Management homework help. CHAPTER 5 Envision the Future
AT A LATE-NIGHT meeting of Anh Pham’s team, the mood was inspired. Dinner had just arrived, and everyone was cheerful. Team members were smiling and joking around. The energy level was high. It felt “magical,” Anh told us. He’d been envisioning this kind of moment for some time.
This joyful scene is hard to imagine given that only months before they had all been struggling. Anh was an engineering manager at Analog Devices, and the company had gone through a major organizational change. Under the new strategic initiative, several divisions dissolved, top management shuffled, and the satellite office where Anh’s team was located suffered major cuts. Headcount was down 30 percent. Morale had taken a nosedive, and Anh found it increasingly difficult to get his team to focus on their job of product development. Productivity suffered as people started worrying more about their jobs and the team’s direction than about the work at hand.
Anh knew something needed to happen. He discerned that the team needed direction, but he didn’t think that was his job. The new general manager, however, hadn’t been very effective, in Anh’s opinion, in “addressing the team’s low morale or articulating a clear vision for our future.” Determined to correct the situation, Anh gave serious thought about a guiding strategy and vision for the team, and shared this in a meeting with his manager.
His passionate plea made an impression, and at their next quarterly review, Anh took the podium to lay out the vision.
Anh began by apologizing for the earlier lack of communication, particularly around layoffs. He explained why it had been necessary to divest certain lines of business, focus on their core competency, and apply their talents to solving their customers’ most challenging problems. Then he shared his passionate message about what he saw for their collective future:
We are a design powerhouse. Each and every one of us is here because we want to build the best converter, the fastest communication system, and the smartest automobile sensor. This is our chance to do just that. Imagine the day when the Apples, Ericssons, or Ciscos of the world would call us every time they dream of their next big thing. They would call us for our latest advanced technology and for our knack of solving their problems efficiently and elegantly. Look on our website today and you will see Analog Devices–Ahead of What’s Possible. This will not happen overnight, but it is our commitment, and we need everyone to make our vision a reality. We need your talent, we need your dedication, and above all we need you to reach for your dreams and make them happen.
“My message scored a direct hit,” he told us. “Across the room, relief and excitement replaced the concerned faces. The tensed mood gave way to a relaxed and jovial atmosphere.” Both Anh and the team knew that one speech wasn’t going to change things overnight. But his message dealt directly with the current situation and appealed to the team members’ competitive spirit and their common purpose of technical excellence. It garnered support from the team and senior management–just what they needed at the time.
Call it what you will–vision, purpose, mission, legacy, dream, aspiration, calling, or personal agenda–the intent is the same.
If you are going to be an exemplary leader, you have to be able to imagine a positive future, as Anh’s story illustrates. When you envision the future that you want for yourself and others, and when you feel passionate about the legacy you want to leave, you are much more likely to take that first step forward. However, if you don’t have the slightest clue about your hopes, dreams, and aspirations, then the chance that you’ll take the lead is slim. In fact, you may not even see the opportunity that’s right in front of you.
Exemplary leaders are forward-looking–a quality constituents clearly expect of leaders. They envision the future, and gaze across the horizon seeing greater opportunities to come. They imagine that extraordinary feats are possible and that something noble can emerge from the ordinary. They develop an ideal and unique image of the future for the common good.
But such a vision doesn’t belong only to the leader. It has to be a shared vision. Everyone has hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Everyone wants tomorrow to be better than today. Shared visions attract more people, sustain higher levels of motivation, and withstand more challenges than those that are exclusive to only a few. You have to make sure that what you can see is also something that others can see.
Leaders make a commitment to Envision the Future by mastering these two essentials:
– Imagine the possibilities
– Find a common purpose
You begin with the end in mind by imagining what might be possible. Finding a common purpose inspires people to want to make that vision a reality.
Imagine the Possibilities
“The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future” (italics his), writes Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, and known for his research on affective forecasting.
“The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future … the human brain is an ‘anticipation machine,’ and ‘making future’ is the most important thing it does.”1
Leaders are dreamers. Leaders are idealists. Leaders are possibility thinkers. All ventures, big or small, begin with the belief that what today is merely a yearning will one day be reality. It’s this belief that also sustains leaders and their constituents through the difficult times. Turning exciting possibilities into an inspiring shared vision ranks near the top of the list of every leader’s most important responsibilities.
