Demystifying the Development of an Organizational Vision

Sonoma Investment Capital was a model organization. The partners who led the small but enormously successful firm were determined to reinvent investment banking culture. They wanted to create a place where decisions were effective but made by consensus, communications flowed up and down freely, every employee’s career potential was carefully managed, and dress codes were nonexistent. The dramatic design of its suburban headquarters office was reminiscent of a successful architectural or software development firm. It neither looked nor felt like an investment bank. Rather than requiring an MBA as the ticket for employment, the company expected that new recruits had excelled at the highest levels of academe. The young employees were full of energy, put in long hard hours, and were rewarded handsomely through a profit-sharing system.

As the organization grew from 15 to 350 people over a three-year period, problems began to surface. Turnover increased among staff as productive talent lost interest and burned out. There was an increasing number of offline discussions about the informal organizational vision: “Make gobs of money.” This refrain was becoming familiar: “Management says that the reason the company exists is to generate profit. Well, I need a more important purpose than that to justify the commitment and hard work I put into this place.”

Finally, at a companywide assembly, the senior partner acknowledged the need for defining a more formal vision and assured that one would be developed. “We’re a group of extremely bright and motivated people. I agree we’ve reached a point where we need a concrete vision. But I shouldn’t draft it myself; we’ll reach our vision through consensus.” Within a week, the partners met and designed a strategy that would begin at the top and cascade down to involve virtually every employee.

The visioning process began with fanfare, moved ahead in fits and starts, and finally stalled after three months. Three years later, there was still no vision, turnover remained at unacceptable levels, and many effective teams became mere collections of individuals working at cross-purposes. The original sources of discontent remained unabated, and the bottom line, coincidentally, began to suffer.

How did such a well-conceived idea, in a managerially enlightened organization, flounder so badly? The best intentions of some organizations can be overwhelmed when the work of defining a vision begins. By starting with a blank slate, the vision process can seem intimidating and lead to disabling frustration.

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1. For a more detailed description of research efforts that explore the vision-related requirements for managers in the near-term future and the case of T.J. Rogers, see:

Korn/Ferry International and Columbia University Graduate School of Business, Reinventing the CEO (New York: Korn/Ferry International and Columbia University Graduate School of Business, 1989), p. 90;

B.S. Moskal, “A Shadow between Values and Reality,” Industry Week, 16 May 1994, p. 24;

Wall Street Journal, 22 September 1994, p. A1; and

J.L. McCarthy, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Chief Executive, volume 100, January–February 1995, pp. 44–49.

2. The difficulty and frustration that managers experience when they engage in vision development has been captured in a number of classic works on organizational leadership. See, for example:

J.A. Conger, The Charismatic Leader: Behind the Mystique of Exceptional Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989);

J.P. Kotter, A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management (New York: Free Press, 1990); and

W. Bennis and B. Nanus, Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

3. The studies analyzed for this project are too numerous to mention here, but two deserve special notation. The first is characterized by its sophistication and applicability to senior managers; the second by its ability to make a compelling case for suggesting that planning is worthless without an articulate vision behind it. See:

J.C. Collins and J.I. Porras, Built to Last (New York: HarperCollins, 1994); and

H. Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York: Free Press, 1994).

4. Collins and Porras (1994).

5. Wall Street Journal, 22 September 1994, p. A1.

6. A. Campbell and S. Yeung, “Brief Case: Mission, Vision, and Strategic Intent,” Long Range Planning, volume 24, 1991, pp. 145–147; and

M.S.S. El-Namaki, “Creating a Corporate Vision,” Long Range Planning, volume 25, 1992, pp. 25–29.

7. Wall Street Journal, 29 July 1993, p. B1.

8. The press has taken corporate executives to task for their general lack of vision, which, they claim, leads to costly errors in business strategy. See:

“CEOs: The Vision Thing,” Wall Street Journal, 28 January 1994, p. A13;

“Robert Eaton Thinks ‘Vision’ Is Overrated and He’s Not Alone,” Wall Street Journal, 4 October 1993, p. A1;

“For Computer Convention, Be Sure to Pack Vision,” New York Times, 25 September 1993, p. 37; and “

On the Road with Chairman Lou,” New York Times, 26 June 1994, section 3, p. 1.

9. R. Levering and M. Moskowitz, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1993).

10. For a list of these companies, a description of the methodology for choosing the list, and subsequent investigations that explored the companies’ financial performance, see:

Levering and Moskowitz (1993); and

R. Levering, A Great Place to Work (New York: Random House, 1988).

11. D.A. Sexton and P.M. Van Aukun, “A Longitudinal Study of Small Business Strategic Planning,” Journal of Small Business Management,January 1985, pp. 7–15; and

J.P. Kotter and J.L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance (New York: Free Press, 1992), chapter 11.

12. Jack Welch’s challenge to change the culture of the behemoth General Electric is chronicled in:

N.M. Tichy and S. Sherman, Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1993).

13. A compelling case for focusing on corporate values to maintain growth and competitiveness is described in the results of the McKinsey study. See:

D.K. Clifford, The Winning Performance (New York: Bantam, 1985).

14. Ibid.

15. “On the Road with Chairman Lou.”

16. Fortune, volume 129, 16 May 1994, p. 101.

17. M. Parker, Creating Shared Vision (Clarendon Hills, Illinois: Dialog International, 1990); and

P. Block, The Empowered Manager (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).

18. Mintzberg (1994).