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When a leader must implement a new strategy, especially one that requires new systems, processes, and perhaps people, it is the start of a new era. Success requires more than the right combination of capital and technology; it also requires a critical mass of employees to adopt new behaviors and ways of thinking. But too often, CEOs and boards in these situations think through the capital and technology issues much more carefully than those involving behavior and attitudes. That imbalance is a primary reason new strategies fail. And, in addition to disrupting a company, failure can derail a promising executive career — especially if a CEO took over to guide the company in a new direction.
When new behavior and new ways of thinking are required, an essential step is for the CEO, the board, and key managers to have an image in their minds of what the organization will look and act like after achieving its strategic goals. Just as great athletes are guided by a mental picture of the perfect jump shot or golf swing, key players in the organization need a consistent picture in their minds of what success will look like. That’s where a vision comes in.
The term “vision” is used often in business; companies frequently talk about “our mission, vision, and values.” The trouble is that most of the time, the word “vision” is used incorrectly. When CEOs say they’ve defined their company’s vision, I ask them to explain it to me. Many respond with something like, “Our vision is to be the most innovative, agile company in our industry.” To which I reply, “That’s a mission, not a vision.”
In cases like these, the so-called vision merely repeats what is already in the strategy, and, worse, does nothing to emotionally engage the people who are being asked to implement it. A leader’s vision — particularly if that leader needs to bring about significant change in the organization — should start as a vivid, credible image of an ideal future state. The clearer a CEO is about what people should do differently to achieve new, challenging objectives, the greater his or her chances of achieving the changes necessary for success. New behavior doesn’t come from missions, however aspirational, but from deep, emotional commitment to doing things differently.