When we ask people to tell us where their visions come from, they often have great difficulty describing the process. When they do provide an answer, it’s typically more about a feeling, a sense, or a gut instinct. There’s often no explicit logic to it. They just feel strongly about something, and that intuitive sense must be fully explored.2 Envisioning and intuiting aren’t logical activities, and they’re extremely difficult to explain and quantify. Alden M. Hayashi, a former senior editor at Harvard Business Review who has studied executive decision making, reports, “In my interviews with top executives known for their shrewd business instincts, none could articulate precisely how they routinely made important decisions that defied any logical analysis. To describe that vague feeling of knowing something without knowing exactly how or why, they used words like professional judgment, intuition, gut instinct, inner voice, and hunch, but they couldn’t describe the process much beyond that.”3 Yet, the leaders he studied agreed that these hard-to-describe abilities were crucial to effectiveness. They even went so far as to say that it was the “X-Factor” separating the best from the mediocre. In fact, intuition and vision, by definition, connect directly. Intuition has as its root the Latin word meaning, “to look at.”4
Visions are projections of one’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions about human nature, technology, economics, science, politics, art, ethics, and the like. A vision of the future is much like a literary or musical theme. It’s the paramount, persistent, and pervasive message that you want to convey, the frequently recurring melody that you want people to remember; and whenever repeated, it reminds the audience of the entire work.
Every leader needs a theme, an orienting principle around which he or she can organize an entire movement. What’s your central message? What’s your recurring theme? What do you most want people to envision every time they think about the future?
Ask people if their leader “paints the ‘big picture’ of what we aspire to accomplish.” Ask them how frequently their leader “describes a compelling image of what your future could be like.” What you will discover is that those leaders who engage the most in these behaviors have direct reports with the highest positive workplace attitude scores. For example, 73 percent of those who report to leaders in the top 10 percent on these two leadership behaviors “strongly agree” that they would work harder and for longer hours if the job demanded it, compared with only 15 percent of those who report to leaders in the bottom 10 percent. Less than 8 percent of the direct reports of the leaders in the bottom 10 percent strongly agree with the statement “People who are part of this person’s work group feel like they are making a difference in the organization.”
Responses to the question of how strongly direct reports agree or disagree that “overall, my supervisor is an effective leader” provide undeniable proof that being clear about the future is essential. Only 6 percent of those who rate their leaders in the bottom 10 percent on providing clarity about the future strongly feel that their leader is effective. However, direct reports who rate their leaders in the top 10 percent on this dimension are more than thirteen times more likely to also rate their leaders as effective. The findings are similar to the question of how frequently does your leader “paint the ‘big picture’ and describe a compelling image of what the future could be.” Direct reports provide effectiveness ratings nearly 1.6 times higher for those leaders in the top 10 percent on this variable compared with their counterparts in the bottom 10 percent. The key message from these findings: every leader must learn to communicate a vision of his or her larger purpose.
Being able to envision the future is decidedly important and has a tremendous impact on people’s motivational levels and workplace productivity. For many leaders, however, compelling images of the future don’t come easily–at first. Fortunately, there are ways you can heighten your capacity to imagine exciting possibilities and discover the central theme for your life and potentially the lives of others.
Breakthroughs come when you reflect on your past, attend to the present, prospect the future, and express your passion.
Reflect on Your Past As contradictory as it might seem, in aiming for the future, you first need to look back into your past. Looking backward before you stare straight ahead enables you to see further into the future. Understanding the past can help you identify themes, patterns, and beliefs that both underscore why you care about certain ideals and explain why realizing those aspirations is such a high priority for you.5 This was precisely the lesson realized by Jade Lui, consultant at the time with an Australian recruitment firm, who told us: “In order to look into the future, I first needed to search my past for recurring lifelong themes. This gives me clarity on identifying the big picture but also understanding current trends.” In a similar vein, “read history” is the best advice Bob Rodriguez, managing director and CEO of the $17 billion value investing firm First Pacific Advisors, says he ever got about the one thing he could do to be the best possible investment professional.6 “And so I became a good historian,” he says, “reading both economic and financial history as well as general history.”
