Culture, Scale-up, Startup

The Company Promise Statement – Vision

 
What World Are You Creating?
Whether we realize it or not, every moment in our lives we are creating a reality. It may be limited to our immediate family or even ourselves, or it may touch millions or even billions of people for generations to come. Either way, we are all in a continual state of creation and it bears some level of reflection as to whether we are fulfilled by the world we are creating for ourselves and for others.
 
In your daily life, how intentional are you about making a positive impact? What kinds of causes do you really care about? What do you find truly compelling and inspiring? What moves you to action? What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want to bring into being?
 
In Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he shared the vision of a world of equality, freedom, and justice where nobody would be judged based on the color of their skin. Leading a nonviolent movement to protest racial inequality in the United States, translating his vision into actions, he forever changed the world for the better for African Americans. That is the power of creating a compelling vision, and sharing it with others to inspire them into action.
 
Using a business example, Walt Disney envisioned “a family park where parents and children could have fun, together”. Guided by his vision, the company opened the doors to Disneyland in 1955, overcoming numerous obstacles along the way. Renowned all over the world as a wonderful place for families to visit, one can see the impact of Disney’s initial vision, and how its pursuit and execution has enriched the lives of hundreds of millions and created countless happy memories.
 
After purpose, vision is the second key component of a Company Promise Statement. In our earlier post, we went over how a compelling and inspiring company purpose helps engender customer loyalty and team productivity. The purpose — why we exist as a company and are driven to do what we do — inspires the vision, which is the aspirational world we are seeking to create. And as we will outline in the future, the vision is subsequently brought into reality by the mission, or what the people in the company do every day, and all of these are guided by the core values.
 
We will delve deeper into the mission next time. For now, more on establishing a vision for your company.
 
What is a Vision?
What is a vision and, more specifically, a company vision?
 
According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, a vision is defined as “the ability to think about or plan the future with great imagination and intelligence.” It is also defined as “an idea or a picture in your imagination” and, importantly, “the faculty or state of being able to see”.
 
For our purposes, a vision is a future state of being, a picture of the world. It is a world we want to bring into existence.
 
[As with the purpose, there is no judgment on whether your vision is a positive and uplifting one, or a destructive one. For the purposes of this post, however, we are going to assume a spirit of constructiveness, that your vision is of a world that is beneficial for your team, customers, investors, community and of course, yourself and your family.]
 
On a personal level, a vision for your life can be a very useful touchstone for what you want to create in and with your life. It can serve as a guiding destination for your important life decisions (“will this path help in the realization of my life’s vision?”), and a mental picture that you will draw upon to remind yourself of what you are aiming for when times get difficult, as they inevitably will.
 
Indulge me for a moment in a little detour on art history: measuring approximately 2 meters by 3 meters (7 feet by 10 feet) in size, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by French painter, Georges Seurat, is estimated to be composed of approximately 220,000 individual dots of paint that Seurat diligently and meticulously applied over a two-year period from 1884 to 1886. Why is that important in the context of a post about vision? Because it is inconceivable that Seurat would have been able to paint Sunday Afternoon without a vision in his mind of what he was striving for. With that vision in his mind, it was a matter of applying his tiny dots of colour, diligently and patiently, and – every once in a while – pulling back to see how the painting was progressing against the vision he had in his mind. Sunday Afternoon was ultimately the result of excellent execution against the starting point of a clear picture in his mind of what he wanted to create.
 
 
[Seurat was one of the leading practitioners of a style of painting called pointillism, in which the painter applies thousands of small, individual dots of colour in order to depict an overall scene or picture. Sunday Afternoon, which graces one of the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a vivid depiction of a serene scene of the French bourgeoisie in a park by the banks of the Seine, North of the Bois de Boulogne in the Western outskirts of Paris.]
 
Similarly, a company vision is there to guide you and your team. It starts with a canvas that you paint in your mind to form a mental image that you then communicate clearly and repeatedly to align your team and company to realize. In a startup, you might commence with a smaller picture and then expand it over time as you grow. Alternatively, you may have an enormous vision in your mind, but understand that you will bring it into being in stages and thus focus on a small part of it to start. As your company grows, you will engage others on your leadership team and in the organization to not only grasp the broad outline of the vision as clearly as you do, but also actively contribute to its shaping. They will focus their teams on creating their respective contributions to that overall vision, and through active collaboration with their colleagues, help bring the whole, overarching vision into being.
 
