A vision is more than a set of goals, an end point, or an idealistic dream. It is stronger than any of those things because it makes the future so real that you can’t help but move towards it. A vision doesn’t give you a roadmap; it changes your idea of reality.
When I became the CEO of Pacesetter in 2014, I was stepping into a role with many uncertainties. I was, and am, a female executive in a male dominated industry. As CEO of a steel company, I was given the opportunity and challenge to face a world that puts value on new technology and shiny digital products. My Vivid Vision for Pacesetter in 2017 was designed to take a business established in 1977 and show people what it would look like in December 2017. I’m thrilled to say we’ve done it! But at the same time, I know we wouldn’t have if we didn’t believe in the value of vision in the first place. You really have to believe in something to make it happen, especially in this world of uncertainties.
So, what’s special about vision—when it comes to business, and generally?
The Harvard Business Review says “The ability to visualize and articulate a possible future state for an organization or company has always been a vital component of successful leadership.” There are two well-chosen words in that sentence: visualize and articulate.
Let’s focus first on what it means to visualize something. It’s easy to present an idea vaguely, such as “in the future, we will have such happy employees that their friends will want to work here, too.” This is on the way to a vision, but it isn’t concrete enough. When establishing a vision, you have to make it feel real. When I wrote that same happy employee sentiment in 2014, I took care to make it realistic enough to be achievable. I said “there’s always a buzz of energy in our offices and our Service Centers, and current Associates refer 75% of our new hires.”
Here’s why that works. A vision is not a strategy, goal, or emotion—it is all those things wrapped into one. When I gave the example of Associates (and remember that word, it’s also important) I was creating something that was measurable, with a feeling behind it, and describing the scene as if it were the reality. In my experience, this is the kind of mix you need for an effective vision.
If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around a vision versus a dream, consider the mindshift that happens when you decide to yourself that something is going to become a reality. This is when you want it so badly you can taste, smell, and feel it— but not only that, you have the map to find it, and the all the tools you need. A vision is empowering, a dream is a fantasy.
Let’s say you want to run a marathon. A goal would be to set the time, and a plan would be to start a training schedule. Equipped with these things, you now have a vision: imagining yourself crossing the finish line, and feeling in your heart and mind the rewards of that effort. You set up each detail to get you there, knowing that it was possible and would happen. A goal is a post. A vision is your power.
Let’s address why Associates is my preferred term for people that work at the company, for a second, and what that has to do with the importance of vision. Often, our culture celebrates entrepreneurs for their visionary ideas, or genius who sits alone working something out while the rest look on. However, this isn’t a sustainable, desirable model. People are the core of most businesses, and when you’re trying to move a company from point A to point B, people are the supports, bridge, and everything else to get you there. If they can’t see where you’re going, they can’t help. They aren’t just part of the vision — they are the vision!
One of the most important parts of having a vision, of course, is being able to articulate it. This is easily misunderstood, and often taken to mean a detailed financial plan. I beg to differ. When I wrote the 2017 vision I included details that could seem frivolous, such as how we would judge meetings (“no agenda, no attenda!”). This was 100% intentional. In that same section describing the Pacesetter experience I wrote that our financials would be reviewed quarterly, and we would help our associates bring their personal dreams to life.
You might already see what I’m suggesting here. A company vision has to make sense to everyone, and resonate with each of them. This means that when you’re explaining a vision, you can’t talk about it only in a way that makes sense to you. Instead, think through each personality type, and create something they can latch onto, too. In the previous example I mentioned how people would spend their days at work, hinted at the big picture management for long-term company health, and suggested that everyone’s personal lives would be enriched, too. This sort of holistic approach helps people understand a vision as you do, from every angle, so they can give their support.
For people who are creating the vision for a product or service that doesn’t yet exist, a holistic approach is sometimes the only way. Imagine trying to explain only the functional aspects of a smartphone before it existed. It would be boring to many people, and frustrating or scary to others! But once the emotional and aesthetic sides are introduced, even the most outrageous ideas can be appealing. This is why we like science fiction and other fantastic ideas.
Right now I’m creating our Vivid Vision for the year 2021, and reflecting on how we achieved our 2017 vision. In some ways, having a clear vision is like time travel. In 2014, I saw 2017. In 2018, I see 2021 and I have no doubt that this vision will be accurate, too. I see, feel, and know it clearly, and will articulate it to my leaders and Associates. See you there.