Your personal history is your traveling partner on every journey you take. It provides valuable guidance and informs the choices you must make. As historians John Seaman and George David Smith, partners at the Winthrop Group, say, “The job of leaders, most would agree, is to inspire collective efforts and devise smart strategies for the future. History can be profitably employed on both fronts.”7 To lead with a sense of history, they maintain, is not being a slave to the past but to recognize that there are invaluable lessons to be learned by asking “How did we get to the point we are today?” Michael Watkins, vice president of the California Institute of Technology, and noted scholar on accelerating transitions, says that without this perspective, “you risk tearing down fences without knowing why they were put up. Armed with insight into the history, you may indeed find the fence is not needed and must go. Or you may find there is a good reason to leave it where it is.”8
When you gaze first into your past, you realize how full your life has been, and you become more aware of all the possibilities that could lie ahead.
Looking back enables you to understand better that the central recurring theme in your life has been there for a long time. Another benefit to looking back before looking ahead is that you gain a greater appreciation for how long it can take to fulfill aspirations.
None of this is to say that the past is your future. That would be like driving while looking only in your rearview mirror. It’s just that when you look deeply into your entire life’s history, you understand things about yourself and your world that you cannot fully comprehend by looking at the future as a blank slate. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine going to a place you’ve never experienced, either actually or vicariously. Taking a journey into your past before exploring your future makes the trip much more meaningful.
Attend to the Present The daily pressures, the pace of change, the complexity of problems, and the turbulence in global markets can often hold your mind hostage and make you think that you have neither the time nor the energy to be future-oriented. But attending to the future doesn’t mean you have to ignore what is going on in the present. It does, however, mean you have to be more mindful about it.
Being mindful of others and your environment is vital, and a growing number of leaders and organizations trust in the power of mindfulness.5 You have to get off automatic pilot, believing that you know everything you need to know, viewing the world through pre-established categories, and not noticing what’s going on around you. To increase your ability to conceive of new and creative solutions to today’s problems, you have to be present in the present. You have to stop, look, and listen. As one of IBM’s senior development managers, Amit Tolmare says he has learned that “to be able to envision the future, you have to understand the present. You have to listen to your team and feel their pain. Only when you understand the current challenges, will you be able to imagine a better tomorrow.”
Set aside some time each day to stop doing “stuff.” Create some white space on your calendar. Remind yourself that your electronic devices have an off switch. Stop being in motion. Then start noticing more of what’s going on around you right now. In Leading the Revolution, Gary Hamel, one of the world’s most influential business thinkers, observed that many people don’t appreciate and comprehend what’s changing around them “because they’re down at ground level, lost in the thicket of confusing, conflicting data.”
He says, “You have to make time to step back and ask yourself, ‘What’s the big story that cuts across all these little facts?”10
Look around your workplace and community. What are people doing they didn’t do a few years ago? What are people wearing, using, and discarding? How are people interacting? How do workplaces and communities look, and feel different, now compared to how they once did? What are the current trends popular these days? Why?
Listen to your constituents. What are their hot topics of conversation? What are they saying they need and want? What are they saying that gets in the way of them doing their best? What do they think should be changed? Listen as well to the weak signals, to what’s not being said. Listen for things you’ve never heard before. What does all this tell you about where things are going? What’s it telling you about what lies just around the corner?
When promoted to product manager at Labo America, Gautam Aggarwal realized that in order to see into the future he needed to attend to the present. To develop a “clear vision of what kind of group we needed to be and how we would go about achieving our goals,” Gautam explained, “I understood that a leader’s vision for the future has to be supported with facts about both the past and present.”
One of the first things he did was to hold an open forum where everyone had “the opportunity of providing feedback on what we had been doing right, and what needed both immediate as well as long-term improvement.” He wanted to learn about how they perceived the product line’s presence in the market at the time, and where they saw it three to five years in the future, because, as he acutely surmised, “we would all have to be on the same page about where we were today before we could go to any place in the future.” These discussions provided Gautam and his colleagues with a realistic assessment of current conditions, strengths, and challenges, while also helping them identify and make choices about which of the many promising paths forward they should pursue.
To be able to envision the future, you have to realize what’s already going on. You have to spot the trends and patterns, and appreciate both the whole and the parts. You have to be able to see the forest and the trees.