A company vision guides you and your team. It starts with a canvas that you paint in your mind to form a mental image that you then communicate clearly and repeatedly to align your team and company to realize.
 
[It is worth noting that as much as great works and accomplishments may be ascribed to an individual, there is invariably a team there to assist and support them. Michelangelo, for example, like many great artists of the time, had numerous assistants. As such, we may think of them as companies rather than individuals, which does not take anything away from the power and impact that their realized visions have had.]
 
Company Visions vs BHAGs
There are many different approaches to company vision statements, which can easily lead to confusion for business owners wanting to create one for themselves and their companies. For example, visions often get mixed up with missions and Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). We will discuss missions in our next series of posts. For now, let’s dive into the distinction between the vision – which we define as open-ended – and the BHAG – which is a goal that is finite in measure and time.
 
An example of an open-ended vision statement is John D. Rockefeller Jr’s vision for the Rockefeller Center: “a place where New Yorkers could come and surround themselves with art and motifs that celebrated the best of the human spirit”. It clearly describes a world he wanted to see and help bring into being, and it has no fixed measure or finite timing for its accomplishment. While the Rockefeller Center website considers the vision to have been “spectacularly realized”, one can easily argue that it is an ongoing vision that is continually being brought into being for current and future New Yorkers.
 
BHAGs are a concept first conceived and popularized by thought leaders Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 classic analysis of top-performing companies, Built to Last. A BHAG is a goal and as such, is most effectively stated with the context of a finite accomplishment and time frame. In Jim Collins’s words, “The best BHAGs require both building for the long term AND exuding a relentless sense of urgency.” An excellent example of a BHAG is Walmart’s goal, stated in 1990, to “become a $125 billion company by the year 2000.” Note the finite objective ($125 billion) and timeline (2000) – which Walmart ended beating in both amount and timing.
 
My recommendation is to at least start by crafting an open-ended vision statement that applies to the world you and your company are bringing into existence, and that can position your company as the prime driver of this inspiring world. Just as you use your purpose to help you come up with your vision, you can then proceed to create quantified milestones and timelines along your journey, such as the BHAG, the 3-year Highly Achievable Goal (“3HAG”), and annual and quarterly operating plans.
 
Company Vision vs. BHAG
Vision
BHAG
Definition
An aspirational world the company or organization is striving to bring into existence.
An aspirational objective for the company that is finite and quantified in accomplishment and timeline.
Key Elements
  • Authentic
  • Transcendent
  • Enduring
  • Activating
  • Memorable
  • Authentic
  • Company-focused
  • Finite (objective, timeframe)
  • Activating
  • Memorable
 
Scope
World
Company
Specific Goal
No
Yes
Finite Timeframe
No
Yes
Example
Rockefeller Center: “a place where New Yorkers could come and surround themselves with art and motifs that celebrated the best of the human spirit.”
John F. Kennedy: “I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
 
Hopefully we have provided some clarity as to what a company vision is, and how a BHAG is related to it. For the remainder of this post, we will focus primarily on the open-ended variety of vision statements with occasional references to BHAGs.
 
What is the Value in Having a Company Vision?
With a vision, the point is not to create an aspiration, put it up on a poster and forget about it. Rather, it is to inspire and instill the vision in employees’ minds, and to also live and fulfill it every day. So what is the value that is created in having and aligning your team around the pursuit of a company vision?
 
The Value of a Vision
A strong company vision has a direct correlation with company success because everyone is working towards an aspirational goal, together. For example, in one study referenced by Forbes, employees who found their organization’s vision to be meaningful showed engagement levels of 68%, more than four times higher than employees who didn’t find their organization’s vision to be meaningful.
 
 
 
Let’s look at three specific examples where a clear vision has been the source of an enormous amount of value creation.
 
Microsoft
A strong vision statement that your employees know and are aligned behind executing every day is powerful and can change the world. Microsoft’s early guiding vision — “a computer on every desk and in every home” — is an excellent example of not only the power of the vision, but the importance of it being instilled in the company and repeated to the point where it becomes a mantra for everyone in the organization.
 
