A year or so ago, I was asked to advise an entrepreneurship class over at the Northwestern Law School in Chicago. Students pitched business ideas to a panel of mentors, including myself. We were then asked to give feedback on these ideas.
The first team of students presented an idea to use video conferencing technology to better connect legal services with clients. On the first slide of their presentation, it said something to the effect of…
“Vision: To alter the delivery of legal services.”
This caught my attention. The “vision” they’d written was not a vision.
“To alter the delivery of legal services” describes what you’re doing or what you’d like to do. But that’s not a vision. A vision is a place.
Let me explain.
What exactly is a vision?
A vision is a picture of a better place. You see this picture in your head: It’s what you want the world to look like because your product or company exists. In many ways, your company’s vision is your opinion for how you think the world ought to be. A vision answers the question, “What world do you want to create?”
Vision is often misconstrued with other business-y terms, like “mission,” “purpose,” and “values.” But a vision is different from any of those things.
A vision is what you want to create (remember, it’s a place!). The mission of your company is why you want to get to that vision. Your company’s values are how you want to get to that vision.
For the team of law students that I was mentoring, their vision for their company needed to be a picture of a better place. “To alter the delivery of legal services” is not a place.
Instead, a potential vision of theirs could be: “A world where legal services are democratized and easily accessible to anyone.” Or perhaps another take on their vision might be: “A world where people’s time and money are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to legal services.”
See the difference?
Why does a vision matter?
Knowing the vision of your company is important for two reasons: (1) it’s the vision the ultimate clarifying force in your business decisions and (2) it’s the greatest motivator for your team.
At Know Your Company, I’ve found this to be especially true. When I became the CEO, the first thing I did was write down what I saw as our company vision: A world where people can communicate openly and honestly at work. It has since driven everything we do.
Vision clarifies business decisions.
Take product development, for instance. When we think about our product development here at Know Your Company, we envision that picture of a better place:How can we build a product that creates an environment at work where people communicate openly and honestly?
As a result, we do not allow anonymous feedback in Know Your Company. We believe anonymous feedback is destructive to people communicating openly and honestly. Anonymous feedback doesn’t help us get to that picture of a better place.
We’ve surely lost sales because of this decision. People come to us saying they want an anonymous feedback feature in the product. And when we explain that we don’t offer anonymous feedback and the reasoning behind it, they’ll tell us they’re no longer interested in using Know Your Company.
For us, that’s okay. Upholding our vision matters more to us than turning a quick buck or two. I prefer to sacrifice a sale here and there for the sake of showing others a different way of how the world could be better off. After all, that’s the only way real progress toward your vision is made. When you stick to your guns, the world you want slowly begins to take shape.
Vision informs the product. Not the other way around.
The same holds true for the team of law students I’m advising. Depending on what they determine their vision to be, that will ultimately shape what they will build and who they will build it for.
For example, if they decide their vision is “a world where legal services are democratized and easily accessible by anyone”, they might focus on low-income individuals who typically cannot afford in-person legal services.
On the other hand, if the students decide their company’s vision is “a world where people’s time and money are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to legal services,” their target customer might be busy professionals who need quick legal advice, but don’t have the time to schedule an in-person appointment with a lawyer.
Both visions encompass the “altering the delivery of legal services.” But depending on which vision they choose to pursue, their business will have fundamentally different product directions, target customers, etc.
Vision is the greatest motivator for you and your team.
At Know Your Company, this picture of a better place is what motivates me and gets me up in the morning. I can literally see in my mind’s eye how employees, managers, and CEOs interact when they’re living in a world where they can communicate openly and honestly at work.
But this vision isn’t just motivating to me. When shared, a vision is the most powerful way to motivate a group of people.
Why? A shared vision gives your team a common place to strive for. When each employee at your company clearly sees that same picture of a better place in their own minds’ eye, each person connects to it and feels that pull of motivation to want to create that place.
This means you can give more autonomy to each employee. Your employees now have a shared destination on the map, so you don’t need to be ordering a series of coordinates instructing them how to get there. No more micromanaging.
A shared vision also helps people get things done amidst disagreements. When people argue over how to grow the sales team or whether to acquire another business, this shared vision is a uniting force that can override seemingly irreconcilable differences.
The key is that this vision is shared. If it’s purely top-down and coming from the CEO, people will see it as such. “Oh that’s just the CEO’s vision…” Now, your company isn’t aligned at all. You want to make sure your company’s vision is a picture of a better place that everyone wants to get to.
How do you create a shared company vision?
For your own company: Is the vision a picture of a better place? And if it is, is the vision shared?
Or, like the law students in the entrepreneurship class, is the vision a bit amorphous? And perhaps a little different for every person in the company, depending on who you talk to?
If it’s the latter, don’t beat yourself up! You’re not alone. When asked to 1,385 employees across 160 companies though Know Your Company, “If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?” 30% of employees answered, “No.”
Here are a few ways to figure out what your company’s vision is, and ensure it’s shared across your company….
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 comes from an real desire to cultivate a greater sense of meaning in the work that you do.
Ask your employees what their personal visions are.
Ask each of your employees: What is the picture of a better place that you want to create?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 you here? What makes you proud to work here? What’s the most rewarding part of what you get to do? From their responses, you can identify the common thread, and begin to foster a shared vision.
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.
This isn’t easy to think about, let alone to act on. It’s understandable why fostering a shared company vision is frequently bypassed, or conflated with “a mission statement” or “values.” And among the seemingly thousands of things you need to do for your company to survive, a shared vision can feel more like a “nice-to-have” than a “must-have.”
In fact, trying to distill a clear company vision can feel so daunting that many CEOs I’ve spoken with over years have said a version of this to me:
“You know what Claire, I think it’s okay that we don’t have a shared vision for the company right now. I don’t think it’s mission-critical.”
Don’t settle for that. Your company’s success is contingent on utmost clarity on what you’re building toward. You need a shared vision to make decisions and to motivate your team — and you need that clarity and motivation now.
The clearer and truer that vision is for you, the more easily those decisions and motivating your team will come.
Make sure you have a picture of a better place.