Imagine the future as a jigsaw puzzle. You see the pieces, and you begin to figure out how they fit together, one by one, into a whole. Similarly, with your vision, you need to rummage through the bits and bytes of data that accumulate daily, and notice how they fit together into a picture of what’s ahead. Envisioning the future is not about gazing into a fortune-teller’s crystal ball; it’s about paying attention to the little things that are going on all around you and being able to recognize patterns that point to the future.
Prospect the Future Even as you stop, look, and listen to messages in the present, you also need to raise your head and gaze out toward the horizon. Leaders have to be on the lookout for emerging developments in technology, demographics, economics, politics, arts, popular culture, and all aspects of life inside and outside the organization. They have to anticipate what might be coming just over the hill and around the corner. They have to prospect the future.
Dan Schwab, as training and organizational development director with the Trust for Public Land, encouraged thinking about the future by asking people at new hire orientation, “Where do you want to see this organization five years from now? Ten years from now?” Dan believed that “the greatest gift you can give to other people is thinking bigger than they believe.” He was, as many leaders we interviewed told us, “my organization’s futures department.”
Leadership requires you to spend considerable time reading, thinking, and talking about the long-term view, not only for your specific organization but also for the environments in which you’re operating. This imperative intensifies with the position’s scope and level of responsibility.” For example, when the role is strategic (as it is for a CEO, president, or business development director, for instance), the time orientation is longer term and more future oriented than it is when the role is more tactical (as for, say, a production supervisor or operations manager). Our data about the perceived importance of forward-looking as a key leadership characteristic varies by organizational level, with it being almost always considered vital by senior executives but less so for middle managers; only about half of frontline supervisors consider it necessary. Less than 50 percent of college students include this characteristic on their checklist of top four admired leadership characteristics.
Clearly, those with responsibilities for longer-term projects and results see the increasing value of being able to look further out into the future.
You need to consider what you’re going to do after the current problem, task, assignment, project, or program is completed. “What’s next?” should be a question you frequently ask yourself. If you’re not thinking about what’s happening after the completion of your longest-term project, then you’re thinking only as long term as everyone else is. In other words, you’re redundant! The leader’s job is to think about the next project, and the one after that, and the one after that. To encourage this perspective, the human resources leadership team at Modern Terminals Limited (Hong Kong) sets time aside each year to consider not simply “what are we doing right?” but more critically the question “what could we do differently to become an even better human resource team?”12 They encourage everyone to dream big and share their aspirations for the future.
Researchers have shown how leaders who focus on the future attract followers more readily, induce more effort and intrinsic motivation from group members, promote group identification, mobilize collective action, and ultimately achieve better performance on measures of both individual and organizational outcomes. 13 The future is where opportunity lies. You must spend time thinking about the future and become better at projecting ahead in time. Whether it’s through reading about trends, talking with futurists, listening to podcasts, or watching documentaries, developing a deep understanding of where things are going is a significant part of any leader’s job. Your constituents expect it of you. You have to spend more of today thinking more about tomorrow if your future is going to be an improvement over the present. And throughout the process of reflecting on your past, attending to the present, and prospecting for the future, you also need to keep in touch with what moves you, what you care about, where your passion is.
Express Your Passion Anyone would have great difficulty imagining possibilities when they don’t feel passionate about what they’re doing. Envisioning the future requires you to connect with your deepest feelings. You have to find something that’s so important that you’re willing to put in the time, suffer the inevitable setbacks, and make the necessary sacrifices.
Without an intense desire, a solemn concern, a consuming question, a grave proposition, a fondest hope, or a cherished dream, you can’t ignite the spark necessary to energize aspirations and actions. You have to step back and ask yourself, “What is my burning passion? What gets me up in the morning? What’s grabbed hold of me and won’t let go?”
Leaders want to do something significant, accomplish something that no one else has yet achieved. What that something is–your sense of meaning and purpose–has to come from within. No one can impose a self-motivating vision on you. That’s why, just as we said about values, you must first clarify your vision of the future before you can expect to enlist others in a shared vision. As you can see in Figure 5.1, the percentage of direct reports who agree with the statement “Overall, this person is an effective leader” increases dramatically with the frequency they say that their leader “speaks with a genuine conviction about the higher meaning and purpose of our work.”