“The power of a shared vision cannot be emphasized enough. I believe this truly differentiated Microsoft from most of our competitors. We knew where we were going. We all knew the vision. And Bill ensured the vision, and the ways in which we would advance it were kept in front of us all. We would even be tested on the vision and other product strategies at our national sales meetings. It was not an accident that we all knew the Microsoft Vision.” – from Microsoft Secrets by Dave Jaworski
 
Even Bill Gates himself did not realize the power that their initial guiding vision would have on the company, and the world. When announcing that he would be transitioning from Microsoft to philanthropy, he said, “When Paul Allen and I started Microsoft over 30 years ago, we had big dreams about software. We had dreams about the impact it could have. We talked about a computer on every desk and in every home. It’s been amazing to see so much of that dream become a reality and touch so many lives. I never imagined what an incredible and important company would spring from those original ideas.”
 
Space-X and Tesla
Let’s consider Elon Musk. Musk has made the preservation of humanity his life’s work, whether through a drive to renewable energy (Tesla, Solar City) here on Earth or making humanity into a multi-planetary species. His vision statement for SpaceX, “a permanent human presence on Mars”, has been the guiding light for all decisions surrounding the company, and the Starship rockets which will launch cargo and humans to the moon and Mars. In a very short timeframe by the standards of the space industry, the company has become one of the foremost vendors, including securing a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to carry supplies to the International Space Station and being selected to be the next vessel to bring Americans to the moon – a natural intermediate step in taking humankind to Mars. Oh, and the rockets are reusable, which aligns with his commitment to sustainability echoed in Tesla’s vision statement.
 
On its website, Tesla does not specifically state its vision but does say “an entire sustainable energy ecosystem – that’s the future we want.” In that statement, it references its work to produce and combine “electric cars, batteries, and renewable energy generation and storage” that already exist independently but become even more powerful when combined. And they have clearly made very meaningful progress down this road. Tesla not only popularized the fully electric vehicle but has also accelerated its adoption by catalyzing other automakers, such as Ford, Audi, and Porsche, to develop their own electric vehicles. Many people subscribe to Tesla’s vision, which is a testament to how one CEO and their company’s inspiring vision can resonate not only with employees but also with customers and even competitors to help make that vision into a reality. Musk’s bold visions for SpaceX and Tesla, founded on his purpose, have already created and continue to create enormous levels of value for the world.
 
Amazon
Another notable example is Amazon. Jeff Bezos started selling books online in 1994, competing with established booksellers like Barnes & Noble. In his 1999 letter to shareholders, Bezos wrote “Our vision is to use this platform to build Earth’s most customer-centric company, a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” In this statement, we can isolate “a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online” as the vision for what the company is to become, while “to build Earth’s most customer-centric company” is the mission they are undertaking that will enable them to realize that vision.
 
With respect to the vision, in 2013 Brad Stone popularized the term The Everything Store with respect to Amazon. Today, 28 years since its founding and only 22 years since Bezos’s aforementioned letter to shareholders, Amazon sells more than 12 million products from coffee makers and TVs to clothes and fresh produce, right to your door. There is no doubt that Amazon is exceptionally successful – no other CEO has created as much shareholder value as Jeff Bezos has. While it wasn’t all smooth sailing along the way, Bezos held true to his guiding vision from the very start, overcoming challenges and steering strategic decisions that continues to guide the company to “find and discover anything they might want to buy online”.
 
Vision: The CEO’s Primary Responsibility
Hopefully by this point, you will have a sense for the indisputable value that the establishment and instilling of a company vision can help to produce.
 
For companies with a vision, Tony Robbins says, “​​When you decide what’s most important to you, your brain goes after it.”
 
Conversely, it has been said that “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” (the Bible) and “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there,” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland). Wherever you may seek your wisdom, what is clear is that if there is no direction guiding the company and its employees, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and potentially chaos will ensue.
 
Despite the value of having and aligning your company around a vision, many organizations do not have one. Why would that be? A survey of 1,500 executives for Mastering Strategic Management provides a clue: “When asked to identify the most important characteristics of effective strategic leaders, 98 percent of the executives listed ‘a strong sense of vision’ first.” “Meanwhile, 90 percent of the executives expressed serious doubts about their own ability to create a vision. Not surprisingly, ‘many organizations do not have formal visions.’”
 
And there we have it. Many companies do not have formal visions because – despite a “strong sense of vision” being overwhelmingly considered the most important characteristic of effective strategic leaders – the vast majority of CEOs have serious doubts about their own ability to create one.
 
