Change guru John Kotter uses this example to slam business leaders launching into transformation mode for the primary purpose of feathering their own nests. It sounds absurd, but although some leaders don’t spell it out this way, it still quacks like a duck.
In a not-so-long-ago era of visions, values, and mission statements decorating the halls of the Fortune 500, many executives sequestered themselves in smoke-filled meeting rooms, or traveled to exotic retreats to hammer out a vision for the business. They returned with a fancy framed document entitled “Our Vision,” or “Shared Vision” where “Our” meant the executive group and “Shared” referred to our visionaries sharing profits with each other. The extent of core employee involvement creating the vision was limited to the executive secretary that got to type it up and purchase the frame. What’s more, employees just couldn’t seem to make the connection between business success and its impact on themselves. Executives didn’t struggle so much. They simply barked, “Hey, if the company does well, you get to keep your job.” And “Shouldn’t that be enough?”
In one Fortune 500 Company, a group of leaders turned out a document they referred to as “Our Vision.” They presented it in a series of meetings that included all salaried employees. Apparently, the vision didn’t apply to the guys and gals making the products.
Like so many visions, this one didn’t last. All the talk about building a learning organization suddenly lost meaning when several weeks after presenting the vision the president announced that the tuition reimbursement program would be cut in half.
Ultimately, a vision created by and for a single group of stakeholders, like executives, has limited appeal and effect, especially when those most responsible for executing the vision—those in the trenches—have little, if anything to gain by achieving it. In fact, many core employees know that when the chips are down they could be tapped to play the sacrificial lamb to produce the magic numbers.
Few leaders have been known to involve all primary stakeholders, especially core workers, in important business decisions. Even fewer have made as their goal directly improving workers’ circumstances. Instead, we have come to expect leaders to figure out what they need from the workforce to create wealth only for shareholders and themselves.
There are some notable exceptions, however. They reside in businesses that have found chest-thumping success by making the workforce a part of the organization in both involvement and improving their condition, and we’re not talking about the WIIFM (What’s-In-It-For-Me) principle. For example, Sam Walton used to talk about how critical is was to get everyone involved; R. W. Johnson, Jr. of Johnson & Johnson placed the company’s responsibility to employees second in the company and shareholders fifth; J. Willard Marriott, Jr. emphasized taking care of employees and providing customer value from which attractive shareholder returns would follow. Now, how would you feel about working for a company with a vision statement like these?
Not surprisingly, these companies are touted in popular management books as “excellent” or “great.” They also share a common characteristic: They follow the observation of Kotter that “A good vision can demand sacrifices from some or all…groups in order to produce a better future, but it never ignores the legitimate long-term interests of anyone.” Selflessness and mutual benefit: Can such simple concepts have so much impact? According to the research of Tom Peters and Jim Collins, it seems so.
Trying it on for fit: Examine your company statements of vision, mission and strategy. Where is the focus? Considering the declarations, who wins? Is there ample consideration for creating wins for core employees, those who must execute the strategy, or is it lopsided toward creating shareholder wealth and obtaining the right numbers for management bonuses?
If employees don’t win, you probably neglected to include them in your process and need to broaden your circle of potential winners when developing visions and strategies.
If your primary constituencies, such as core employees, are not included in conversations and decisions about how to succeed, you are missing a huge opportunity to make them a part of the business.
Large group collaboratives consisting of employees at all levels, especially with the entire organization, create powerful venues for involving line staff and enabling them to contribute in meaningful ways. Establish ongoing large group collaboratives that allow employees to share their successes, needs, concerns and learning. Create collaboratives to solve specific problems.
Send an e-mail and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!