[Figure 5.1 Speaking with Conviction About the Higher Meaning/ Purpose of Work Raises Leadership Effectiveness Ratings from Direct Reports]
Responses from these same leaders’ colleagues and managers yield similar results. People regard most favorably those leaders who regularly talk about the “why” of work and not just the “what” of work.
Feeling a strong sense of purpose–particularly one that benefits others and not just yourself–has a profound impact on your performance and your health. When organizations convey a strong sense of purpose, there is higher engagement and stronger financial performance than when people feel purpose is lacking. For example, students with a purpose in life rated their coursework as more meaningful than students who didn’t have a purpose or had only extrinsic motivations, such as making more money. Furthermore, these students persisted longer when tasks were tedious and, consequently, achieved more in their courses.14 In the workplace, people who believe their lives and jobs have meaning feel more connected to others, exhibit greater psychological well-being, are more creative and engaged in their work, and perform better in their jobs than those without a sense of meaning and purpose.15
Meaning and purpose matter whether you are seeking better grades, persistence in your efforts, greater personal well-being, or improved organizational performance. As a leader, if you want to perform at your best, it’s incumbent that you search inside yourself and discover what gives your work and life meaning and purpose. Research by the consulting firm Deloitte confirms that having a strong sense of purpose goes hand in hand with having clear values and beliefs.16
This is exactly what Andrew Rzepa discovered during his own Personal-Best Leadership Experience. Andrew had been chair of a committee of trainee solicitors (lawyers) in Manchester, England, for about a month when the national Trainee Solicitors Group arranged a conference for all the trainees in the United Kingdom to take place in his city. It was not his event, but given the close affiliation of their local organization with the national group, Andrew decided that he would do all he could to make the conference a success. With three weeks to go, the enrollment was only at seventy-five, so Andrew declared to his colleagues that he was going to do everything in his power to ensure that there would be at least three hundred attendees.
“I spoke passionately about how good it would feel to be there at a packed event and to look around thinking that we had achieved that,” Andrew told us, and then he asked the committee members whether “they were willing to personally commit themselves to the realization of this goal.” Andrew said that because the conference was not one of the committees’ goals nor a reason people had joined the committee, he wouldn’t have been surprised if the majority had said no. “To my pure joy,” Andrew exclaimed, “sixteen out of the twenty said yes, they were willing to do all they could to make the event a success.” And the fact that there were some “doubters” actually energized everyone involved. “The committee members were more passionate than I had ever seen them before,” Andrew said. In the end, after all their work, they succeeded in getting 316 attendees to the conference. Andrew’s passion not only fueled his own drive but also was contagious in getting others to work as hard as they could to realize a future possibility.
When you feel your passion, as Andrew did, you know you are on to something very important. Your enthusiasm and drive spread to others. Finding something you strongly believe in is the key to articulating a vision in the first place. Once you’re in touch with this inner feeling, you can look and think beyond the constraints of your current position and view the possibilities available in the future.
Find a Common Purpose
Much too often it is assumed that leaders have the sole responsibility to be the visionaries. After all, if focusing on the future sets leaders apart, it’s understandable that there would be this feeling that it’s their job to embark alone on a vision quest to discover the future of their organization.
However, constituents actually want to hear more than just the leader’s vision. While being forward-looking is an expectation of leaders, they aren’t supposed to impose only their view of the future on others. People want to see their own ideals and aspirations, their hopes and dreams, incorporated and appreciated. They want to see themselves in the picture of the future that the leader is painting.17
The central task for leaders is inspiring a shared vision, not selling their personal view of the world. You need to imagine the end result and be able to communicate your vision such that your constituents find a way to achieve their hopes and dreams while achieving that result. What this requires is finding common ground among those people who have to implement the vision.
Amit Tolmare, IBM senior development manager, came to appreciate that “no leader can dream alone.” He realized that achieving his vision could only happen when the team fully owned the dream themselves. People commit themselves fully and deliver their best only if they share the same passion as the leader does, and it’s critical that they can picture their own aspirations in the shared vision. Amit learned that people are more likely to commit themselves fully to the greater cause when you listen to them deeply, understand their true calling, and help them achieve their aspirations. People like to be heard, and want to have a meaningful impact in their jobs. As a leader, it is very important to find that common higher purpose and appeal to that inner desire of people to create a difference.