And why is that? Speaking from experience when I have been similarly challenged, I can point to a few possibilities:
 
  • The CEO may be more comfortable with day-to-day operations and lack the ability to think out that far;
  • The CEO may feel that it is their responsibility to come up with the vision, but lack the natural facility to do so on their own and be reluctant to display vulnerability by engaging others – Board, Advisors, the team – to assist them;
  • CEO’s are generally fanatical about measuring their progress. A vision, on the other hand, is generally not quantified, is unmeasurable, and thus it can be challenging to assess if one is really making progress;
  • In the case that a vision is quantified (e.g. a BHAG), the CEO may not feel confident looking that far into the future (e.g. 25+ years) given how dynamic and ever-changing the world is;
  • The CEO may feel that if they do create a BHAG, they will not make meaningful progress within the next 3-5 years, and thus be concerned about a sense of failure in both themselves and their teams.
 
There are likely myriad other reasons, but irrespective of what they may be, it is still the CEO’s primary responsibility to create and evangelize the vision both internally and externally. Arguably, it is the single most important function of the CEO role.
 
Note that there is some question as to when is the right time to formulate your vision. Let’s look at two situations: 1) startup business; and 2) ongoing business. For a startup business, having a compelling and inspiring purpose is what you use to attract initial co-founders, advisors and team members, not to mention customers and investors, and it is also helpful to have as clear a vision as you can craft at that point. That being said, you don’t want to be overly rigid about the initial vision as the initial stages of market testing may guide you to iterate on your vision. For an ongoing business, however, in which the team members are not in constant communication with one another, not having a vision will likely create the challenges we have outlined related to misalignment, team member disengagement and customer drift, not to mention reduced access to capital. In other words, whether outlined in broad brushstrokes (startup) or more definitively (ongoing business), the best time to have formulated your vision was yesterday and if you don’t already have one, then today is the best time to get started.
 
The best time to have formulated your vision was yesterday and if you don’t already have one, then today is the best time to get started.
 
Bearing the above in mind, it borders on a dereliction of duty for a CEO to not have a well-formulated vision that s/he is sharing both internally and externally. To be clear, I am not preaching here as I know that some of my former team members would be quick to accuse me of having fallen down on this fundamental responsibility. Which still begs the question of what comprises a company vision and how do we come up with it? Let’s walk through these together.
 
How to Come up with Your Vision
For clarity, we are going to focus our efforts on creating the unbounded, open-ended vision statement. We are also going to assume that whatever your vision may be, it will address a sufficiently great need or want for a sufficiently large number of people for you to be able to build a sustainable business offering products and services that they will value.
 
Below are a series of steps you can follow to create your vision statement. Requesting your team’s participation in coming up with your vision is an excellent way to not only engage them, but also to generate a better, more enduring vision that the team will feel more aligned with than if you had crafted it in an ivory tower and handed it down to them.
 
Let’s proceed on the basis that you are engaging your team in the exercise of crafting the vision. How do we go about creating a strong company vision that can unite and lead?
Assemble and Empower Your Core Team
  1. Gather a team of employees (say 4 to 12, depending on the size of your company) whom you consider to be good representatives of what you look for in team members. Typically, this might include attributes such as strong performance, commitment to the team, and effective communication skills. Ultimately, you want those individuals to form a diverse team that embodies your company’s core values – which we will address in a later post.
  2. Once you have established your core team, share with them the company purpose that you will have already developed. Go on to discuss the importance and value of a strong company vision and establish a framework (such as the core elements shared in this post) that you will use as a team to align on the vision.
  3. Once you are aligned with your core team, we recommend opening up the conversation to the entire company.
 
Solicit Input From Your Team
Assuming you are comfortable soliciting input from your entire company (which we recommend), your core team will request responses to a few questions from the entire team. These will then act as a foundation for creating a draft company vision. Here are some sample steps to follow:
  1. Announce to the company that you are crafting (or updating) the company vision. Invite them to engage in the creation of the company’s vision on a voluntary basis as you want everyone to feel comfortable in providing any opinions they may wish to share. That being said, if you notice that overall participation is lower than you expected, there may be deeper cultural issues that you will want to look into relating to team members’ comfort level in speaking up and sharing their thoughts.
  2. In the invitation email or conversation, share the company purpose, and provide an overview of what a vision is and its value. If you have a company vision at the present time, share it for reference and the reason you are seeking to update it. You want your team members to have the full context and to feel empowered to contribute when responding to the questions to follow.
  3. Ask the employees to submit short responses to the questions below. Note that the key here is to receive as much input as possible. As such, you will want to enable formats of response – whether it be video, audio, email or other – that are comfortable, easy, and accessible for the greatest number of employees. We have provided some sample questions below but you and your core team will want to modify these as you see fit:
  4. What words come to mind when you think about what our company does? (example: SpaceX – rockets, space travel, innovation)
  5. How do you think we as a company can make the world a better place? (example: SpaceX – increase space exploration; reusable rockets; bring down the cost and increase the safety of space travel)
  6. What is a world that you would like to see our company help bring about? (example: human settlement on Mars; interplanetary travel)
 
