For too many organisations their vision statement has no resonance outside the board room. It may mean something to those executives who developed the statement (or delegated the development of it), but, in many cases, is too input-focused and non-specific to be of any real use to people at the front-line. The trouble with statements that state that the company will be the best, the most admired or the avatar in its industry is that they provide no guidance as to what you really want to achieve.
Done well, however, a vision statement acts as the arrowhead of your strategy, bringing to a single point the essence of who you are and how you will succeed. An effective vision/mission/strategic intent (delete as appropriate) statement has three key elements.
- It is focused on outcomes. It states what the organisation will achieve and its impact on the world.
- It is specific. Clear choices have been made and it is not simply a bland, motherhood statement written at such a high level that everyone can agree to it.
- It gives a sense of how you will achieve your intent. Not only does the statement describe the end result, but it also guides the style in which it will be achieved.
To bring this to life I have randomly selected vision statements from four of the UK’s leading retail banks. I am not picking on our beleaguered banking industry – on the contrary, I think that these statements reflect the quality and style of many corporate visions across all markets. The four visions are:
- To become one of the handful of universal banks leading the global financial services industry
- To be the best financial services organisation in the UK
- To be the UK’s most admired financial services business
- We are the world’s local bank
Only the fourth statement, which is HSBC’s vision statement, passes the arrowhead test. When I read that vision, I get a sense of its aim of a global presence, an inter-connected organisation and a focus on strong customer relationships. I imagine that senior management comprises people from diverse backgrounds who are brought together by their cosmopolitan approach.
With the other banks, too much is left out. In particular, I have no inkling as to how they are seeking to achieve their goal. The only picture it brings to my mind is of a lot of middle-aged men in pin-striped suits, blue shirts and red braces. If their vision statement was an arrowhead it would simply bounce off its target rather than cut through it.
The bottom line
My favourite vision statement is from Southwest Airlines. It passes all three of the tests set out above and is as sharp as any arrow from Robin Hood’s quiver. Southwest’s vision is able to act a touchstone for the ongoing management of the business. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO, put it like this: “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: we are the low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company as well as I can”. Can you say the same about your vision statement?
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