Nobody likes being told what to do or where to go, no matter how right it might be. People want to be a part of the vision development process. They want to walk alongside their leaders. They want to dream with them, invent with them, and be involved in creating their futures. The experience of Omar Pualuan, head of engineering at RVision, gives further testimony to this observation. He recounted how he had created the original business plan for the project, but “found my teammates presenting solutions to issues and expanding the vision in ways I never conceived of. We took what we learned, iterated, and tested again, many times over. The entire team shared a deep passion and commitment, and our shared vision created a much more spectacular result. My vision was no longer just my own–it had become ours, and the quality of our finished creation reflected this.”
Don’t adopt the view that visions come from the top down. You have to start engaging others in a collective dialogue about the future. You can’t mobilize people to travel willingly to places they don’t want to go. No matter how grand the dream of an individual visionary, if others don’t see in it the possibility of realizing their hopes and desires, they won’t follow voluntarily or wholeheartedly.
You must show others how they, too, will be served by the long-term vision of the future and how their unmet needs will be satisfied. As Theresa Lai, general manager of human resources for Modern Terminals Limited, explained about their process: “We believe that people will have a stronger sense of purpose and achievement by enlisting in a common vision, which is the key reason why we involve all of our team members in the HR visioning process.”
Listen Deeply to Others By knowing their constituents, listening to them, and taking their advice, leaders give voice to their constituents’ feelings. They’re able to stand before others and say with assurance, “Here’s what I heard you say that you want for yourselves. Here’s how enlisting in a common cause will serve your needs and interests.” In a sense, leaders hold up a mirror and reflect back to their constituents what they say they most desire.
You need to strengthen your ability to hear what is important to others. The outlines of any vision do not appear miraculously to leaders in the isolation of the organization’s stratosphere. They come from interactions with employees on the manufacturing floor, in the lab, or in the cafeteria. They originate from conversations with customers in the retail stores. They live in the hallways, in meetings, and even in people’s homes.
The best leaders are great listeners. They listen carefully to what other people have to say and how they feel. They ask good (and often tough) questions, are open to ideas other than their own, and even lose arguments in support of the common good. Through intense listening, leaders get a sense of what people want, what they value, and what they dream about. This sensitivity to others is no small skill. It is a truly precious human ability.18
When Melinda Jackson, corporate recruiter for a multinational technology company, realized that cohesion on their new team was lacking, she took it upon herself to schedule regular check-ins with her colleagues, which usually began by asking them many questions about how they were doing and then, in her words, “actively listening.” When she learned that not everyone was comfortable with her, she asked for their feedback, tried to be honest about her experience and feelings, apologized, and discussed how to move forward.
Melinda said she was “stunned” by how her “being vulnerable, giving feedback, and creating space for everyone to be heard” allowed the team to resolve past issues and strengthen their relationships. These conversations have been opportunities for Melinda to find out what she and her colleagues stand for, value, want, and hope for now and into the future.
Melinda also notes that she learns a great deal about her colleagues’ aspirations by asking them about what they plan to do in their evenings and weekends and then remembering what they’ve said and following up with them after the fact. She intentionally does this when others are around and encourages the conversation to be between the entire group, seeing this as an opportunity to deepen their cohesion as a team. As Melinda observes, “You have to actively listen to their interests, concerns, and the questions that they are wrestling with and determine how to be responsive.”
Extraordinary things can happen when leaders listen–when they involve employees in identifying issues, hear their frustrations and their aspirations, and find ways to respond with initiatives that address those concerns. Generating excitement in a workplace is possible when leaders pay attention to what people want and need.