Craft Your Vision
Now that your core team has received inputs from the broader team, you are ready to start refining the key concepts and drafting a vision statement that is:
  • Authentic – will your team and stakeholders see the vision as aligned with your competence and passion?
  • Transcendent – will the vision improve the lives of others and ultimately, make the world a better place?
  • Enduring – will this vision continue to provide direction and a destination for the company for years to come?
  • Activating – will your team, your customers, your investors and your community be motivated to help you bring the vision into being?
  • Memorable – will you and your team remember the vision and keep it top of mind to keep you focused on its achievement?
How do you go about crafting the actual vision statement? We provide sample steps to follow below.
  1. Have the core team review the inputs from the broader team. Note key themes that come up repeatedly, which might include sentiments or even specific words. Have each team member, or subgroups of your core team, come back with the themes that they felt best represented the company’s purpose and direction.
  2. Brainstorm and write down visions of future states that you think the company is well-positioned to bring into existence. With a larger core team, you may want to break into smaller groups and re-convene with options to share.
  3. As a team, prioritize the possibilities of visions based on those that resonate the most with you at a visceral level.
  4. Tie the possible visions to your previously chosen company purpose. Which ones seem to connect together the best?
  5. Once you have culled the list, take the first vision and ask yourself: why is it important to you?
  6. Whatever your response, ask yourself why is that important to you?
  7. By repeating steps 5 and 6 for every possible vision presented, determine what resonates most for your company vision. Combine concepts and wordsmith as required. Either way, we recommend that you aim to come away with one draft company vision to run by your team for feedback.
 
Test Your Vision
 
Your Core Team
By this point you will have come up with a strong working draft of your company’s vision statement. Now, it’s time to test it with your core team. Some questions to ask yourselves include:
 
  • Does it address the five elements outlined in the Craft Your Vision section above?
  • Does the vision resonate with you and will working toward it provide you with a sense of fulfillment?
  • Will you view your company’s pursuit of the vision as a higher calling worthy of defending?
  • When the going gets tough and you are going through challenging times, will reminding yourself of your vision re-energize you?
  • If you had to choose between increasing revenues and staying true to your vision, would you choose the latter?
 
If you and your core team are not sufficiently satisfied with your responses to the questions above, we recommend that you revisit the earlier steps.
 
Key Advisors
Once you and your core team have aligned on the draft vision statement, run it – still in draft form – by a broader group of interested parties to invite their feedback and impressions. This group might include the employees who were most engaged in providing input (who were not part of your core team), your Board, Advisors, key customers, and key suppliers. What associations do people have with this vision? Do positive or negative connotations come up when considering the vision and the words it contains?
 
If you are getting less than positive responses to the draft vision, perhaps something important was missed. In that case, we strongly recommend you go back to the drawing board and revisit the statement: it is critical to get the vision right for your company and its direction.
 
Entire Company
After discussing the draft vision with your Key Advisors and applying their feedback, you are finally ready to share the vision with the entire company. Before doing a big roll-out or publishing your vision anywhere, let your team know that this statement is pretty much final but to raise any red flags, in case something critical was missed completely. This is a great way to do one final round of quality assurance and to protect your company in case of human error. Better safe than sorry, right?
 
Use It!
Congratulations! You are done crafting your company vision! This is a significant moment! You followed a process to decide on your company vision, engaged your team in providing input and in crafting the company vision that will guide you for years to come. But, you’re not done quite yet. How do you go about instilling and living the vision that you created, and making it powerfully effective for your company?
 
What won’t generate lasting benefit is to share your vision with your team once at a company all hands meeting or, worse, in a company email. Rather, as with the Microsoft example quoted above, it must be communicated repeatedly and in a variety of ways, to multiple audiences internally and externally. Being open and vocal about your company vision puts a stake in the ground, creating a promise amongst you and your team members, that you and your team will be drawn to delivering upon. It may feel a bit forced and, given how grandiose your vision will likely sound, even potentially inauthentic at first. However, as you continue to repeat it and make progress on it, the more you will be able to identify examples of how you are collectively bringing it into existence, positively reinforcing it for the whole team.
 
