Vision and Strategy with Teeth

I recently visited with a local company that had its vision statement posted proudly on the wall of the reception area. As the day’s visit went on, I began to feel as if I had entered a Dilbert comic strip: a twilight zone of meaningless verbiage and clueless leadership residing where real vision should be.

Although the CEO said he felt very strongly about the company’s vision, and the physical document was plastered everywhere, not one person could show me where or how the vision impacted their work. No one could speak to how it was measured, what the company’s way forward to its fulfillment is or how each individual contributed. My visit with the CFO was positively surreal. Not one of the bullets in the vision statement was integrated into financial metrics or even had a meaningful line item in the budgeting process. No wonder vision, mission and strategy get a bad name. These should not be academic exercises; these should be the guiding star and battle plan of any organization.

During the dot-com era, vision and strategy were considered old school. Vision was often replaced with “world hegemony” and strategy was reduced to “get big fast.” Sadly, as companies have begun to return to the fundamentals, vision and strategy are too often reduced to soft statements of feel-good intention, sterilized statements about profitability or trite rhetoric about market leadership.

A vision statement needs to be grounded in something tangible. It can be a page or a paragraph or even a uniting symbol for shorthand — but it has to capture an observable end-state. A good vision is the company flag that everyone can salute, even if there are disagreements about what it really stands for and how the company will achieve it. A vision statement inspires employees and guides their daily actions and decisions. It represents an achievable ideal and should be among the main reasons people join or stay with a company.

Strategy then describes how vision will be accomplished. Although there are brilliant scholars of strategy writing at all levels, for most companies, I find the research done by Jim Collins most accessible. In “Good to Great,” Collins identifies a hedgehog-like focus of a company that defines their path to fulfilling against the vision. Every company must handle basic blocking and tackling in areas such as R/D, sales, efficiency, customer service, supply chain, etc. Your market and competitive environment will help you understand what core ability can be developed into a sustainable advantage. For most companies, when that advantage is realized, it becomes the primary strategy.

Where we slip into the Dilbert Zone is when leadership uses rhetoric as a strategy. If for instance you claim that your strategy is grounded in making each employee as effective as possible, I will likely ask how much you spend on recruiting and how your salary levels compare to similar companies. I will want to know how much freedom and decision power your front-line people have and what your training budget looks like. I will look at tools and processes to see how they help people get work done. Similarly, you cannot claim to be customer-centered if your staffing model is so thin that customers cannot get help buying product or getting service.

If a company has done a good job of strategy, a keen observer should be able to ascertain that strategy (and by association, your company vision) by looking at the budget and performance measurements for managers. If you cannot find either spending or management monitoring for an area in your company vision, you may want to revisit how important that item really is.

A strategy may be flawed and therefore changed. But the fastest way to lose credibility with vendors, employees, analysts and customers is to talk a talk without walking the walk.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, August 23, 2004.