Make It a Cause for Commitment When you listen deeply, you find out what gives work its meaning. People stay with an organization, research finds, because they like the work they are doing and find it challenging, meaningful, and purposeful. 19 When you listen with sensitivity to the aspirations of others, you discover some common themes that bring meaning to work and life.20 People desire
– Integrity: Pursuing values and goals congruent with their own
– Purpose: Making a significant difference in the lives of others
– Challenge: Doing innovative work
– Growth: Learning and developing professionally and personally
– Belonging: Engaging in close and positive relationships
– Autonomy: Determining the course of their own lives
– Significance: Feeling trusted and validated
While interest in meaning and purpose has grown, as Millennial have become the largest demographic group in the workplace, finding meaning is a universal desire among all generations and has been a topic of research and writing for decades. What people want has not changed very dramatically through the years.21
There’s more to work than making money. People want to follow a meaningful purpose, not just exchange their work for cash. People have a deep desire to make a difference. They want to know that they have done something on this earth, that there’s a purpose to their existence. 22 If you want to lead others, you must put principles and purpose ahead of everything else. The larger mission is what calls everyone. The best organizational leaders address this human motivation by communicating the long-term significance of the organization’s work. Researchers found that 90 percent of respondents who say that their company has a strong sense of purpose also say it has performed well financially over the last year; and a similar percentage say their company has a history of strong financial performance. That is in sharp contrast to those who say their organization does not have a strong sense of purpose–only two-thirds report that their organization did well financially in the last year or has done well historically. 23 When leaders clearly communicate a shared vision of an organization, they ennoble those who work on its behalf. They elevate the human spirit.
Meaning and purpose are vital to all generations at work.24 People have never stuck around for very long when what they do is trivial and unimportant. The youngest generation of employees is demanding that this theme get more attention than prior generations have given it. For example, Niki Lustig, senior specialist in learning and organization development at Twitter, says, “One of the things we get challenged with all the time is helping leaders and managers define the purpose of their team’s existence. What does that look like in terms of anchoring teams’ objectives to the work they’re doing, and how does that tie to the broader vision of the company?”25 To act on this challenge, Niki created The Purpose Statement Workshop–an interactive program that helps teams draft their purpose. The process includes preliminary work around nine questions related to individual purpose, uniqueness of the team, and the relationship between team and organization.
Before attending The Purpose Workshop, team members read each other’s responses to the nine questions, and then discuss them in the session. This creates a sense of unity as they learn firsthand why their colleagues joined the company. “Even though we encounter challenges and frustrations,” Niki says, “remembering why we came here and what we set out to do, and hearing it from peers and colleagues, is so inspiring.”
People commit to causes, not to plans. How else do you explain why people volunteer to rebuild communities ravaged by a tsunami, ride a bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money to fight AIDS, rescue people from the rubble of a collapsed building after an earthquake, or toil 24/7 to create the next big thing when the probability of failure is very high? Steve Coats, managing partner with International Leadership Associates, explains: “True leaders create a culture of great performance and meaningful work. They help people find pride in their work, and make even lousy work (by many peoples’ standards) enjoyable. Leaders make others feel important and needed.” He says that you won’t find the keys to devoted effort from focusing simply on pay, benefits, or even plush working conditions. Instead, Steve maintains, “you have to give people opportunities to make a difference in something they care about, make it enjoyable for them, and treat them with the respect and honor they deserve. Get better at these and watch the energy, problem solving, fellowship, and production grow.”26
When people are part of something that elevates them to higher levels of motivation and morality, they feel energized and more committed; they feel that what they do matters. For example, researchers asked nearly 2,500 workers to analyze medical images for “objects of interest.” One group was told that the work would be discarded, while the other was told that the objects were “cancerous tumor cells.” Workers were paid for each image analyzed. The latter “meaning” group spent more time on each object, subsequently earning 10 percent less, on average, than the “discard” group and the quality of their work was substantially higher. After surveying over 20,000 workers around the world, analyzing fifty major companies, and conducting scores of experiments, Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, in their book Primed to Perform, conclude: “Why we work determines how well we work.”27
Look Forward in Times of Rapid Change People often ask, “How can I have a vision of what’s going to happen five or ten years from now, when I don’t even know what’s going to happen next week?” This question gets right to the heart of the role visions play in people’s lives. In this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, visions are even more important to human survival and success than when times are calm, predictable, simple, and clear.
Think about it this way. Imagine you’re driving along the Pacific Coast Highway heading south from San Francisco on a bright, sunny day. The hills are on your left, the ocean on your right. On some curves, the cliffs plunge several hundred feet to the water. You can see for miles and miles. You’re cruising along at the speed limit, one hand on the wheel, sitting back, tunes blaring, and not a care in the world. You come around a bend in the road, and suddenly, without warning, there’s a blanket of fog as thick as you’ve ever seen it. What do you do?
We’ve asked this question many, many times, and here are some of the things people say:
– “I slow way down.”
– “I turn my lights on.”