You do want your team to get to the point where they have internalized the vision and are able to recite it easily. Remembering the vision is a critical precedent step to helping to realize it! And this is a step where many companies fail out of the gate. In a survey of more than 2,000 UK employees, for example, 52% cannot recite their organization’s vision. As in many other cases, overcommunication and repetition are key here to helping ingrain it in your team’s minds.
 
An important consideration to take into account as you evangelize the vision is how well you are translating it to the rest of your organization. You want to make it real and useful for your team to bring to life in their daily jobs. One way in which you can do this is by having each of your area leaders (e.g. Product, Sales, Marketing, Development, Finance, People) clarify how their respective areas contribute to the realization of the vision. In addition to this top-down approach, you may find it useful to show junior team members how their work and projects contribute to the big picture and help them understand how what they do makes a meaningful impact.
 
Your vision will also translate well into shorter-term goals to guide your team’s more immediate efforts. As discussed previously, you can narrow your aspirational vision statement into long-term operating goals such as the BHAG, as well as intermediate-level ones like the 3HAG (3-year highly achievable goal) and even to your annual operating plan’s annual and quarterly goals. And, as we will see in future posts, the vision naturally progresses into the establishment of your mission, which helps your team focus on what to be doing on an ongoing basis.
 
Bear in mind that change, by definition, is disruptive. Your team may be concerned about how much additional work may come with the pursuit of the new vision. Empathize with these concerns, be transparent about any challenges you may run into, and provide reassurance that you are on the right path. As you proceed, you and your team will come to realize the clarity, alignment and focus that having an inspiring vision will evoke in your activities.
 
As a final note, you may want to revisit the vision from time to time. Ideally you will have established a vision that can serve as your company’s guiding light for many years to come. However, over time there is always the possibility, given the increasingly dynamic and global nature of all business, that you may find some element of your vision can be better expressed in a slightly different manner than what you put together. Fortunately, if you are continually communicating and positively reinforcing your vision, you will be sensitive to any potential disconnects. You may also want to establish set intervals (for example, every year or every five years) for revisiting the vision and either reaffirming it, or updating it. Given the long term nature of the vision, it’s typically sweeping scope, and its dissemination throughout your company, you will want any changes to be for a very good reason. For example, in 2018 Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, stated that he felt that Microsoft’s original vision of a computer on every desk and in every home had been effectively realized in developed countries, and committed to updating the vision for the company.
 
Enough with the theory. Let’s look at some real-life examples.
 
Examples
While it is more effective to have a vision than to not have one, not every company’s vision is inspiring and compelling. Many companies make the vision about themselves rather than about the world they are creating, which introduces an element of selfishness and by definition diminishes the scope of the vision in such a manner as to undermine the level of effort and zeal that most people will be willing to dedicate to its fulfillment. The key is to create an aspiration that everyone from staff to shareholders can buy into and be inspired by.
 
Let’s assess a few real-world examples using our definition of a vision – a world we are striving to bring into being – and our ATEAM checklist. Below are some stated company purposes, with my remarks and proposed rephrasing to (in my opinion) make them even more compelling and inspiring. As with when we reviewed purpose, let’s be clear that we are looking at filling the empty part of the glass in this exercise, as the fact that these companies even have a vision, let alone make it available externally, already sets them apart from most companies.
 
General Motors (GM)
 
Vision definition check: is it a world they are aiming to bring into being? Yes, definitely.
  • Authentic. Great: crashes, emission and congestion all relate in some way to the automotive industry and thus well within GM’s ability to influence.
  • Transcendent. Very good: they are looking beyond GM itself to a desirable condition for the world.
  • Enduring. Excellent: this is an aspirational vision that will be difficult to achieve but always worth pursuing.
  • Activating. Fair: there is a focus on what we want to avoid (an avoidance goal) as opposed to what we want (an approach goal). Psychology research indicates that framing objectives in an approach rather than avoidance manner increases motivation and achievement. In this case, GM may have elected to highlight in the elimination of the negative what they see as being more top of mind for most consumers.
  • Memorable. Very good: most people, whether employees or otherwise, will be able to remember the core concepts of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. Even if the specific words are not kept in mind, the notion of no crashes, emissions and congestion distills the vision to three simple ideas that are easy to retain.
Possible Alternative: A world of safe, sustainable and effortless transportation.
 
Microsoft
“A microcomputer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software.”
 
