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ATD Blog

Not Sure if You Have a Vision? Ask Yourself These Questions

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

We’ve all heard business and leadership jargon defined differently over decades: mission, vision, purpose, values, strategy, goals, and the like. I’ve seen individuals, teams, and entire organizations become cynical and paralyzed by these terms as they struggle to find value and make sense of three foundational questions:

1) Why do we exist? This is our mission or purpose, which defines the unique value we bring to the world.

2) What does success look like at a specific point in time when we are accomplishing our mission? This is our vision, and it needs to be a shared picture, clear enough that we’d know it if we had it.

3) How will we get there? This is our strategy, or the three to five priority areas that will be our primary focus, because this focus creates competitive differentiation and the highest likelihood that we will achieve our picture of success.

These are the definitions based on how I’ve learned and practiced them as I’ve led business units and companies during the last 20 years. I have found that lack of clarity of mission and vision create significant challenges in rallying the organization and identifying an effective strategy that will guide the company forward with clear direction. Conversely, when the organization is inspired and aligned around a shared purpose and vision, it unleashes creativity and contribution at all levels.

What do the best leaders do to ensure clarity? Our company has spent 30 years studying what drives effective, purposeful leadership and recently published a book on the topic entitled Become: The Five Commitments of Purposeful Leadership. Together, these five commitments reveal what a strong leader must deliver to meet the expectations of their stakeholders. They must:

  1. Inspire people to embrace the company’s vision or goal, providing hope for the future.
  2. Engage the most skilled stakeholders to make meaningful contributions.
  3. Innovate by providing clarity about changes needed to achieve that vision or goal.
  4. Achieve by creating structure and process for powerful teams to align resources and execute.
  5. Become a someone worth following by being committed, courageous, and self-aware.

Our research identified that the commitment at the top of the list for leadership effectiveness is to inspire, which is critical in the visioning process. What matters is the leader’s ability to create and articulate a compelling vision of the future that motivates others; guide clear action and behavior; help individuals see the critical role of their work in achieving the vision; and communicate it relentlessly so everyone understands it.

So how does a leader go about creating vision? Here is a simple process I’ve used effectively for decades, using an exercise that applies equally to your personal life as it does to your individual leadership, your team, or your entire organization.

First, think through the logical categories that would be important to consider when defining success. For my life, the categories are health, family, friends, career, community, and fun. For our company, we visualize business and financial performance; clients and their experience; product and service offerings; and colleague experience and organizational capabilities.


Next, spend some quiet, uninterrupted time brainstorming what success would look like against those categories three years out and where you are today (for instance, your current reality). The result of that work should feel inspiring but also aspirational. Vision needs to be an attainable reach but a far enough stretch that it motivates the entire team or organization to get there.

And finally, ask yourself these questions to solidify your vision:

  • What inspires our workforce to get out of bed every day?
  • What would we see differently as a result of our work? Set a timeframe; for example, three years. What will be different and how will we know it?
  • What is the impact we will have on the world? What results will we see?
  • What are the critical actions we must take to move one step closer to the vision?

You know a vision is “done” when it has the following characteristics:

  • aspirational—you want it and have to reach for it
  • something bigger than yourself; you need to work with others to achieve it
  • specific and clearly recognizable (you’d know it if you had it)
  • emphasizes outcomes rather than process
  • changes over time, as you feel the progress of getting closer to it or as current reality changes
  • catalyzes action, and a process of imagining, inventing, and designing.

The most inspiring thing about vision is seeing movement toward it, which creates additional focus, energy, and motivation in your organization. If you don’t have a vision for your life (which includes your career), your team, or your organization, there is no better time than now to start.

About the Author

Jennifer McCollum is CEO of Linkage, Inc., where she oversees the strategic direction and global operations of the Boston, MA-based leadership development company. She has 20 years of experience building and leading businesses in the leadership space. Her expertise includes bringing analytic rigor to critical talent decisions by linking leadership behavior to corporate performance outcomes.

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