– “I tighten my grip on the steering wheel with both hands.”
– “I tense up.”
– “I sit up straight or even lean forward.”
– “I turn the music off.”
Then you go around the next curve in the road; the fog lifts, and it’s clear again. What do you do? Sit back and relax, speed up, turn the lights off, put the music back on, and enjoy the scenery.
This analogy illustrates the importance of clarity of vision. Are you able to go faster when it’s foggy or when it’s clear? How fast can you drive in the fog without risking your own or other people’s lives? How comfortable are you riding in a car with someone else who drives fast in the fog? The answers are obvious, aren’t they?
You’re better able to go fast when your vision is clear. You’re better able to anticipate the switchbacks and bumps in the road when you can see ahead. There are times in your life, no doubt, when you find yourself driving in the fog, metaphorically speaking. When this happens, you get nervous and unsure of what’s ahead. You slow down. However, as you continue forward along the path, the way becomes clearer, and eventually you’re able to speed up again.
A very important part of a leader’s job is to clear away the fog so that people can see further ahead, anticipate what might be coming in their direction, and watch out for potential hazards along the road. Clear visions are meant to inspire hope–hope that despite the fog and stormy weather, despite the bumps in the road, despite the unexpected detours, and despite the occasional breakdowns, the crew will make it to its ideal and unique destination.28
Kyle Harvey, production and specialty products manager with Caltronics Business Systems, shared an experience while working at a Silicon Valley semiconductor company that perfectly mirrors this driving-in-the-fog analogy. He and a colleague were tasked to create marketing materials about the company’s wide range of products. “At the start, it was really confusing,” Kyle said. “My colleague seemed uninterested in the project, and you could have said we were in the densest part of the fog. There was no vision for the project, and we had no direction.”
With little to show after two weeks, Kyle “developed a vision about how to approach the project.” He knew that his colleague was extremely artistic and enjoyed being creative, so he found ways to incorporate her talents and what she liked doing into the project.
This jump-started her and then we really got engaged. After about ten or fifteen minutes of explaining how she would be able to use her creativity, she began explaining how she wanted the video to look. The fog kept lifting and the view ahead was becoming clearer…. After a month of work on the project, it finally seemed like we had begun driving faster and left the fog behind.
Each was making significant contributions, became extremely focused, and was driven to reach the goal. Says Kyle:
The fog analogy is especially strong for me in this case. I found that when our vision was unclear, we pulled off to the side of the road and did not continue to drive. However, after finding ways to motivate and inspire her, we were back on the road and moving past the fog.
To become a leader, you must be able to envision the future. The speed of change doesn’t alter this fundamental truth. People want to follow only those who can see beyond today’s problems and visualize a brighter tomorrow.
Envision the Future
The most important role of vision in organizational life is to give focus to human energy. To enable everyone to see more clearly what’s ahead of them, you must have and convey an exciting, ennobling vision of the future. The path to clarity of vision begins with reflecting on the past, moves to attending to the present, and then goes to prospecting into the future. The guardrails along this path are your passions–what it is that you care about most deeply.
Although you have to be clear about your vision before you can expect others to follow, you can’t authentically lead others to places they don’t want to go. If the vision is to be attractive to more than an insignificant few, it must appeal to all who have a stake in it.]
[Only shared visions have the magnetic power to sustain commitment over time. Listen to the voices of all your constituents; listen to their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Because a shared vision spans years and keeps everyone focused on the future, it has to be about more than the work at hand, a task, or job. It has to be a cause, something meaningful, and something that makes a difference in people’s lives. No matter what the size of your team or organization, a shared vision sets the agenda and gives direction and purpose to the enterprise.
To Inspire a Shared Vision, you must envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities. This means you must:

  1. Determine what drives you and where your passions lie in order to identify what you care enough about to imagine how it could be better in the future, compelling you forward.
  2. Reflect on your experiences, looking for the major themes in your life and understanding what you find worthwhile.
  3. Stop, look, and listen to what is going on right now– the important trends, major topics of conversation, and social discontents.
  4. Spend a higher percentage of your time focused on the future, imagining the exciting possibilities.
  5. Listen deeply to what is important to others in their future and to what gives their lives meaning and purpose.
  6. Involve others in crafting a shared vision of the future. Don’t make it a top-down process.]


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