The unique power of vision
Having worked for several large multinational corporations earlier in my career, I developed a deep disdain for organizational vision and mission statements. I saw them as fluff, a waste of company time and resources. I cringed at the thought of all the money and energy expended to craft a bunch of lofty, uninspiring statements that no one paid attention to on the conference room walls. In all my time in corporate America, I never once saw company leaders using vision or mission statements to guide decision-making. Instead, they were ignored wholeheartedly, and thus I had no use for them.
But that all changed about a decade ago when, in my role leading economic development at the Greenville Chamber, I was exposed for the first time to the power of a well-crafted organizational vision that was embraced and implemented by its leadership.
My conversion began with a simple meeting request from one of my favorite people, Dr. Bruce Yandle, now the dean emeritus of Clemson University’s College of Business and Behavioral Science, who said he had a “Top 20 idea” he wanted to discuss with me. I immediately recognized the “Top 20” phrase in his request as originating from the new vision statement by then-President Jim Barker that “Clemson will be one of the nation’s Top 20 public universities.” But I thought no further of it and quickly set up the meeting to learn more.
I quickly learned that Dr. Yandle’s idea was a big one indeed, an idea he had developed in partnership with then-associate dean, Dr. Caron St. John, to move Clemson’s graduate business school to downtown Greenville. He went on to explain that moving the school to a location thriving with business activity in an appealing urban setting would help attract top students to the program and thus would help the achieve its vision of being a Top 20 public institution. I quickly realized how much impact that new vision had in driving innovative thinking and planning, even with well-established university faculty like Dr. Yandle and Dr. St. John.
But the lesson went a step further for me. While brainstorming various aspects of moving the school to Greenville, I distinctly remember Dr. Yandle considering one of my ideas, filtering it through his new strategic lens for the university, and then gently dismissing it with the words, “John, that’s a good idea. But it’s not Top 20.” That encounter stuck with me to this day. It helped me realize the potential impact organizational visions and missions can have when used properly.
Today, the Clemson MBA program and other graduate degree programs are thriving at the ONE tower in downtown Greenville with enrollment more than doubling since 2010. At the core of this success is the Clemson vision and its application by leaders like Dr. Yandle and Dr. St. John.
Properly developed and implemented vision and mission statements have the potential to drive innovation and improved results like no other instrument available to business and organization leaders, because they impact the thinking and actions of the folks leading the effort. Very few management tools or practices can make the same claim.
The Clemson vision served not only as a stretch goal that required innovation and new thinking but also it provided organizational “permission” to those on the internal team to think out of the box and to try new approaches in order to drive new results. Both of these attributes are critical if organizations are to overcome the powerful forces of inertia and status quo politics and innovate for the future.
Many examples of inspiring, guiding vision and mission statements exist within entrepreneurial ventures as well. Here are some with the most impact:
Uber: Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone.
Google: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Intuit: To improve our customers’ financial lives so profoundly they can’t imagine going back to the old way.
Amazon: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.
Developing vision and mission statements can be a waste of time and resources. They can also be the key to driving broad-based innovation and long-term performance. The differentiating factor, I believe, is to ensure they inspire those making day-to-day decisions for the organization to push against the status quo and to innovate.
If they achieve that, you may drive future performance beyond your wildest dreams. If not, you’ll have something nice to hang on the conference room wall.