Consider what would happen if you tried this: You go to each of the top leaders in your company; you ask them to imagine that it is five years from today, and your company is extremely successful. Then, you ask them to describe what the company looks like at that time and in that situation. Would your company’s leaders’ answers be similar or wildly different?

In most companies the answers would be wildly different. I believe this because I’ve seen it happen many times. I do this exercise with executives frequently, and it is striking how much a team that works together every day at guiding a company can have so little agreement about where this guidance is heading.

Here’s an example: At the beginning of a corporate retreat, I asked the top executives of a company with $80 million in annual sales to describe what their company would look like if it was very successful at a point a few years in the future. Their estimates of annual revenue in the future varied from $150 million to $1 billion. Their visions of customer mix, product offerings and geographic expansion also differed, as did their descriptions of other many parameters. How could this team expect to collaborate effectively if they shared so little vision about what they were trying to accomplish?

If you were to put a hidden microphone under the tables in a thousand conference rooms of a thousand different companies and listen in on the discussions upper and mid-level executives are having with each other, you’d find yourself listening to debates and discussions about individual projects.

“Should we fund this project or not?”

“I think we should start selling our products in Macedonia.”

“Should we run an ad in this magazine or that magazine?”

“I’ve interviewed all of the candidates, and we should hire Ed.”

“I completely disagree with you – we shouldn’t call our new product the Super Amazing Gonkulator, we should call it the Super Magnificent Gonkufabulator.”

It’s not hard to imagine the disagreements that ensue in conversations like these, as people debate relatively small issues without having a consensus on the big issues. Imagine if a crew of ten people trying to sail an America’s Cup ship don’t agree on where they are headed, which way the wind is blowing and the right strategy for tacking. Wouldn’t they be likely to start arguing, especially if their captain wasn’t certain of the situation? This seems absurd in a world-class yacht race, but it’s a pretty accurate description of what’s going on in most companies.

If you want to be able to address the small questions in your company, it’s important to ask the big questions first, because the small questions (Which ad should we run?) are driven by the big questions (What is our marketing strategy trying to accomplish?) And, of all of the big questions, the most important one to answer is, “Who do we intend to be?”

Who do we intend to be?

On one level, it seems so simple. We all know that we want our companies to be successful. We all know that we want our companies to grow. We all know (at least most of us) that we want to our companies to be great places to work.

But do we really know what success means for our companies? Do we really know what kind of growth we want? Do we really know what it would mean for us to be a great place to work, and how that would support our success?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of non-profits lately, and it impresses me how much those of us in the for-profit world can learn by the way non-profits address the “who do we intend to be?” question. When revenue and profit are your prime motives, it’s easy to be really vague about the details of what you’re trying to accomplish. But I’ve found that non-profits, who are forced to define their reasons-for-being in varied and unique ways, tend to probe much deeper into this question.

Let’s face it, “We want to be the organization that saves 100,000 children from dying of dysentery” is a much richer description of a goal than “We want to be a company whose sales are 10% bigger.” Defining what they want to accomplish is at the heart of what most non-profit organizations are all about, and, because of this, I find it really easy to engage them in rich, thoughtful discussions about who they intend to be. On the other hand, it’s more typical for a for-profit enterprise to gloss over this question, and to define the future more purely in terms of financial goals.

But even a definition of financial goals is hampered if a company can’t clarify who it intends to be. Think of my corporate retreat example from above. The revenue predictions among the company’s leaders varied from $150 million to $1 billion. If they had shared beliefs about who they intend to be, don’t you think they’d have had a better chance of agreeing on what size company they could be, or needed to be, if they were to reach those goals?

So don’t waste a minute before you start addressing the question “Who do we intend to be?” And, while you’re at it, think like a non-profit. Try defining what you want to be in terms that go beyond financials. After all, financials are a result that the market will reward you with once you become the company that you intend to be. They are not who you intend to be.

Yogi Berra once said “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” ‘Nuff said.

1 Comment

  • Randy Bosch
    Dec 30, 2010 - 22:02 pm

    Two weeks later – a comment! Steve, your article needs to be recommended to all organizations – leaders and followers, as it skillfully conveys timeless truths.

    When “consensus” became “unanimity” (how DID that happen?), and full, equal engagement without preparation became synonymous with not only horizontal but now vertical organizational structures, a few simple concepts were lost. One of the most important has been re-expressed by Nassem Nicholas Taleb, “Aut tace aut loquere meliora silencio” (I will speak only when the words outperform silence), in a zeitgeist where to remain silent is taken as not reticence but incompetence.

    I have too often found in organizational “planning” and “marketing” meetings a profound focus on style and process, not upon mission and goals. Not surprising, but sad. As Joseph Wood Krutch stated, “The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing.”

    Thank you for continuing to encourage ethical engagement, true leadership, and the need for all of us to pursue not only knowledge but wisdom in our organizational interactions!

Leave A Reply