Leadership: Can your organization be sustainable?
A number of leadership books and experts identify strategic direction as one of the most important actions that leaders can take to ensure the success of their organization. The three most commonly mentioned elements of strategic direction are Vision, Mission, and Values (others listed are goals and strategic planning – more on those in future posts!)
Why is it important? Developing an organization’s strategic direction is essential to focusing everyone in the organization – senior leaders, middle managers, front line supervisors, and employees – on the same things. Diffuse direction leads to operating at cross-purposes.
This is particularly true with sustainability. Because there are polarized opinions in this area, lack of clear and positive guidance can promote antagonistic actions and provoke conflict. By positive, I mean a strategic direction that does not require a political stance on one side or the other. I contend that a successful strategic direction has to be widely acceptable, or it runs the risk of alienating a wide swath of customers when a particular issue create dissension.
A sustainable vision
What is vision? Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, is considered the granddaddy of Vision as an important concept. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who survived a Nazi concentration camp by envisioning what he would be doing after the war. He envisioned talking to a large conference of fellow psychologists about survival in the camps. That vision was what kept him alive, and he noted the same thing was true about all his fellow survivors: they all had a positive and specific vision of the future.
Even more important in an organization is to create a shared vision. Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline identifies shared vision as one of five disciplines that help create a learning organization that thrives in a changing world. [add] Shared visions are not the product of a charismatic leader, although they can start there. A shared vision involves everyone in the organization at some stage of its development.
So, how do you create a shared vision statement in the first place? One approach that is useful for an individual or a leadership team is mental imaging, followed by sharing and consensus building.
Mental imaging is a technique in which you envision that it is five years from now (or whatever your appropriate timing is, but make it sufficiently far enough in the future to allow change to have its desired effect.) You are walking into your organization, and what do you see? Close your eyes, and visualize every detail. After about five minutes (at least), jot down what your see.
The next step in developing a shared vision is to, obviously, share it with the rest of the leadership team during a retreat or meeting in which this topic is the focus. If you have a widely distributed team, you can do this with a virtual meeting, preferably one that allows for sharing screens and video of team members to increase a sense of presence. A facilitator or notetaker captures the thoughts on a flip chart or white board (or, in the case of a virtual meeting, a Word document or blank PowerPoint slide.) A structured brainstorming approach, in which everyone is given a turn (but can say Pass, if they are done with their input or want to wait until the next round) ensures that everyone has a chance to contribute.
The next step is to find common themes in the group input. Agree on the themes, and have someone craft a draft vision statement that tries to capture the sentiment of the group as well as the content. The share vision statement should read like a story.
What is a sustainable vision? What sentiments should you expect to see in a sustainable vision as opposed to a standard company vision statement?
Here is a sample sustainable vision:
It is five years from now, and we have become a force for good in America. We appeal across a broad spectrum of political beliefs because of our balanced approach to sustainable solutions. As a result, sustainability is becoming more and more a part of America’s businesses and lifestyles. As you “walk” into our business (our publishing and blogging portal), you see an inviting and interactive website – easy to find posts on any sustainability topic, as well as engaging and interactive workshops (webinars, online courses, and in-person at conferences). We have a vibrant blog that allows authors to gather thoughts and build audience(s). Sustainability graduates and professionals are reaping the benefits of our widely targeted audience. We have worked with over 50 authors to publish over 100 books and courses in multiple formats. This has made us a vital resource for sustainability and business students, because our solutions can be used in any business or nonprofit environment. We are also a fun and educational resource for health-conscious moms, eco-tourism enthusiasts, curious kids, and motivated millennials seeking earth- and human-friendly lifestyle choices.