In my last blog I talked a bit about how leadership is even more important in startups than in large companies, because large companies can often mask a lack of leadership in the middle and executive ranks through bureaucracy and protocol. I also discussed how, particularly in small companies, the leader must have a vision and be able to communicate that vision to their employees. One question that I have asked when having discussions and planning sessions on vision, mission statements, and strategic direction is “what is the vision of a company”?
I have heard the vision of a company defined in many ways, including the short and long term goals put onto paper, the roadmap by which the company navigates to the goals, or the goal itself. I think that each one of those descriptions, however, both touches on the truth of what a vision is without fully encompassing it.
Let’s use the roadmap metaphor as a basis. In a company, everyone has a job, whether it be consultant, bookkeeper, marketing director, etc. That job is like learning how to drive, the technical details of how to use an automobile to get from one place to another. When those skills are applied, one can go somewhere in a car. Where they go isn’t determined by those skills, though it’s likely they will end up somewhere. Tactical management is the next step. Think of someone sitting in the passenger seat telling the driver where to go. There is an assumption, true or false, that the passenger knows where they are going. The driver is simply following directions, and may end up backtracking if they miss a turn or getting lost, but they really don’t know where they are going beyond the next few turns.
judgement to get there. This is the strategic goal of the company. Some people stop at this point and equate this strategic goal with the vision of the company, but that is not the case. The vision is less tangible but also more important than the strategic goal. The vision is the reason for being in the car and driving in the first place. By way of example, I can take two people and give them the identical map and destination, but different reasons for getting there. For the first person, I tell them that their goal is to take their family on the road trip of a lifetime, spend as much quality time with their families as they can, and see places they never thought they would see before, but end up at the specified destination. For the second person, I tell them that their goal is to get to the destination as fast as humanly possible, ignoring all speed limits and with no concern for how the trip is done. Those two people will both reach the destination with completely different results. What’s more if the destination (i.e. strategic goal) changes along the way (which is not uncommon at all in any company, particularly startups), each person will travel to the new destination in the context of the vision they were provided, without feeling lost because the destination has changed. A good vision communicates that “raison d’etre” to the employees so that they always feel they have a path.
Just because a vision fits this model and is communicated does not by definition make it a good vision. One might argue that Hitler had a vision and communicated it to his people, but the results certainly were not moral or human. We had a service provider at one point who shared with me the vision letter to his company. The letter stated that bonuses would be paid for two things: increasing billable hours and increasing billing rates. Customer service and satisfaction were not factored in the bonus structure at all. His people followed the vision closely (as one would expect with the bonuses closely tied to it) and their bills to us increased dramatically as the months went by, as the number of mistakes they made increased in proportion to the increasing bills. Complaints about the mistakes the company made resulted in more hours billed to discuss the problems identified, but with no real attempts to resolve them. The vision was there, and the results of the company’s performance directly reflected that vision.
In my current company, Sentek Global, we have a program called the Sentek Customer Innovation Program (SCIP), where each client service manager in the company is required to look at their customer’s business goals and processes and come up with solutions on how they can help the customer accomplish their goals with two mandatory improvements: Less expensive and better. It’s a simple but powerful vision, and the managers’ bonuses will be tied into how well they are able to come up with ways in which to help their clients. One of our managers, Tom Sobieck, has already come up with a unique solution on how to install and deploy the electronic systems for the Joint Strike Fighter in such a way that millions of dollars and many months of installation time can be saved for that program. Our other managers are looking at similar solutions for their clients. The managers are required to brief their ideas to the other managers and executive team for feedback and vetting, and when the proposals are considered to be presentable, to present them to the clients. In an era of decreasing defense budgets, we want our managers to help our clients do their jobs better than thought possible with the most efficient use of the taxpayer’s money.
Every startup leader needs to think through their vision in the context of what the results of their vision will achieve, whether it’s to be the friendliest corner market experience, the least expensive source for used books, or the place on the internet for the most unique collectible running shoes. If the vision is focused upon the company and owner’s profits solely, beware. Your customers will figure out very quickly from the actions of your employees and will choose with their pocketbooks accordingly. Your employees will also choose, with those who want to be at a place to make a difference rather than make a paycheck leaving for other employers of choice. Your vision will determine your customers and your employees, so put thought into it and don’t be afraid to improve it whenever required.