I attended a leadership seminar at local university recently. Within the first fifteen minutes we were given a task to go out and ask three strangers this exact question. What do you think the result was?
To be an effective leader you have to be effective at giving vision and setting a direction.
The message was loud and clear on this particular Friday. Leaders have to be good at setting a vision and then having plan. So the next question that comes to my mind is this: what constitutes a “vision” and a “plan”.
Let’s take a look.
That Vision Thing
The first critical task of any leader is to effectively communicate the vision.
You’ve likely read in leadership books about the importance of establishing a shared vision with your followers. It is true, having a vision is important not only for your team or organization, but for yourself as well. However, do you know exactly what a “vision” is? I ask this because I used to get it mixed up.
To clarify what a vision is I’ll refer to Burt Nanus, professor and author of several books on strategy and leadership that includes Visionary Leadership: Creating a Compelling Sense of Direction for Your Organization. A vision is a realistic, credible, attractive future for [an] organization.
It’s important to take this definition apart to gain a clear understanding of what a vision is:
Realistic. A vision must be based in reality to be meaningful. For example, if your engineering firm is based regionally in the mid-west and has a growth rate of about 2.5% per year, it’s not realistic to set a vision for a 10% growth rate per year in Brazil. Keep the vision in the bounds of what’s feasible, yet will require you and the organization to stretch.
Credible. A vision must be believable to be relevant. Using the previous example, if you set that vision and everyone in the firm is currently from the mid-west, doesn’t speak Portuguese and only 5% hold passports, you don’t have a credible vision. No one will buy into it.
Attractive. If a vision is going to inspire and motivate those in the organization, it must be attractive. To make the above vision a bit more appealing to this mid-west firm, you might dial in the growth rate to 5% per year and with expansion into higher education market, or maybe the east coast.
Future. A vision is not in the past or present; it is in the future. It is a guide wire you set forward into the future that the organization then uses to guide its strategy.
Here’s a simple definition of what a vision is, taken from the 2014 Boy Scouts of America National Youth Leadership Training course I was an adult advisor to: a vision is what future success looks like.
If 13 to 17 year old youths can get that “vision thing”, all of us can.
The Strategic Plan
The other important task of the leader is to put an effective plan into place to achieve the vision. Strategic planning is the plan that’s put into place. It’s not meant to be a static document put on the shelf or printed with a pretty, glossy cover. It’s meant to be the document that makes the vision a reality.
The seven attributes of an effective strategic plan include:
Principles. These are the non-negotiable values and commitments that frame the entire strategic planning activity. Think of them as reflective markers on the side of a roadway. In Germany, these little markers are found at the edge of pavement on every road outside of villages and cities. They serve to keep you on the path when visibility is low and the way ahead isn’t clear.
In your strategic plan, establishing non-negotiable values and commitments serve the same purpose as the reflective markers. They keep the organization on the plan’s path when the way ahead isn’t always clear.
Goals. These are the long-term outcomes towards which organizational efforts will be expended. The vision establishes the future and the goals establish the key items that have to be accomplished to make the vision a reality.
Objectives. These are the near-term outcomes that contribute to the goal. Each goal will have several objectives nested with in it. This is necessary to break the goal apart into actionable elements.
Key Performance Indicators. These are quantitative measures that reflect progress towards objectives. The old management saying goes “what gets measured, gets done”. It’s an old management saying because it’s true. If you don’t maintain accountability on the performance of achieving objectives, then your organization will not accomplish the goals and you’ll fall short of achieving the vision.
Targets. These are desirable levels of measurable achievement with timetables. You’ll need these to support the Key Performance Indicators as well as part of the accountability process for objective and goal achievement. Targets give everyone something to aim at.
Strategies. The strategic plan is the overarching document. Strategies are the approaches taken to achieve a particular objective.
Tactics. These are the specific actions, projects, or initiatives that will be executed to achieve an objective. Think of them as your “to-do” list.
The easiest way to think about what a strategic plan is and how to tap into its effectiveness for your organization or team is to liken it to constructing a building.
You start with a concept (vision); create a design (strategic plan); rely on building code and engineering considerations to guide the design (principles); determine the high-level elements of work required like site development, HVAC, utilities, etcetera (goals); identify the specific requirements for each high-level area of work (objectives); establish project tracking metrics (key performance indicators) to ensure that cost, scope and schedule (targets) are maintained; employ current industry standards in performing the work to fulfill the specific requirements (strategies); and perform all actions according to the projects work breakdown structure (tactics).
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach
Nanus, Burt. Visionary Leadership: Creating a Compelling Sense of Direction for Your Organization. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992. Print.
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