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5 Rules For Making Your Vision Stick

A corporate mission statement isn't merely words to slap on a coffee mug or on the wall of your reception area. It should guide decision-making on every level—so learn to communicate it effectively.

In the mid-1990s, I was working with some leaders from Iams, the premium pet food company. Its mission: "Improving the well-being of dogs and cats."

Over a beer after the workshop finished, some of the executives were telling work stories when the subject turned to then-CEO Clay Mathile. As the legend goes, he was approached by one of the leading business magazines of the day to be the subject for the cover story—and turned it down.

Most business leaders would jump at that opportunity. When asked why he didn’t accept, Mathile is rumored to have said, "I just can’t see how that would improve the lives of dogs and cats."

I love that story. It’s a great example of leading by example and using the organization’s mission and vision to make decisions.

If you spend a lot of time in company headquarters like I do, you will often see organizations’ visions, missions and values written down somewhere, often in the main lobby for you to ponder as you go through the "sign in here, wear this nametag, your host will be right down" process. Other likely spots: the employee cafeteria, coffee mugs, and the corporate website.
Yet, senior executives are often blind to the reality that these guiding principles should play—and how well understood they are outside of the executive suite. If you asked the average employee who passes through the lobby, eats in the cafeteria, or drinks form the mug, my guess is that they might not even know the mission, vision, and values, much less how to use them to inform their work.

The fact is, even the greatest mission and vision statements fall flat unless they are shared effectively. Solid research finds that people see you as a better leader if you are able to communicate your organization’s vision effectively.

A study published in Claremont McKenna College’s Leadership Review shows that when leaders discuss their organizations’ vision in a specific way, not only is the vision better understood, the leaders are also seen as being more effective in general.

So what’s the practical lesson in that research for you?

Simply put, if you’re a leader, you need to exhibit the following five qualities in communicating your vision:

  1. Inspiration: The way someone discusses the organization’s vision can be just as important as the content. Eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, and enthusiasm all contribute to the increased impact of the message. In this short interview, Sal Kahn, founder of Kahn Academy, describes his vision in a casual, upbeat, almost infectious way.
  2. Challenge: While simple works, easy does not. An element of challenge is critical. The Leadership Review study showed that vision discussions that were ambitious and difficult were actually perceived as a plus by employees. If you talk about your vision as fiercely maintaining the status quo, you’re not being effective. In 2005, when he was president of Walgreens., Jeff Rein told me about their vision for growth. Their research showed that most of us use whatever pharmacy is four miles or less from our home or work. His vision was to have a Walgreens store within four miles of most people’s offices or homes. Since then, the company has gone from 5,000 stores to 7,900.
  3. Clarity: Making a vision easily understood is critical. Drop the buzzwords and corporate speak. Use terms that are easily understood, unambiguous, and as simple as possible. There are a lot of clear mission statements out there, but my favorite was used by Nike in the 1960s: "Crush Adidas." The results from my own unscientific research study in which I counted the number of photos of athletes wearing Nike and Adidas shoes in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated: Nike 64, Adidas 8.
  4. Task–specific: At any level in the organization, the challenge for employees is to try to convert the vision into their day job. By mentioning specific tasks, actions, and behaviors that bring the vision to life, leaders can help employees convert the concept into practice. Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, in their Harvard Business Review article called "The Knowing Doing Gap," suggest that organizations use the act of creating and discussing mission/vision statements as one of the most common substitutes for actually taking action. The trick is to create a solid vision statement that is easily translatable by everyone in the organization into actions on their day-to-day job.
  5. Inclusion: Certain key words registered as more positive in the Leadership Review study. Inclusive language such as "we," "us," and "our," (instead of "they") tended to unify people to the vision. Leaders scored higher when they stated how they were personally living out the vision. Etweda "Sugars" Cooper, mayor of Edina, Liberia, describes her vision for the small town's future in the wake of 14 years of civil war in a way that embraces everyone involved.

In 2004, by which time Iams had been purchased by Procter & Gamble, another Iams employee jumped at the chance for her cover shot. Euka, a golden retriever whose job as Vice President of Canine Communications was to hang out at headquarters to greet guests and represent IAMS at corporate events, posed with Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley for Fortune—an outstanding example, by the way, of inclusion.

—Author Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user KayVee.INC]