The best vision in the world won’t make a whit of difference if it’s not communicated (and modeled) clearly, creatively, and continuously.
John Kotter’s research reveals that in a three month period, the average employee receives roughly 2,300,000 words from their organization. In that sea of information, only 13,400 words communicate vision. That’s just about half of one percent of the communication market share.
The result is predictable. A recent study published in Management Communication Quarterly asked employees to describe their organization’s ideal future (vision). Their answers only agreed with their organization’s actual vision statements 17% of the time.
Why does this happen? You and your team of change leaders have spent an incredible amount of time developing a vision for change: collecting and digesting information, praying, discerning, and considering alternatives. And that’s just the intellectual part—you have also done the hard emotional work of letting go of the status quo, giving up other possible futures, considering the sacrifices, and building trust. After spending hundreds of hours navigating all this for yourselves, it’s easy to get caught up in your excitement and plow ahead, naively expecting the rest of your organization to come to grips with it all overnight.
So how do we communicate vision more effectively? Kotter gives us seven key tips to consider (from Change Leadership, p. 91):
- Keep it simple: Avoid jargon and technobabble
- Use metaphors, analogies, and examples: A verbal picture is worth a thousand words
- Reinforce through multiple forums: Large and small meetings, videos, emails, hallway conversations
- Repeat: Ideas only sink in after they’ve been heard many times
- Lead by example: Be sure your behavior models the vision
- Explain seeming inconsistencies: Explicitly address perceived inconsistencies that might undermine the vision
- Give and take: Don’t just talk—listen.
These are all important, but let’s look at a few of the ones that often get overlooked:
Keep it simple
It takes a lot of work to boil a big vision down to a sentence or two, but as a leader you have to nail this elevator speech.
One study in the Journal of Business Psychology examined different factors in leader communications, and found that people retain knowledge best when leaders communicate precisely (frank, concise, to the point) and supportively (appreciative of people’s contributions). Side note: this study also shows that assuredness—projecting a sense of total confidence—may actually get in the way of people really hearing what you have to say. It turns out that it’s better to be straightforward and authentic than to have the right answer every time.
Use metaphors, analogies, and examples
Leaders give a great deal of attention to how they communicate externally, but don’t often give creative thought to how they communicate vision to their own organization’s members. Kotter talks about the power of finding the right metaphor to communicate the essence of your vision. One example:
- VERSION 1: “We want to begin designing and manufacturing more products that are perceived by the customer base as different, highly recognizable, and prestigious. Such products will have significantly higher prices and margins.”
- VERSION 2: “We are going to be making fewer Fiats and more Mercedes.”
Is there a metaphor that would help you communicate your vision more powerfully and simply to your members?
Sometimes perfunctory staff meeting speeches and organization-wide memos need to give way to stories, ceremonies, and symbols. Nancy Duarte’s new book Illuminate is full of great examples. In 2002 Steve Jobs announced the retirement of Mac OS9 with a funeral ceremony, complete with an organ requiem, a coffin that rose out of the floor (containing an oversized OS9 box), and a eulogy. When Southwest Airlines bought Morris Air, they held a mock wedding ceremony officiated by an Elvis impersonator—a celebration designed to help employees make the transition into one larger company. The way humans respond to ceremony and imagery goes beyond any corporate communication strategy; as Christians we are inheritors of a powerful tradition of creative communication that goes back to the Hebrew prophets, who used symbols and acts of deep meaning, imagination, and hope to call their people to move toward the vision God had given them.
Lead by example
I’ll close with this one. As John Maxwell says, “Good leaders must communicate vision clearly, creatively, and continually. However, the vision doesn’t come alive until the leader models it.” To say it the other way, if you don’t lead by example no one will buy into your vision. If you really want your organization to lower costs, you can’t give your office a fancy remodel. No one will believe you want to build a culture of accountability if you can’t follow through on the action items you committed to in last week’s staff meeting.
I’ve experienced the failure to lead by example in some painful ways in my own career. In one organization, the CEO cast a vision for our teams to work together like a loving, trusting family… and then proceeded to lay off 30% of the staff in an offhanded move that left us all reeling. Words are cheap, but they become meaningless when you don’t back them up with action. On the other hand, when when your team members see you taking the “leap” yourself, they’re much more likely to follow.
Have you seen particularly good or bad examples of leaders communicating vision? I’d love to hear about them.