- Knowledge Centre

Making Your Company’s Vision Meaningful

Why does your organisation need a stated vision and values? To some, ‘company values,’ ‘vision’ or ‘mission statement’ might sound like meaningless phrases dreamt up by the internal marketing team, or at best a ‘nice to have’ that adds little, if any, real value to the organisation. In actuality, having a clear vision and values that resonate with your employees, stakeholders, and customers is essential to creating an effective, efficient, and healthy workplace culture.

What is your why?

In 2009 writer Simon Sinek published Start With Why, which looked at how leaders can inspire others to take action. He argues that people work best when they know why they are working. What are we trying to achieve – and why is it important? His message promotes the need for understanding and effectively communicating WHY your organisation exists. What its purpose is. What benefits it delivers.

While Sinek’s message is not new, it is a concise way of encapsulating why an organisation’s vision, values, and mission statement are so important. A clear and compelling vision will inspire employees to work at their best and inspire customers to follow and support your brand. So what makes a good mission statement? Let’s first look at an example of one which falls short.

In the 1990’s, Halifax Bank’s vision statement was a simple one: “To become the UK’s leading provider of financial services.” Simple, and at first look, pretty clear. But this statement lacks specificity on which particular areas of financial services Halifax was to become the leading provider in. Formerly a building society focused on mortgage lending, the business had branched out after deregulation of the financial services sector in the 1980s, eventually becoming a bank in 1997.

Fast forward a decade or so and Halifax becomes embroiled in a major mis-selling scandal, which resulted in Lloyds Banking Group (of which Halifax is a part) being handed the largest fine in the history of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and that of its predecessor the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Products were being recommended to trusting customers not because the product could be of value to them, but because they would secure commission income for the bank. Incentive schemes required employees to hit customer targets or be demoted, because the company’s focus was solely on creating income for itself, not value for its customers. Halifax may have become the UK’s leading bank, but at what cost? The company’s culture was toxic to staff (the FCA report notes one employee who sold unneeded protection products to himself, his wife, and a colleague in order to avoid demotion), deceitful to customers, and ultimately cost the company £28 million in fines.

And how is this relevant to the bank’s vision statement? Well, there’s nothing in this behaviour, toxic and deceitful though it is, that contradicts that statement. In addition to being unclear as to which financial products it wishes to become the leading provider of, the statement is not clear on what is meant by ‘leading provider.’ If it is taken to mean ‘most profitable,’ as it seems to have been by the leaders responsible for making the decisions that led to the mis-selling scandal, then selling products to people who have no need for them makes sense as a way to achieve that vision. If instead ‘leading’ were to be replaced with ‘most trusted’ or ‘customer-focused,’ the emphasis would be placed on the positive values of the company, not on a drive to succeed financially whatever the cost. Compliance with this new vision would require a healthier workplace culture and policies aimed at creating value through win-win deals with customers.

Clarity, clarity, clarity

As the Halifax example demonstrates, a lack of clarity in a vision statement leads to ambiguity around an organisation’s mission and values, which can have far-reaching implications for stakeholders, employees, and customers alike. But if Halifax’s vision ‘to become the UK’s leading provider of financial services’ isn’t clear enough, what is?

One famous vision statement was presented by President John F Kennedy when he told the US Congress in 1961 that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” The President’s vision is clear and unambiguous. He sets a timeframe. He makes it clear that the goal is not solely to land a man on the moon, but also to ensure his safe return. That is a clear a vision statement as you will see anywhere.

To achieve any worthwhile value, the company’s vision and mission must be unambiguous, partnered with real objectives which are understood by employees of all levels, leaving no room for guesswork. If you don’t have a clear sense of direction and keen focus, your organisation, your leaders, front-line employees, won’t achieve anything.

However, clear goals become unattractive, even vague, when they are not underpinned with clarity about why those goals are the goals. It’s that purpose that brings true clarity.

Is it working for the workers?

The key to making your organisation’s vision meaningful and valuable is that employees, from the most senior to the most junior level apply it consistently each and every day. The only way to ensure this is to make sure it means something to them. Your vision and values must make sense to your employees, and be applicable to their life and work. One important part of this is ensuring your professed values as an organisation are reflected in your internal policies and procedures. If you tell your customers that you are committed to creating a healthier and happier world but are simultaneously failing to protect your employees from workplace bullying, do you expect those employees to believe in your values? Do you expect them to do their best work for an organisation so blatantly hypocritical?

There’s a story that has been circulating in business circles for a long time now, and while the person concerned claims it is not true, it is nonetheless instructive. It goes like this: Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune was on his way to his seat when he passed an angry customer berating a member of the cabin crew for not upgrading him to first class. Unimpressed by the way the customer was treating his staff, Bethune asked to look at the man’s ticket. Seeing that it had cost the passenger $600, Bethune took six $100 bills and handed them to the man, ripping up his ticket and telling him in no uncertain terms to get off the plane.

To reiterate, Bethune says this never happened, but admits he has reacted gruffly to passengers who mistreat his staff. And while some people in the business world would shudder at treating a paying customer like this, Bethune’s brusqueness did not damage Continental – in the first two years of his leadership, the company went from a much-maligned failure fighting insolvency to an industry leader. All without bending over backwards to customers that abuse their staff. When employees know the company is looking out for them, they put in more discretionary effort.

As an organisation, having the right values is important, but just as important is being able to communicate them effectively to your employees – after all, who do you think is going to put these values into practice if not them? Ensure the company values are expressed clearly to any new starters – that way they know what culture is present in the organisation, and how they will be expected to conduct themselves in their new role.

The importance of emotional resonance

Leading brands have a vision that resonates on an emotional level with its customers, employees, and shareholders. For example, Nike’s vision statement reads: ‘To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world’ – a message that uses emotive language (‘inspiration’), displays the company’s values (‘innovation’), and describes its customers – whether they be professional sportspeople or an intermittent gym-goer – as athletes, making them feel included in a group that also includes their sporting heroes. Having a vision that resonates with people attracts and retains custom, goodwill, and trust.

How clear and compelling is your organisation’s vision?

Rather than focusing on beating your competitors, focus on improving yourself. You can’t control your competitors. You do control how your organisation enables or disables your employees’ ability and willingness to connect with and live out your organisation’s vision.

Get this wrong, you risk being just another organisation. Get it right, the level of employee discretionary effort, customer engagement, and even market trust you will achieve are likely to be immense.

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