Senior managers are responsible for many things, none of which is more important than developing a vision for the organization’s future and keeping it current.
Depending on the culture, the vision will be emphasized in different ways. I was reminded of this significant point in January (on a warm, sunny beach!) as I was reading three nonfiction business books, each with a quite different focus:
“Factory Man,” by Beth Macy, a former newspaper business reporter; “Crisis Point,” by Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, former members of Congress on different sides of the aisle; and “A Passion for Leadership,” by Robert M. Gates, former defense secretary under two administrations. I have taken freely from these distinguished leaders.
Reading these books at the end of the Christmas season, gifts from Santa’s bulging bag, I could not help but realize that senior managers and executives have bulging bags also, but theirs is full of responsibilities that affect not only their organizations and shareholders, but also employees. Their shoulders must be sturdy and broad. What can be done to lighten their burden, even if only slightly?
There must be communicated to all a clear vision of “where we are going.” Twenty-five years ago it was fashionable for a business to develop a mission statement and a statement of values it held dear. Together these were intended to offer a vision to everyone in the organization. They were too often developed by consulting firms and seemed lofty and almost too regal to be understood as relevant by lower-level staff.
At the other extreme they may have been developed entirely in-house. When they are done in-house, only senior management may have been involved; perhaps in some cases top-to-bottom participation was incorporated.
Regretfully, many organizations went through the motions and have postings on the wall, often in the entryway of the company. Yet some have no postings where employees might be exposed to the mission and values. Is it possible in such cases that there is no culture being illustrated and no vision being shown? How can you be sure?
Consider this statement of values for one specific company: I see this statement every day, even though I don’t work for the company under study. How could that be?
The statement: “Our priorities: Safety, Courtesy, The Schedule.” This is on the rear of all public transit buses where I live. It is also a part of the orientation, every training session and every performance appraisal. Everywhere you go in the garage, the offices, and yes, on the buses, you see the same statement.
Apps keep riders with smartphones up to date about the accuracy of the schedule on unusual days. The ridership is a mixed student-community citizen one, and the public has been “trained” to support and prefer the ordering of the statement of priorities.
Drivers are mixed, full time and part time, mixed students and retired local citizens. Virtually any rider or driver can quickly explain the priorities. They are clearly a part of the company culture. There appears to be no movement to change the values dear to the community operation; if cost cutting is considered, it is always within the framework of what is important to the organization. (It’s OK to compare your company’s culture, values and clarity of vision with examples used here; no company is perfect. Each environment is different.)
Consider “The Factory Man” as it looks at the furniture industry’s growth and decline and virtual demise in southern Virginia and northwest North Carolina. Two clear values emerged industrywide in the industry’s development stage: low costs of operation and the highest-quality product.
Natural resources (forests) were available at a relatively low cost; labor was available at much lower costs than in the Midwest, from whence migrated the industry. In the production process the quality was most important as a means of building the brands in the eyes of furniture stores and the consumer.
In time, as change in the environment became evident, the quality concern changed to one more of costs only and their reduction to satisfy a changing customer set. Result: more and offshore (read China) production of furniture that could be sold cheaper and might even be considered disposable.
Most manufacturers did not seem to see the environmental changes, and most did not communicate any change in vision to employees. One owner did and while undergoing significant downsizing and plant movements has remained in business and is growing. He has tried to be the visionary, and his employees have moved with him. Beth Macy is a quality painter who allows readers to feel their presence in the picture she describes in words.
Can we learn from the political environment? Lott and Daschle represent the traditional long-standing idea of compromise in Congress. Although that era of history had its ups and downs, the public does not seem pleased today with what is billed as the dysfunction in Washington in the debates we all have been watching on TV. We now have Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina behind us; fresh on our minds is Super Tuesday and going onward to Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska and Puerto Rico. Will it never end?
Lott and Daschle always maintained a positive working relationship, even though they represented different political philosophies — the kind of relationship that in the 2016 hyper-partisan climate is unthinkable. What can the business leader learn from a thorough reading of this book?
First, the mission statement must be current and must be ingrained in the minds of all participants. Somehow the mission of Congress has not been ingrained in new members and they dance to a different drummer.
In the business model this can be seen most vividly when employees choose to be unionized; the vision of the mission becomes blurred. The same effect can occur when a new leader arrives with a vision that is different from what other managers and employees previously accepted. Or the leaders with different views of desired outcomes (Democrats and Republicans) should seek a compromise that can be a win-win for both parties’ leaders and their sides.
In the business model, different senior managers may set forth different visions within their units to accomplish personal goals for their divisions or their own careers. This can occur when the top executive does not have a good handle on the total organization.
Although Congress does differ in many ways from the business model of both the marina and the large manufacturing company, a reading of “Crisis Point” can be instructive both to the business leader role and the citizen role. P.S. You will remember many of the episodes from your own experience.
Imagine being a Cabinet officer under two presidents (Bush and Obama) of different parties and broadly different views of the country’s mission. Based on his experience, Gates in “A Passion for Leadership” observes that the most critical action by a chief executive is “The Vision Thing.”
Gates’ dictionary shows 54 definitions of leadership, but the one he prefers is “one who guides; one who shows the way.” The leader — any leader — must first assess the urgency of the multitude of challenges facing the organization. Some will be urgent, and others will be longer-term challenges. What must the total organization get on with now?
Once determined, this vision must be communicated through many channels. Gates makes a strong point about bringing about change in any organization: “Any fool can dictate change from the top.” However, “fundamental to success … is inclusiveness — getting as many people involved as possible, especially among career professionals.”
The CEO cannot be aware of every unit’s operation. Key personnel must be trusted to be up front about all the issues and not try to protect turf. But Gates says department heads always will protect their turf! He proposes the use of short-term task forces of people outside the unit in question. New ways of looking at things are needed.
Key points to remember:
Is your mission statement current?
Is the set of values guiding the company clearly communicated?
How are the key values ingrained in all employees?
How do you know your vision of the future of the company is understood?
What is the most pressing problem facing your company?
Who knows this? How do they know it?
Get on with it!
You will learn so much in an enjoyable manner if you grab one or more of these books and have all of your senior staff reading and discussing them. Good luck.
Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.