Fresh out of graduate school, I went to work for a Fortune 500 company. Full of youthful enthusiasm, I attacked my first assignment with the passion of someone intent on making his mark on the business world. Within a few months, the project to which I had been assigned was cancelled and I immediately moved to another project. I attacked that next project with the same enthusiasm, certain that I was going to make a huge difference to the team and the company. Within two months that project was also cancelled.
One day I joined an eight-year veteran of the company for lunch. Tom had also been on the team of both projects, but had seemed rather unexcited about either one. Somehow the discussion got around to his obvious lack of enthusiasm and I curiously asked him about it. Tom’s story went something like this. “I used to lead the charge up every new hill, full of enthusiasm like you. But I’ve seen so many changes of direction that I finally learned to save my energy. I have no idea what this company is trying to accomplish. So instead of leading, I hang near the back — that way I don’t have to climb so high up the mountain before we start back down. I’m there — I’m just saving my energy.” Tom’s last word on the subject was, “Why are you charging up the hill?”
My immediate reaction was that this was Tom’s problem; I was charging up the hill to quickly make my mark on the business world by making a difference in this company. But as I thought about it more, I began to ask myself how I would make my mark if I didn’t know what the company was trying to accomplish, or if projects were rarely followed through to completion. So I wrestled with this question — How can I best use my ability and energy to accomplish something that will make a difference in the company?
The overall business of the company was clear to me. But where it was going and what the company wanted to achieve was a complete mystery. Sure, the company was there to make money, but that concept offered no practical help in my quest to make a difference. For a while I was very de-motivated: I didn’t understand how I could make a difference to the company, get recognized in some small way, and hopefully advance my career.
But I made up my mind; I was not going to be deterred. I resolved to set my own goals for the company and undertake things that I thought were in the best interest of the company, and that if I did those things, it would advance my career. I was not going to be hanging with the crowd in the back; I would find my own hill and I would lead the charge!
What’s wrong with this picture? Everything! On the one hand you have Tom who had become totally demoralized. He had come to believe that there was no point in working hard because the direction would only change again before anything was actually accomplished. He had no way of looking beyond the immediate assignment and understanding how he could make a difference.
On the other hand you had me, who had chosen to figure out what I thought needed to be done and pursue that. Without a clear goal for the company, in the back of my mind I substituted the goal of doing what would be in the best interest of my own career.
Both outcomes were bad news for the company.
The problem represented by Tom, and many others like him, should be obvious. The company was clearly squandering the talent and energy of a great number of employees. But I was still ready to work hard and I wanted to make a difference — so was I also a problem? The answer is yes.
Imagine a large group of employees, all picking and choosing how to apply their talents, and at least to some extent, motivated by their own personal agenda. This would undoubtedly lead to conflicting objectives pursued by highly motivated people — a clear recipe for causing internal strife and frustration. Yet in the absence of a clear company agenda, what choice do highly motivated people have?
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual situation. In fact, in my experience, this is the rule rather than the exception. How many people do you know who, when asked what the company they work for is all about and what it is trying to achieve, struggle with the answer? Why is that?
Creating an inspirational direction for a company — a clear vision statement — is not easy. It takes a complete understanding of your business, disciplined reasoning and a dose of creativity. That’s one of the reasons many companies have vision statements so vacuous that they are meaningless to the majority of employees.
How many vision statements have you heard that sound like this?
We will exceed the expectations of our customers, maintain a rewarding work environment, maximize returns to our shareholders, while infusing excellence in all that we do.
If you worked for this company, would you be inspired? Would you know what this company is all about? Is there any company that these statements would not apply to? No, no and no!
In my first article, Cultivating High Performance, we defined the model for cultivating high performance in larger, more complex companies. The model contains three principal elements: 1) creating an environment that draws out the best in people, 2) creating a clear and compelling roadmap that becomes the framework against which people’s energies (and other resources) are applied, and 3) ensuring consistent execution against the roadmap.
In the last two articles we focused on the first of these three elements — creating an environment that draws out the best in people. The first article talked about the power of inspired employees, while the second talked of creating an environment that sustains, rather than strangles, employee enthusiasm. In the next series of articles we’ll explore the second element — creating a clear and compelling roadmap that becomes the framework against which people’s energies are applied.
That framework begins with creating the inspiration around which employees can mobilize and commit their energies and talents — all neatly captured in a meaningful vision statement. But what differentiates an insightful, effective, and well-framed vision statement from the meaningless ones we see all too often?
Consider the following questions relative to your company’s vision statement:
- Does your company’s vision statement declare what you are going to do better than your competitors, what makes you different, and how you will beat the competition?
- Would your vision statement fit any of your competitors, or is it truly distinctive to you?
- Is it broad enough to encompass all you want to do without allowing things in which you have no distinctive competence?
- Is your vision clear and unambiguous? Is it specific enough?
- Is your vision statement what you “wish” would happen as opposed to something you believe the company can make happen?
Your candid answer to these illustrative questions will offer insight into whether your company’s vision statement can effectively inspire and guide employees as they apply their energy and talent to their jobs.
In the series of articles to come, we will explore not only the reasons for creating a meaningful vision statement, but the concepts that distinguish meaningful vision statements from the perfunctory ones that most companies produce.
Do you have a meaningful vision statement that clearly tells your team what the company is about and what it is trying to achieve? Is it something they can rally around and help focus their efforts? Or are you content to let them decide for themselves how to best apply their talent and energy for the company?