This is a very interesting case study. With a bit of research, you will find two versions of Microsoft’s early guiding vision, as stated above. Based on what we have outlined above, the first statement is a vision, in that it goes beyond the company. The second one is closer to a BHAG in that it is a long-term company-focused vision with a quantified goal, though it lacks a timeline for completion (e.g. “By 2025, a microcomputer….” While we will focus our analysis below on the first, open-ended vision statement, note the consistency and alignment here between the vision (what we want for the world) and the pseudo-BHAG (what we want for the company in the context of that world).
 
Vision definition check: is it a world they are aiming to bring into being? Absolutely, yes.
  • Authentic. Very good: Microsoft had a more direct ability to influence the software than the hardware but their statement conveys that every home and desk having a computer is more palpable and understandable for most consumers and businesses.
  • Transcendent. Excellent: most people – and bear in mind that this is from the 1980s, before concerns about digital detoxing – will agree that having mass adoption of computers is desirable.
  • Enduring. Very good: in the 1980s, this was a very bold and aspirational vision. Even now, while we are much closer to achieving it, it continues to be beyond our immediate grasp if we are looking from the perspective of the entire world.
  • Activating. Excellent: This vision would be inspiring to anyone who worked in the computer and software industry and wanted to change the world. Note that by focusing on the computer rather than the software, the vision also subtly introduces a requirement for the Microsoft team to focus on their hardware partners and end customers.
  • Memorable. Excellent: most people will remember having heard at least some variant of the phrase such as “a computer on every desk” or “a computer in every home”. Even if they do not know where it came from, there will be a positive imprint in their mind that will be conveyed to Microsoft if and when they come to realize that Microsoft was the source of it. Note as well here that as per the quotation we shared earlier, Microsoft made a point of instilling the vision within the company, and having strong commitment and alignment to the vision undoubtedly enabled its many employees to become communicators and evangelists of that vision externally, further increasing its memorability more broadly.
Possible Alternative: None. Microsoft’s early vision is about as good as it gets.
 
IKEA
 
Is it a world they are aiming to bring into being? Hmm, not really. It is what they want to do, which is actually a mission, as opposed to a world they want to bring into being. Let’s continue all the same.
  • Authentic. Good: IKEA arguably has the capability to help create a better everyday life for others, but so does every other company or person on Earth. In other words, a bit too vague and not connected enough to what IKEA uniquely does and provides.
  • Transcendent. Good: it is about more than IKEA, but it would be more transcendent if they envisioned a world beyond the immediate IKEA ecosystem of customers, co-workers, and their suppliers’ employees.
  • Enduring. Excellent: creating a better everyday life will never be fully achieved and it will always be a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Activating. Very good: While not strongly transcendent, the focus on the IKEA ecosystem gives their team members a focus – as in what am I doing here and now to make someone’s everyday life better?
  • Memorable. Fair: I would actually rate the full statement as poor in that it is a non-sonorous assemblage of words that only the most committed team members might memorize, and almost certainly no one else. However, the very abridged phrase “better everyday life” is memorable.
Possible Alternative: Well-designed and reasonably-priced products for all homes.
 
Oxfam
We have a vision of a just and sustainable world. A world where people and the planet are at the center of our economy. Where women and girls live free from violence and discrimination. Where the climate crisis is contained. And where governance systems are inclusive and allow for those in power to be held to account.”
 
For the purposes of this analysis, we will focus on the first statement. However, it is worth noting that Oxfam does a very good job here of expanding in the ensuing sentences on what they mean in the first one.
 
Is it a world they are aiming to bring into being? Yes, definitely.
  • Authentic. Great: as an organization that is a “global movement of people who are fighting inequality to end poverty and injustice”, they have established significant credibility in pursuing a just and sustainable world. If we really want to split hairs, they are using a specific connotation of the term “sustainable” that has been somewhat co-opted and used more prominently by those in the climate space advocating for a world of environmental sustainability.
  • Transcendent. Excellent: this is about the entire world, not Oxfam or any particular constituent.
  • Enduring. Excellent: our collective pursuit of the ideal of a just and sustainable world will likely outlive us.
  • Activating. Excellent: who wouldn’t be inspired to pursue that world?
  • Memorable. Excellent: “a just and sustainable world” is very memorable.
Possible Alternative: None. It is excellent as is.
 
