Guest post from Jeff Wolf:
Warren Bennis, acclaimed scholar, author and advisor to corporation presidents said "Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality." Well expressed, but it's easier said than done. What's needed are practical steps to develop a communicable vision coupled with practical steps to achieve employee buy in.
Notice that I emphasized the word practical, because unless the leader's vision is easy to understand, believable and clearly stated, even the most imaginative vision will become just another page in the employee manual gathering dust.
Let's first define "billboard effect" and how it translates into developing a workable vision that achieves employee buy-in. A billboard is the visual image of the leader's vision. In few but meaningful words it paints a picture of what the company and its people stand for and what it wants to achieve. It is future oriented and describes where the company expects to be tomorrow and from there onward.
Next, let's examine steps in developing the vision, then steps in getting the organization's people to buy into that vision.
Developing the Vision
§ Highly effective leaders have big ideas. Small ideas are okay, but they're not transformative. Big ideas help companies and employees face the challenges of tomorrow. This is no better expressed than Robert Kennedy quoting George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were, and say, 'Why not?' " Companies with leaders who have the imagination and drive to adopt big ideas are the Apples, Googles and Ubers of tomorrow. Those big ideas are nurtured by leaders who make astute observations of their companies and their industries, and then reflect and decide what visions need to be in place to handle tomorrow's problems and opportunities.
§ Reflection is the stimulus that leads to big ideas, but leaders know that clear and careful expression of their visions must be committed to writing. The process of writing clarifies visions such that they can be robustly expressed in words that command the organization's attention.
§ With the visions now distinctly articulated, leaders can construct and post billboards throughout the organization and express their visions during talks with members of the organization. These billboards, reduced to clear maxims, concisely reflect those visions. For example, "Our company will take whatever measures needed to assure that product quality satisfies our customers, or we will return their money without question." That is both clear and unambiguous. And it sets the stage for transformation of the organization to achieve that vision.
§ Leaders should be prepared to tweak, modify, and even change vision statements when those visions aren't producing expected results. When it comes to vision nothing is set in stone. The mark of a highly effective leader is the willingness to forgo ego and do what is right for the organization. The best of leaders prepare alternate plans.
Buying Into the Vision
§ I would argue that the very first prerequisite for employee buy in is to simply listen to what employees think and say about their jobs and the company's direction. Keeping an open ear is crucial. And don't get distracted by their complaints. Remember that engaged employees, those who really care about the company, expose many of the organization's problems and lost opportunities through complaints. This is a great chance for leaders to make positive changes based on worthwhile employee suggestions.
§ I would become suspicious if employees don't gripe. That means their voices are being throttled, and that is the absolute worst situation of all.
§ Employees need positive reinforcement. They won't buy into a faulty vision, one that is not productive. That implies going beyond the stage of encouraging them to speak freely. It means measuring how successful the company's vision is working. Take the quality example mentioned before. How are employees (or managers for that matter) going to know how successful their efforts are without measureable feedback? That means providing them with yardsticks of performance. It entails, in this example, weekly or monthly reports on rejects, scrap, customer complaints and customer returns, with as much data as possible reflecting individual employee performance.
§ Additionally, to combat what I call "vision tedium," employees need to know how effective the company has been pursuing its vision long-term. Quarterly and annual postings will tell the tale along with periodic meetings with employee groups.
§ Leaders should put in place a follow-up procedure (possibly an annual review) because employee buy in of vision is not a one-time event. Constant follow-up is required to assure that employees remain engaged, informed and responsive to emerging problems. One of the difficulties of either a mature or growing organization is that leaders stop emphasizing company priorities and changes in priorities. They may delegate vision just as they delegate tasks, but the two are not equal. Vision remains both the prerogative and responsibility of organization leaders.