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Two Crucial but Often Overlooked Rules for Creating an Inspirational Vision Statement
It is practically a given that a company should have a formal vision statement. Like any leadership tool, it is only effective if it is done right. Research over the past three decades has consistently demonstrated that a vision statement can improve organizational performance as well as individual follower performance, but only if the vision contains certain characteristics. These characteristics are as follows:
Despite having the potential to positively impact organizational performance, little practical guidance exists for leaders looking to create or improve their vision statement. And, the lack of specific examples can make it difficult for leaders to know when they have created a truly powerful vision statement.
In this article, I focus on two often overlooked ground rules for creating a great vision statement—stating the purpose of the organization and describing the organization’s unique purpose. I provide actual vision statements to illustrate these characteristics. Although some of these examples come from large organizations, no doubt with the resources to hold off-site retreats focusing on vision development, many of the examples are taken from small- and medium-size organizations that likely rely on a single leader or small executive team to develop a vision statement. Also, the examples presented are drawn from both for-profit companies as well as government organizations. Extraordinary vision statements should not be rare occurrences!
Rule 1: State the Organization’s Purpose
At the heart of the vision statement is a statement of purpose. Yet, many organizations fail to include even a general idea of why they are in business; they mistakenly include overly general statements such as “develop new markets,” “to be the best,” or “to make money.” Here are two actual vision statements of well known companies:
Although these statements are brief, they are not likely to provide effective guidance to employees who are responsible for developing ideas for new products/services or responding to competitors. Employees faced with new situations will find little guidance in vision statements such as these.
An effective vision statement should describe what the organization intends to achieve. The statement of purpose can include the organization’s current or desired products or services, its markets (including industry, geographic locations, and customers) in which it intends to offer those products and services, and the impact that its products and services are meant to have. Two examples of vision statements that illustrate the organization’s purpose are as follows:
Too much specificity can limit the company’s growth prospects. On the other hand, broadening the scope of the purpose can open up new lines of business that were previously unidentified. We’ve all read the examples of a bicycle manufacturer transforming itself into a transportation company or newspaper turning itself into a communication provider. But, being too broad leads to a lack of clarity about what the organization wants to achieve.
Rule 2: Describe the Organization’s Uniqueness
Another ground rule is to describe how your company is unique. How do its products or services differ from your competitors? What is your company’s unique history? What are your markets, customers, or location?
An organization that describes its unique ability can differentiate itself from the competition and make employees feel that they are part of something special. This enhances employees’ ability to work as a collective whole. Such references are likely to contain specific, vivid images that are easily remembered. Also, these types of statements are unlikely to change significantly over time. An example of a woodworking firm that emphasizes the organization’s unique geographic location and impact on the local economy is the following:
Another example acknowledges the company’s unique clients, as follows:
Although small and medium size companies tend to serve defined local and regional markets, large companies sometimes choose to mention their worldwide presence as a defining characteristic. Avon’s vision statement illustrates this point:
Further, Anheuser-Busch’s vision statement emphasizes the global markets that it serves:
Effective vision statements typically avoid the generic vision statement of The vision of our organization is to be the best in our industry. A notable exception to this advice is General Electric’s (GE) well-known vision statement to be number 1 or number 2 in each of the markets in which we compete. Although it could be argued that this statement is more of an organizational goal than a vision, this statement is not only preached but also practiced at GE. Employees know that their business unit is one of the top two leaders in their markets, thus enhancing collective identity and improving self-confidence and self-esteem. An illustration of this type of vision statement is illustrated below:
Although it is certainly possible that this type of vision statement has yielded the same success for other companies as it has for General Electric, research shows that effective vision statements are ideological and long-term. A vision statement reflecting a specific market leader position sets a high standard but cannot technically be considered a vision statement.
Another way to emphasize the company’s uniqueness is to describe the way in which performance will be assessed. The company’s vision statement should match or fit the measures that are used to gauge success. Research on David McClelland’s long-standing theory of individual and group motives –achievement, affiliation, and power motives – has shown that statements reflecting these motives are related to individual and organizational performance (McClelland, 1975; McClelland, 1961; McClelland, 1985). More specifically, vision statements that mention achievement and power work best for entrepreneurial organizations, while visions mentioning affiliation (or relationships among people) work best for service-oriented organizations (Kirkpatrick et al., 2002).
Images of achievement that are found in vision statements include competing against a standard of excellence, accomplishing a unique goal, and positively evaluating the organization’s performance. Achievement images are related to organizational performance for entrepreneurial organizations. The following examples are taken from entrepreneurial organizations; the achievement images are underlined for emphasis.
The second motive is affiliation, which reflects a concern for establishing, maintaining, and restoring close personal, emotional relationships with others. Affiliation images are those which express positive or friendly feelings toward others and express sadness about being separated from others or having relationships disrupted. They also include engaging in nurturing acts.
Affiliation imagery is related to success in service-oriented organizations. Service-oriented organizations must establish and maintain relationships with a variety of stakeholders, including customers, employees, unions, suppliers, government and regulatory agencies, lawmakers, and the general public. Illustrative examples of vision statements emphasizing affiliation images include the following (with the images underlined):
The third and final motive is power, which reflects a concern with strong, vigorous action that affects others, actions that have an emotional impact on others, and actions that are meant to build one’s reputation and status. Power images reflect strong, forceful actions that impact or attempt to impact on other people or the world at large. Images of control and regulation are considered to be power images. Giving help or support that is not explicitly requested is also considered to be a power image because the intent is not to provide assistance but rather to influence.
The power motive is especially important for entrepreneurial organizations. Entrepreneurs must convince others of the viability of their ideas. They must influence customers’ perceptions to develop an image or reputation. Illustrative examples of vision statements emphasizing power imagery include the following, with power images shown underlined:
Clearly, creating a great vision statement is no easy task. It is up to the leader to find a way to put into words or images the reason that the company exists. The leader, with introspection and reflection, should consider the original reason for forming the company, why other products and markets were not pursued, and who will benefit from the company’s products and services. Although vision statement development is still very much an art, there are some general principles that have been identified by science. These often overlooked rules should be carefully considered when crafting a vision statement.
Baum, J.R., Locke, E.A., & Kirkpatrick, S.A. 1998. A longitudinal study of the relation of vision and vision communication to venture growth in entrepreneurial firms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 43-54.
Kirkpatrick, S.A. 2004. Visionary leadership theory. In J.M. Burns, G.R. Goethals, & G.J. Sorenson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Leadership. Great Barrington, MA: Sage.
Kirkpatrick, S.A. & Locke, E.A. 1996. Direct and indirect effects of three core charismatic leadership components on performance and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 36-51.
Kirkpatrick, S.A., Wofford, J.C., & Baum, J.R. 2002. Measuring motive imagery contained in the vision statement. Leadership Quarterly, 13, 139-150.
McClelland, D.C. 1961. The achieving society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
McClelland, D.C. 1975. Power: The inner experience. New York: Irvington.
McClelland, D.C. 1985. Human motivation. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forsman.
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