When a group of Wharton executive MBA students asked me recently to speak to their class, they told me they learn plenty about accounting, modeling, and supply-chain management. What they wanted now were ways to communicate the value of their companies' brands to their employees, investors, and customers. I told the students that the key to getting people excited is an ability to articulate an inspiring vision.
When a leader fails to articulate such a vision, people notice. Yahoo (YHOO) co-founder Jerry Yang, who will step down as CEO soon as a replacement is named (BusinessWeek.com, 11/19/08), might have had a long-term vision for the company, but he had a hard time expressing it. Whether you’re running a Fortune 500 company or a small boutique on Main Street, an effective vision must incorporate the following four elements.
Brevity. Google (GOOG) guys Sergey Brin and Larry Page once walked into a venture-capital firm and were able to express their company’s vision in one sentence: "Google provides access to the world’s information in one click." One investor told me that if an entrepreneur cannot articulate his or her vision in 10 words or less, he wouldn’t give that entrepreneur a dime. If your listeners cannot remember your vision, it won’t inspire anyone.
Specificity. Inspiring visions rally people to a greater purpose, even if they seem daunting at first. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy outlined a specific vision to conquer space. Not only would America land a man on the moon and "return him safely to earth," he told a joint session of Congress, but America would do so by the last day of the decade. That is a specific goal and a specific timeline. Skeptics ridiculed Kennedy’s plan as nothing but a pipe dream, but the bold, specific vision rallied the nation’s best scientists to make it happen.
Consistency. A vision means nothing if your staff doesn’t hear it consistently. When I met Cranium co-founder Richard Tait, he said he left Microsoft (MSFT) and created a board game with a sketch he drew on the back of an airplane napkin. It was a vision to create a board game that gave every player a "chance to shine," as he put it. Tait reminded employees of the vision on a daily basis and used media interviews as opportunities to explain the concept. Though Hasbro (HAS) bought Cranium in January, this vision ("Everyone Shines") remains consistent on Cranium’s packaging, Web site, press releases, presentations, and marketing material.
Emotional connection. In order to create an emotional connection with your listener, your vision must be about your listener. In other words, if your vision is all about yourself, it can be specific, concise, and consistent, but fail to touch your customer on an emotional level. Tell me how your product improves my life and you’ll hit a home run.
Russell & Mackenna is a made-to-order furniture company that designs and builds colorful, cottage-style furniture. The family-owned firm began in a one-car garage in 2003. Today it designs, manufactures, and ships furniture from a 6,000-square-foot facility in Jessup, Md., to customers around the country. Co-founder Lauren Russell says she makes sure everything—from the design to marketing—remains consistent with the vision articulated five years ago: to build furniture that uplifts your spirit.
Russell told me that larger retailers have expressed an interest in forming partnerships with the company, but in too many cases it would require design compromises that would derail the company from following its vision. Russell is convinced that staying true to the vision has helped the company grow, differentiate itself, create loyal customers, and successfully weather the economic downturn.
Remember, most business leaders either do not have a vision or fail to articulate it in a way that makes people excited. That means your company will stand out when you manage to do so. Good luck.