Jan 302009

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Leaders are supposed to have a vision that will guide the team towards victory – at least that is what is taught in the post-Fordist focused classes in most MBA programs. This is particularly true in the entrepreneurial parts of those curriculum. However, one of the things that graduate business education tends to do less well is to prepare their graduates for real-world experiences where real people attempt to work together towards some sort of goal. A number of my leadership coaching engagements have been with relatively recent graduates and they all suffered from this blind spot.

Given that the vision, which drives a company, is so central to its chances of success, you might expect that it would receive more than its fair share of attention. However, my experience has been quite the opposite. There are a number of reasons to this. The first is what I call the ‘preaching-to-the-choir’ syndrome. A small group of mostly alike people will form a team based on a convenient but poorly based vision which they then enshrine as ‘truth’ within the corporate culture. Here are a few variations of what I find:

  • Nobody does what we do – we have no competition
  • Our technology is so cutting edge that even our customers don’t understand and appreciate it
  • If our customers only understood their real problems, they would see the value of what we are offering
  • Thinking strategically is what we do best – the rest will take care of itself
  • Investors are poor, dumb rich people who we have to convince and induce
  • We are going to change the world as you know it

One of the reasons that these delusions can be maintained is that no one outside of the choir is involved in testing and refining it. When I begin a leadership coaching engagement with this type of team, my first focus is on the vision and the extend to which it is both validated and shared with non-choir members of the team – we undertake to develop a vision map.

A vision map is not a description of the vision – not, for instance, an effort to develop an elevator speech that refines it down to a thirty-second blast of inanity. It is a mapping of the visions that inform the actions, expectations and thinking of team members. A widely cast net will include people both within and beyond the boundaries of the choir. In most cases, I also include the customers of the company – such as they might be. The idea is to discover the various ‘visions’ that are operating within the area being analyzed.

Early on, it becomes clear that there are several visions struggling for dominance. Some of them will be strategic while others are purely tactical. Some are optimistic – even overly so – while others are either more realistic or openly pessimistic. A wide diversity in visions is symptomatic of a team that has done a very poor job of developing and promulgating a vision. This is one instance where diversity is definitely a liability.

Vision maps attack two vulnerabilities. The first is a vision that is taken for granted – not tested, questioned and challenged. More often that not, this is the reason why most companies fail – they simply do not have a vision that translates into a viable company. The second is a network of interlacing and mutually conflicting visions that produce internal tensions that restrict the possibilities that a company will succeed. Here the core of a good idea is strangled because the team did not translate it into a viable vision.

Many CEOs of the type I described above suffer from the inability or unwillingness to test their vision in the battle of ideas, which most teams use to refine and then implement their shared vision. In other words, most of these CEOs do not really share the process of developing the vision.

Pedantic responses to the need to involve other minds in the process can have some truly bizarre results. I have worked with CEOs who realized that the way to succeed was to surround themselves with talent, including those with diverse viewpoints. The idea was to being people onto a team that would help the company succeed. However, the healthy debate is critical for the development and implementation of a sound vision is precluded by the CEOs tendency to claim the vision as their own.

The use of vision mapping tends to bring these tendencies into high relief. As a result, the CEO and the team face a decision. I have seen it go either way. However, the companies that decide to work towards a commonly held, validated and implementable vision are the one that succeed.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II



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