Alzheimer’s Association
 
Is it a world they are aiming to bring into being? Yes.
  • Authentic. Excellent: Alzheimer’s is almost synonymous with dementia, and it is hard to argue with the Alzheimer’s Association being the one to eradicate Alzheimer’s and dementia in the world.
  • Transcendent. Great: while there is a focus on Alzheimer’s in particular, they also extend their vision beyond to include other forms of dementia. It is clearly a vision that is beneficial to all, and not just to themselves.
  • Enduring. Great: while I certainly hope that we rid this world of Alzheimer’s and dementia in our lifetimes, it is very conceivable that this will still be a world we are aspiring to bring into being for many years to come.
  • Activating. Fair: As with GM, note the focus here on what we want to avoid or eliminate (avoidance) as opposed to what we want to create (approach). It is likely that they intentionally chose this wording due to the general awareness of Alzheimer’s and being a non-profit, they want instant and emotional association with their cause for fundraising purposes. That is already communicated by the name of their organization, and I would personally opt for a more positive vision of the world. Anyone who has had a family member affected by Alzheimer’s will be very motivated by the vision of a world without it, though the addition of the vague reference to all other dementia reduces one’s ability to know what specifically to focus on and the avoidant framing may limit their ability to appeal to a broader audience beyond those who have family members who have been affected by the disease.
  • Memorable. Great: the part relating to the world without Alzheimers in particular is highly memorable, though the vagueness of “all other dementia” diminishes its memorability somewhat.
Possible Alternatives: Healthy minds at all ages.
 
Khan Academy
 
While Khan Academy does not specifically call out the above statement as their vision, it figures prominently on the About Us page on their website. And if we add the words “We envision a world where…” to the beginning of those two sentences, it is clearly a world that they are striving to bring into being.
  • Authentic. Excellent: Khan Academy is known for offering free online courses across a multitude of subjects.
  • Transcendent. Excellent: As education transforms lives, Khan Academy is actively contributing to creating a better world for all.
  • Enduring. Excellent: There is a practically unlimited number of topics that one can learn, providing Khan Academy and its stakeholders a pursuit that could very well be unending.
  • Activating. Excellent: Who wouldn’t get behind the ambition of providing education, ideally at no cost, to lift the lives of those who do not currently have access to it?
  • Memorable. Excellent: These two sentences, likely constructed in that manner to place emphasis on each one individually, comprise only six words in simple and easy-to-remember language.
Possible Alternative: None. It is excellent as is.
 
Company Vision as a Competitive Advantage
Hopefully our analysis of these real-world examples has provided you with some food for thought for your own company vision. At this point, following up from our starting point of purpose, we have now taken an extensive look at the second key element of the Company Promise Statement, the vision: what it is, its value, how to come up with and test it, how to implement it in your company, and some examples.
 
If you have gotten this far, then you will have a greater appreciation for how important it is to create, communicate, and align in support of a compelling and inspiring vision in your company. In my experience speaking with and advising hundreds of CEOs, not to mention the research that has gone into this writing, all too few companies have a vision, let alone publish it internally and externally. For the most part, these CEOs are either not aware of the value of having a compelling and inspiring vision, or they do not know how to craft one. You now have that knowledge to take the next step.
 
We have listed a number of benefits of having a strong vision and aligning your team behind its realization. To all of these, let’s add yet another: vision is a dramatically underutilized source of competitive advantage. I hear from just about every CEO how competitive the market is for great talent. As we have seen, people are motivated by and willing to contribute more to the realization of a compelling and inspiring vision. If you are a CEO competing for the limited and highly mobile supply of great talent, you owe it to yourself, your team and your investors to put yourself in the best position to attract and retain those people.
 
Let’s recall that a CEO has, fundamentally, three key responsibilities: the vision, the people, and the cash. Note how vision comes first. A great vision attracts great people, and all of those great people aligned in pursuit of the execution of a compelling and inspiring vision attracts the cash, whether it be from customers or from financing partners. As such, vision is clearly a CEO’s job one, the very foundation upon which the company will be built.
 
In the next chapter in our series on the Company Promise Statement, we will discuss the mission: what it is, how it differs from the vision, its unique value in the Promise Statement, how to come up with yours, and some examples.
 
Now it’s over to you: what world are you creating?
 

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My name is Alexander Rink. Drawing upon over 20 years of experience growing early-stage companies, my team and I help CEOs and Boards of Directors of companies from $1M to $25M in revenues identify and resolve strategic and organizational challenges to accelerate their company’s growth in a capital efficient manner.

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