Many moons ago in a former job on a different continent I remember seeing a circus performer give an electrifying ad lib performance to a school assembly, involving several of the students there assembled.

During the mayhem, he looked up and said “if any of yers see a job for a company that talks about budgets and visions and stuff, run for the hills!”  The travelling life was for him, he wouldn’t be tied down. I suppose being the bohemian type, that made sense.

So it came to pass the same organisation I worked for suddenly wanted to create a vision statement. I suspected it was more to do with having one (keeping up with the Joneses) than anything else, but we went through the process. Therefore, I also became a little jaundiced about the whole thing, a bit like the aforementioned tumbler.

So here’s what not to do with vision statements:

  • make it so general, it could apply to anyone (so it will apply to no one). “We make the best products and look after our customer!“. Well, I hope every business strives to do that.
  • don’t run off into the woods with your strategy/executive team, hug a few trees, to create it in some barnstorming brainstorm, only to return like Moses from the mountain proclaiming it on tablets. You’ve not involved many people, and it will not mean much to anyone. Working out where to drive the bus must involve the best people on the bus. Empower them, involve them. Embed it.

So what to do?

  • keep it short, snappy and simple (Gandhi said to Britain “Quit India” – no room for misunderstanding there!)
  • it must provide direction (JFK “we will land a man on the moon by the end of this decade” – people at the time thought he was barmy, but NASA did it)
  • it must inspire, uplift and motive (Churchill “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!” – my Dad, a teenager at the time, believed every word. I asked him once if he was worried that Hitler would win the War, and Dad said: “no, we never thought that, because Churcill said we’d win.”)
  • a leader must live the vision, exemplify it in all their actions and words, and set the best example
  • it must tell everyone where we are heading
  • it  should enlist others, bringing them willingly along for the ride
  • critically, the company must construct their reward system to get the end result; with your staff, you will get the behaviour you reward

So, yes, I’ve become a fan of visions, if done correctly. Companies ‘built to last’ are ones that tend to have a strong, unified and shared vision of where they are going. The vision stays the same, the ways we get there and how we get there constantly change as the market, technology and customer needs change.

In a recent Harvard Business Review research, employees were asked what they wanted in a leader (someone they’d follow) and in a colleague (someone they’d want in their team). The top ranking attribute for BOTH was honesty, and then for a leader it was ‘forward-thinking’. I feel leaders need to help create, set and embody the vision for the organisation. Easier said than done, but as someone once said: “what do you call a leader that no one follows? Just some guy taking a walk.” Ouch.

About the author

Charlie has spent more than 20 years in Perth’s tech and startup sector, firstly as a founder himself, through to exit, and more recently as a writer, advisor and investor. Originally from the UK, Charlie worked in Singapore before arriving in Perth in 1997 to do an MBA at UWA. Graduating as top student in 1999 he set up online real estate business, running it for 10 years before selling to REIWA, whereupon Charlie ran In 2013, he moved to Business News to lead their digital transformation as CEO, and then worked for the federal government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program, funding pre-revenue startups and innovative businesses. He now works in an advisory capacity for multiple tech and other businesses, is managing editor of Startup News and co-host of the Startup West podcast. He also writes a column for Business News on startups. Charlie sits on the advisory boards of WA Leaders, TEDxPerth, WAITTA, the Perth Symphony Orchestra, and the full board of Rise Network.

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