August 14, 2013

The Most Important Thing Missing In Your Company

Written by Claire Lew

Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations with CEOs and business owners about the ups-and-downs of running a company.

To gain a better understanding of where they’re coming from, I often ask the question, “What would you say your company’s vision is?”

The most common response is: “I don’t know.”

Image 1:  What's your company's vision?

This stunned me. The CEO doesn’t know what the company’s vision is?! I’ve found this to be true amongst dozens of leaders I’ve talked with, irrespective of company size and industry.

Many of them tell me they’re okay with this. They may not know exactly what their company’s vision is, but as long as they know the general direction, they feel their company will be fine.

I disagree.

A shared vision is essential to your company. It’s more crucial to its long-term success than any employee hired or product decision made. A shared vision is what makes a company great, and more leaders should care about fostering it.

What is a shared vision?

“Vision” is a tired, over-used term that gets confused with other business cliches, like “mission,” “purpose,” and “values.” But when used precisely, the concept of vision is distinct.

A company’s vision is "the answer to the question: What do we want to create?"[1] It’s the end result of what you do as a company, that picture of a better future. If you're all pointed toward a direction, the shared vision is the destination you want to ultimately arrive at.

Vision, Purpose, Values

Why does a shared vision matter?

A shared vision is the most powerful way to motivate a group of people. When your company has a common picture of what it’s aspiring toward, each person feels that pull of motivation.

The stronger the shared vision, the more freedom and autonomy you can give each employee. A shared vision provides your employees with a greater context for how to operate. They get a North Star, so you don't have to tell people exactly what to do or how to do something. Your company can have fewer rules.

A shared vision also helps people get things done. When people disagree or a challenging situation arises, this shared vision is a uniting force that can override seemingly irreconcilable differences. It’s what connects each person within a company.

What does a shared vision look like in practice?

The most prominent example of a shared vision can be seen with Apple. When Steve Jobs assembled the first iPhone development team, he told them “to create the first phone that people would fall in love with.”[2] That was their shared vision - a world where people would be significantly happier because of the products they created.

Each person on that team was motivated by this vision. They kept that picture of this future they wanted in their heads: seeing someone’s reaction on their face when they opened the packaging of the phone, seeing that person interacting with that phone and it improving their quality of life. They all held this shared vision to create a product “so instrumental and integrated in people’s lives that you’d rather leave your wallet at home than your iPhone.”[2]

That shared vision is what pushed the team to achieve. It made the iPhone a remarkable product, and Apple an even more remarkable company.

How do you create a shared vision?

Creating a shared vision within your own company is incredibly hard to do. Few companies do it well, which is why few companies are extraordinary.

The best way to foster a shared vision is to grow it from the ground-up, treating it as a living organism. You can’t impose it from the top-down. It’s a constant work-in-progress. Over time, it naturally begins to take root.

Here are three ways to cultivate a shared vision:

(1) Commit to figuring it out.

You can’t expect your company’s shared vision to be some magic phrase that hits you upside the head. A shared vision only emerges after repeated, deliberate conversations and actions toward what it could be. The key is to be genuinely committed to developing one. A shared vision springs from an authentic desire to cultivate a greater sense of meaning in the work that you do.

(2) Ask your employees what their personal visions are.

A company’s vision stems from the personal visions of each employee. After all, that is what the company is composed of: individuals. Each person must contribute to the vision in some way for it to be truly shared. You should ask each employee: Why are they here? What do they enjoy doing? What is the picture of the future they want to create? From their responses, you can identify the common thread, and begin to foster a shared vision.

(3) Interact more with those who benefit from the work you do.

Since vision is the end result of what you do as a company, reminding yourself of that impact is key. Your company is (hopefully) making someone’s life better and improving the world in some way. Ask yourself, What’s the impact my company is creating right now? How can we further that impact? What would it look like to help people? To help answer these questions, you should interact more with customers, the very people who are benefiting from the work you do. Hear their stories, how you’ve helped them, and how your company has made their lives better. It can help paint the picture for creating that impact for more people, and sets the foundation for a shared vision.

A shared vision is not easy to think about, nor is it easy to act on. It’s understandable why fostering a shared vision is frequently overlooked.

It’s easy to let your focus get consumed by the day-to-day execution so your company can survive. A shared vision can feel more like a “nice to have” than a “must have.”

But if you care about the long-term success and sustainability of your company, a shared vision is an absolute “must have.” It’s the most potent way to rally your employees, and ensure they continue to do good work together. It’s at the core of how you move your company forward.

I hope it’s something more CEOs care about doing.

[1] Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (pg. 192) [2] AppleInsider: "Former Apple product manager recounts how Jobs motivated first iPhone team"

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