round of refining the work they had done a year ago. But this time, they engaged ThriveVance to help them reach a better result. We recommended first examine the reason for the lack of clarity for the employees. To their surprise, we discovered several very different underlying issues.
After watching CEOs' challenges in creating and communicating a vision that employees engage with and working with hundreds of teams, I recognized the common thread. There are five possible reasons for this common challenge. When employees say there is no path forward, pause and diagnose the reason behind their uncertainty before answering. Once you know what's underlying the challenge, you can address the issue more effectively.
Lack of communication
It is a misconception that one mention at a company all-hands meeting or a single email to all employees would check the box for communicating the leadership vision and purpose. Considering that the further removed employees are from the executive suite, the more often they need to hear your message delivered in a variety of ways to ensure everyone has an opportunity to understand it. For example, since people learn in different ways, your audience may not understand it all verbally, so it would be helpful to have something in writing, via a video, or both. Give people time to understand what you're sharing and include the vision and purpose as a part of the agenda during meetings to ensure that newcomers hear it too and emphasize that this perspective is here to stay and that it would not fall into the flavor of the month category.
As you communicate a clear and consistent message over time, provide specific examples of how the vision has been brought to life. For instance, Ted began to share the company's vision and pairing it with a recent measure of its success in practice. Treating each client as though they were their only client was central to Ted's vision, so every week, Ted spotlighted employees who had extended extraordinary client care regardless of the size of the account. The vision cemented itself in the culture in no time because people could associate it with their work.
Change the lens
To relate to the company vision, they must understand how what they do connects with that vision. Executives often create vision, purpose, and strategy statements that are at a high, 30,000-foot-view level. Even though they sound good, it may all be too abstract for employees operating at a lower altitude. They may not connect their day-to-day job and the organization's supposed vision, purpose, or strategy. Make sure your message is tailored for everyone at all levels of the organization. Everyone should understand how their work fits the big picture and their contributions to bringing the vision to life.
Since the C-Suite is at a different vantage point, the individual managers must take part in creating this type of message. For example, Ted involved all his direct reports to outline specific tag lines to the central vision aligned with their division's particular contributions. They then delegated to their direct reports for additional details to bridge the gap between the C-suite and the frontline. He decoded the vision from the boardroom to the hallways for his teams to know how to take the ideas to reality.
Leadership behavior elucidates the organization's true purpose. Aspirational statements on paper when they are not aligned with the leadership behaviors are meaningless. If this misalignment exists, what employees mean when they say they don't have a path forward is that while there's a written vision, decisions and behaviors are not aligned with the commitment communicated. In Ted's organization, people were stretched thin with multiple priorities, some trivial and nonessential, and others large priorities. The magic in reaching perfection is not to pile everything up to be done, but when we can no longer take anything away. When you can clearly communicate your vision and use critical thinking skills to identify the type of work that supports the company vision, then you arm your people with the tools and time to bring the vision to life
Your company culture will determine how your employees communicate with you. At times, it's easier for people to say they don't know the vision rather than dislike or disagree with it. The larger the power differential, the more you can count on people not telling what they honestly think. This is especially true if the culture is conflict-avoidant or unsafe. When you clearly communicated a business vision without getting employees to engage with your vision, investigate your people's buy-in. Begin by digging into underlying apprehensions. To get to what's genuinely going to rev up progress, you may consider including Organizational-360 assessments that are confidential where you ask people their thoughts and feelings about the company, the work, and its vision. Analyzing your people's thoughts and feelings will be a better investment of time than chasing the next catchphrase in a vain attempt at greater clarity.
Change is disruptive. It pushes us out of our comfort zone, doing things we are not used to, or doing them differently than we are accustomed to. For many, sticking with the status quo is fine, even if they don't like it. They find aligning with the vision and mission too much work and try to avoid it. They try to pass on this responsibility and place the burden of further clarification on your plate. To eliminate this challenge, incentivize the adoption of the program and positively reward wins in the right direction. Ted's HR executive partnered with him to ensure bonuses and other incentives lined up with the successful execution of the new strategy.
Additionally, make change a positive experience at your company by evaluating current practices to examine the value of the practice today. By putting legacy practices under the microscope and having people explain why they should exist, you can make sure you are funding appropriate strategic practices.
Ted and his direct reports were surprised to discover all five reasons existing under the surface and fueling resistance to the vision and path forward. Looking at it with fresh eyes, they created a systematic and consistent communication plan. Brought their teams into the process to connect the vision to specific, daily activities. Set up a tracking system to reward those who embraced the new vision and follow-up with those who have not; provided assurances and training to those concerned about becoming irrelevant; and support employees who block the noise to focus on the priorities. After six months, Ted asked everyone he met to tell him the company's vision and was assured of a clear and consistent narrative. By pausing to understand the real challenges with adopting a direction, Ted and his organization could move much faster in achieving it because everyone was moving forward together.
For a team to deliver results, it is critical to have a vision. However, it is equally crucial to understand when there is a perception that there is no direction; that may be caused by what is not being said more than the words on a vision statement itself. Once you understand the real concerns of your employees, you can connect them to your vision rather than chasing revisions.
At ThriveVance, we have partnered with hundreds of CEOs and C-Suites to help them bring their vision to life and putting an end to the never-ending and vicious cycle of revising their message. Let us do the same for you!