Strategic vision: sustaining employee commitment

Vision is a key part of both the concept and practice of leadership. Many managers successfully create it and present it to employees.

Vision is a key part of both the concept and practice of leadership. Many managers successfully create it and present it to employees. 
46RowanBrightIdeas482x271However, they are often less good at retaining employees’ long-term commitment to the vision, which results in lost opportunities. This article explores how effectively senior managers build and sustain employee commitment to strategic vision, and how they could improve.

Ford, Xerox, Lucent, Honeywell, Yahoo, Nortel and UAL – all very different companies in different industries – share the fact that they have recently fired their chief executive officers (CEOs) because of disappointing corporate performance. There is speculation about the fate of CEOs at American Express, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Conseco and AT&T (Pearlstein 2001). A major reason why boards release CEOs is their inability to execute strategy successfully. The main non-financial measurements that institutional investors factor into investment decisions include strategy execution and management credibility relating to that strategy (Calabro 1996).

Successfully creating and implementing a strategic vision involves many aspects of leadership. This article focuses on management’s ability to relate it to employees and tie them to it over time. Many managers appear to do well at creating and articulating the organization’s vision, but without following through: they do not make certain that employees commit to the vision, and that they stay engaged. Substitute the word “vision” for “foreign policy” when considering Henry Kissinger’s observation: “No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none” (Kissinger 1973).

Management versus Leadership

Useem (2000) defines leadership as involving strategic vision, a persuasive voice and tangible results. Note the important word, persuasive. Unfortunately, while top management may, indeed, have a strategic vision and even a persuasive voice, that voice falls quiet in later stages of execution. Whether by default, indifference, or distraction, it can unwittingly disengage from a leadership role by lapsing into mere management.

In this context, I use the phrase “mere management”, in contrast to “leadership”, to mean the process of mechanically shoring up vision. Without vision leadership, a great deal of activity creates a sense of momentum while masking the reality that vision has become a static and separate thing removed from daily business activities. Senior managers support adequate time for rollout of the vision to employees, shareholders, and the financial community but then fail to monitor with as much enthusiasm and diligence how well the organization is sustaining and expressing commitment to this vision. While being very clear about the organization’s stated vision, they are disconnected from the particulars and specifics of their role in expressing and achieving it. A corporate malaise overcomes sustained engagement in the discussion of the organizational vision. At the least, the large initiative of “vision” and “strategy” become mixed up with other initiatives that are vital but that should be subordinated to strategy, yet are not.

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