What does it mean, in the steel industry, to have vision?

Helen Keller may have lacked eyesight, but even she knew that sight and vision weren’t one and the same. “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision,” she is quoted as saying.

A Japanese proverb explains it differently. “Vision without action is a daydream,” while “action without vision is a nightmare.”

Both of these quotes get at the heart of vision and why it is important. First, because it’s more than just seeing what’s in front of you; it’s about looking beyond. And second, vision is only as valuable as the actions that accompany it. One without the other is benign at best and disastrous at worst.

In my years as CEO, I’ve done my best to prioritize vision, using it as a roadmap upon which every action my company takes must follow. The steel industry has a very long history, but many in our ranks are nervous that its future is marred more by uncertainty than clarity and promise. What others see as uncertainty, however, I see as opportunity for new direction. And it’s these opportunities that require vision to truly seize.

Creating a Vision for Your Business:

Some of the reasons vision matters exist on a pure business level, and despite having little to do with steel have everything to do with being successful—during hard times, great times or anytime in between.

Have you ever heard of SMART goal-setting criteria? The term was coined by George T. Doran in a 1981 issue of Management Review, and though some letters have had their meanings tweaked, it remains a commonly used guide for objectives taught to managers.

A vision is a much larger scale version of a goal, and I find that good ones fit the mnemonic acronym well:

  • S (Specific): Vision provides clear detail on where your business is headed.
  • M (Measurable): Progress toward your vision can be quantified along the way.
  • A (Achievable): The vision is a realistic one that your company can reasonably be expected to attain.
  • R (Relevant): The contents of your vision are directly related to the success of your company.
  • T (Time-bound): Your vision sets a timeframe in which it is expected to become reality.

As an example, when I began as CEO in 2014 I authored a document we called a “Vivid Vision” that detailed specifically what we could expect to accomplish in order to be successful in the following four years. We achieved a great deal, and for that I am beyond proud of our talented team. At the same time, some things happened that I didn’t anticipate. Having a clear vision upfront kept our team focused while giving us the flexibility to make adjustments along the way.

Above all, it is critical that a good vision be written and shared. If, as a leader, I kept our vision in my desk drawer, or even just between managers, it would never come to pass. To stay accountable to a vision, I believe everyone should know about it—from associates to customers and even competitors.

For associates, knowledge of your vision is key to sharing a sense of purpose. It should explain why they do what they do, where it fits in the larger puzzle, and what the entire team is working toward. This context allows your associates to make better decisions by keeping in mind the overall end goals. It creates a culture of focus and accountability towards what’s truly important, which in turn will strengthen your company’s relationship with customer and supplier partners.

Vision for our Industry:

The manufacturing industry, and steel in particular, is currently in flux. New technology, alongside shifting
global powers and demands, have opened up the floodgates for external and internal influence, so we all have to be flexible and forward-facing. This can be difficult for more traditional industries like ours, which have operated in a specific way for a long time and may be unaccustomed to the disruption that has arrived, clear as day, at the doorsteps of our companies.

Vision in this context means anticipating the changes afoot in our industry and, more importantly, proactively driving them. While few of us are fortune tellers with the ability to see exactly what’s coming, we can push our industry forward to be prepared for the changes we will face.

Our industry must do what we do best: fortify and build.

Fortification means investing in technology and folding it into your vision where appropriate. It means instead of fearing automation, figuring out how it can lift your best people. It means cultivating a culture that attracts, inspires and retains diverse and talented associates. It means strengthening your brand and value proposition in a world where reputation has more weight than ever and competition is fierce.

All of these fortification measures can, and should, be baked into that vision of yours. So can building, because I think it’s inevitable that fortifying will lead to creating, or becoming, something new.

My takeaway advice for leaders:

Be open-minded: Vision by nature is fueled by open and creative minds. Yes, that’s minds, plural—you can’t succeed alone, so the more involved your team is in the creation and execution of your vision, the better.

Provide value: Note that I didn’t say provide “steel.” While steel products and/or services may be the main thing you provide, what matters most is that you are providing value. Value-based visions don’t let steel weigh down the possibility (and need) for evolution.

Don’t look back: We can and should learn a lot from the past, but it’s infinitely more important to face the future head-on. Vision is the wisdom to absorb the past, analyze the present, and transform into what the world needs us to be.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t take time travel or even perfect eyesight to create a vision that keeps us on the
right track. With the will to use the tools at our disposal to conceive and perceive of a brighter future, the steel industry will be both seen and seeing for many years to come.

Originally published on Metal Center News