Translating Vision into Meaning: How Leaders Create Followership

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine De Saint Exupery

On MLK’s birthday it seems appropriate to think about what it takes to bring a dream or a vision to life. Many of our clients are currently in the midst of calibrating goals, starting with the corporate set and drilling down through to the individual list. Inevitably, we see a pattern where the initiative fizzles out or gets bogged down. Why? There are myriad reasons, but let’s focus on a couple—both practical and emotional—of the most common.

To answer the question “Where are we going?”, it requires clarity of vision. Definition. A clear picture. Whether we answer that question for ourselves as individual leaders, for a team, a division, or an organization, we need to envision an outcome as a future reality.

Emotionally, it depends on whether we can see ourselves in that picture and whether we buy into the vision and the philosophy behind it. Yes, that sounds like a logical (practical) act, but in reality it is more an emotional one of commitment, of finding meaning. When my work supports the future vision, it is meaningful work for the company. When that vision and my values align, it is meaningful to me. When leaders create the environment in which that bridge occurs, it is potent. Incredibly.

“A leader has a vision and a conviction that a dream can be achieved. S/he inspires the power and the energy to get it done.” Ralph Lauren

So first, how to translate vision into strategy with teeth? Consider the following:

1. How clear and concise is your vision? (Please ask others for their evaluation)

2. Can your vision be translated into 3 to 7 key strategies? And then each of those interpreted for each level within your organization?

3. Does each leader in the organization understand how they practically contribute to each of those items? Can they literally see this future and themselves in it?

4. How do you keep the conversation and the work alive to help the team stay focused and energized?

5. What level of commitment exists? How does each leader as well as their staff find personal or professional meaning in the initiatives that support achieving those strategies?

6. Do the strategies and the process to get there create the opportunity for a triple win: good for the customer, good for the company, good for the employee?

We find that many organizations stumble at step #3.

At one organization we’ve mentioned before, a relatively new president cascaded his vision throughout the organization in a very simple way. No big posters in the hallway, no glitzy PowerPoint presentations, no catchy slogans. After he honed and shared the lanes they would pursue, he periodically walked the halls popping in to ask, “Which of the strategies are you supporting today?” (Note – this was in the spirit of being curious and encouraging. Staff found it liberating, not controlling or micromanaging.)

A year prior as the organization grappled with priorities, resources and identity in the midst of growing competition, the president established a few key strategies. The short list included three items: delivering what matters most to the membership (know the evolving customer), accelerating relevant product development (content, process, materials), and implementing future oriented technology (integrated enterprise, customer facing, etc.).

The simplicity was refreshing to an organization with endless to-do lists and countless ideas of what was possible, but previously had no meaningful clarity. In addition, he held the focus with great integrity, encouraging his staff to track what specific endeavors were underway, milestones achieved, and encouraging the team to think big but practically. Yet, the most telling moment was when he’d pop in to an executive’s office or visit one of the conference rooms where a team was bringing to life a recently brainstormed concept and ask, “Which of the strategies are you supporting today?”

As simplistic as it sounds, that query, repeated over time, held the focus and inspired the commitment and creativity of the senior team and their troops. Clarity is all. What are we doing? Who are we? Where are we heading? What’s the most important thing we can be working on right now? How can I personally contribute? Meetings have purpose and a sense of urgency— to bring to life these broad directives. It’s less about the classic definition of time management —getting things done in a particular amount of time—but more to the point of doing things that matter, because that fuels our energy and our creativity and our pursuit of the vision. And when we personally get jazzed by the process of bringing those strategies to life, then we are engaged.

What keeps work meaningful for each of us is subjective. In general terms, ask yourself the following: “Do my values fit with those of my company? Can I see a positive impact of my work on something or someone? Specifically, what can I contribute to these strategies at hand? What excites me about the work it requires to brainstorm, explore, prototype, test, collaborate, discern, defend, persuade, influence, fail, stretch, produce? Where do I fit in this?”

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve” -Albert Einstein