By Margery Myers, Principal

Here’s the dumbest question ever:  why do you use your GPS?  Duh.  To get where you’re trying to go.  But the thing about dumb questions is that they usually lead to interesting answers.   For example, when you use your GPS, you:

  • Save time
  • Save money by not wasting gas
  • Know where NOT to go
  • Can quickly get back on track if you make a wrong turn
  • Have milestones to help you measure your progress
  • Can focus on driving the car
  • Are assured that everyone in the car knows where you’re going (no backseat drivers!)

Wouldn’t it be great if companies came with a GPS?  Think how much simpler it would be if leaders could just plug in a destination and everyone would take the most direct route to get there.  There would be no confusion, no misguided speculation, no wasted spending, and no anxiety about where the company is going.

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Well, actually, companies do have a GPS—it’s called a vision.  And the voice on your GPS telling you what your destination is—that’s the leader’s job.  A clear vision communicated well so that everyone knows and understands it is critical to a company’s success.  It gives employees guardrails when making decisions, setting priorities, spending money, investing money, and staffing teams.  

So why then do so many vision statements sound like they were crafted from some corporate Mad Libs exercise?  You know: “We will optimize the shareholder value of our leading-edge products to drive innovation for best-in-class blah blah blah….”  No wonder no one pays any attention when the company vision statement is trotted out.  No wonder most people don’t even know what it is!

Here’s a fact:  You can’t be a successful leader without a vision.  So if you want a vision statement that can actually guide your organization to where you want it to go, try these tips:

Make it short.  When I help executive teams create a vision statement, I always start by having them critique other companies’ vision statements first.  It’s unanimous.  Long vision statements are always at the top of the “don’t like” list.  If your vision statement is longer than two sentences—or is a very, very, very long single sentence—don’t bother.  People won’t read it.  Or if they do, they won’t remember it.

Be specific.  One of the most famous vision statements is GE’s, when it was under Jack Welch.  “We will become the number one or number two in every market we serve and revolutionize this company to have the strength of a big company combined with the leanness and agility of a small company.”  There’s a lot of room for growth here, but there’s no question about how the growth will be evaluated.   If you’re at GE and have a decision to make, or want to know where you stand in terms of performance, just check that vision statement.

Speak like a human.  When was the last time you used words like “leading edge” and “optimize” and “mission critical” in a normal conversation?  I’ve shown vision statements with the words “maximize shareholder value” to finance executives and even they go all cynical and sarcastic when they see it!  Real words are easily understood and more vivid than corporate speak.  Recently I worked with an executive team in the defense industry.  After some initial protest about all the words they weren’t allowed to use (e.g., transformational, best-in-breed), this group of engineers came up with such a clear, powerful, and exciting vision statement that one of their teenage sons thought it was cool!

A vision statement shouldn’t be a ponderous pronouncement.  It’s a simple statement that answers the most basic of questions:  What’s your destination?  When everyone knows where they’re going and how to get there, then you can all enjoy the ride.

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