Dr. Sam Burch is a practitioner, student, and teacher of leadership. He is currently the Operations Manager at Avid CNC. He is also a leadership coach for the Professional Development Academy. Prior to these roles he spent 18 years working in transportation engineering. His career has encompassed many roles, from design engineer to project manager to vice-president. A common thread through all his roles and experience has been deep interest in people and how to better lead them in an organization. This interest was born from summers working for the family business, where he would discuss decisions his dad was making about the business and then experience first-hand the impact of those decisions as an employee. It was then he first started to realize the significant influence that leaders can have on the lives of those who follow them. To further explore that realization, he completed his MBA and then earned a PhD in leadership, focusing on servant leadership and motivation. Sam always looks forward to helping others strengthen their leadership abilities.
On Clarity of Purpose: Confessions of a Vision Skeptic
I have a confession. I really dislike the word vision. For me, it conjures up the image of a wizened gray-haired guru closing his eyes and espousing some words that sound important, but no one can really seem to grab practical meaning from. In graduate school, I nodded dutifully as professors touted the importance of having a clear vision. I underlined passages in books describing how to develop a vision statement and how it would transform an organization. I read prototypical mission and vision statements with a bit of cynicism, thinking they were largely fancy, contrived words put on paper and hung on a wall, because that was what you were supposed to do. These ornaments made it look like your organization had it together, but it seemed they didn’t really impact the people on the front lines, doing the work.
Then I experienced an organization that truly lacked vision. The experience was a little disorienting. Individual meetings and tasks seemed to be productive and relatively efficient, but after some time I realized that nothing was being accomplished toward any particular goal. The lack of direction became painfully evident as I had a sense of DeJa’Vu a couple months into my tenure. I would be in a leadership meeting and swear we had had the same discussion previously, only to flip back in my notes and discover we had had the discussion, and it ended the same way, with no action. But why?
We had capable people on the leadership team with good ideas that could help our organization. Our discussions were lively and we worked through many sides of an issue. We identified many potential areas for change and ways to implement that change. My first thought was that the issue stemmed from no one owning the actions. It seemed better notes and action items might resolve the issue. But as I stepped back and reflected on my observations, I realized the issue was deeper. The ideas we had, while good, seemed scattered. We would discuss one focus for marketing one month and the next month we would talk about going in a completely different direction, with little thought to what had been discussed previously. I realized that the only decisions being made were those related to keeping the organization running or averting a crisis. The organization consisted of high functioning individuals with good insight and a desire for making change, but with no collective purpose and direction to guide them. The outcome was an organization adept at responding to immediate needs and emergencies, but which, in the absence of some pressing matter, lacked focus. We lacked that word I loved to loath, vision.
Call it what you want: vision, mission, purpose, goals, focus, however you title it, vision can be one of those phenomena that is not really noticed until it is absent. Sure, there are some organizations that have such a strong, clear, and focused vision that it is always front of mind.
My experience, however, is that often organizational vision is more subtle, less clear, and only understood at the highest levels of management.
It is a leader’s responsibility to know why having a vision is important and then to make it clear and ensure it is communicated throughout the organization he or she is responsible for. In today’s busy and ever pressed businesses it is easy for executive leaders to get bogged down in the crises and needs of the day to day, and to feel very effective while doing so. But if leaders are not consistently and persistently refining and communicating vision, they may find their organizations are very effectively going in circles.
So how does one get out of this situation? First, take time to understand your organization. The components of a purpose or vision are usually there, unarticulated or dormant, just waiting to be unlocked. Look, listen, observe, and discuss with others the purpose of your organization. Look for those consistent themes that come up when you ask people what it is the organization does and why they do it. This process will give you the building blocks for your vision. Then take these building blocks and begin crafting a vision that is coherent and communicates clarity of purpose to your organization. Take time to read it and let it marinate. Does it still ring true after a few days? If so, then you are on the right track. Show it to others who were not involved in creating it. When they tell you what it means, does it reflect what you intended? If so, then you are probably ready to start communicating it.
Once you have articulated your vision, evaluate what needs to change to make that vision clear to the organization. Do this by asking three questions: Do people know what the organization is doing? Do they know why they are doing it? Do they know how they are going to do it? These three questions will give a leader insight as to where to focus communication efforts to bring clarity that will guide people toward the desired outcomes. Make it clear where your organization is headed, why that is a good place, and what skills and resources it will take to get there. People want to see that their leader has a plan, a map, so that they have confidence that their efforts are not futile.
Creating a vision doesn’t have to be difficult and mysterious. In fact, I still shy way from the word vision. It gets too much attention, and it is not understood by many leaders and followers alike. I prefer to use purpose, direction, focus, or goal. These words are more commonly understood and people don’t tune them out as much. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, as long as your people know where they are going, why they are going there, and what the plan is to get there.