This is the first in a series of application articles focused on entrepreneurs transitioning to leaders. This transition occurs when we first hire employees for a business that we have founded alone, or with a few like-minded co-founders. The same concepts also apply to newly-promoted supervisors in established organizations or anyone else who is bringing other people into an organizational structure.
The goal of this series is to provide specific behaviors that are most impactful to the person in this situation. We aren’t going to cover theory – Redefining Leadership or the BASICS are the place for that – but rather build upon that theory into specific actions that you should be performing. The goal here also isn’t to cover everything that you need to do, but rather to address the most common and immediate challenges. Think of this as the first 90 days, redefined.
And, of course, the assumption here is that you are a practitioner. This is for people doing the work, and the learning structure is designed to overcome the discomfort of behavioral change and get you to a place of performance. While I encourage anyone to read these articles, of course, the exercises only work if they are actually performed. If you aren’t at this point yet, read and ponder then bookmark this and come back when you are in the midst of this transition.
I say all of this because, just like you, I have to establish a clear vision for what this work is designed to accomplish. Vision, after all, is the foundation of leadership, upon which relationships and learning build the actual performance of work. So we start with vision.
A Revolutionary Product or Service Idea is Not a Leadership Vision
Entrepreneurs have vision. Vision is often the most powerful thing that they have, and it drives them to become entrepreneurs and to overcome all of the hurdles of starting something new. You are here because you believe you can do something faster, better, or cheaper than someone else. Or you believe you can make a difference that isn’t being made, and leave the world better for it.
But this entrepreneurial vision is not a leadership vision. It might have gotten you to the point you are now, but it has to grow as your organization grows.
Here’s the challenge: entrepreneurs talk about their revolutionary product or service idea to the customer. And when they hire employees, they try to talk to these people the same way that they talk to their customers. They try to sell employees on what makes the product or service so great, which is why the customer should buy it.
Leaders talk about a vision very differently. The leader’s vision connects the efforts of each employee to a meaningful change in the world. This explanation creates a standard of excellence or a reason for members of the group to perform tasks with excellence. It creates value and worth in the effort and thereby satisfies the human desire for a meaningful life within each of the employees. This explanation allows individual members to incorporate the words, ideas, and expressions of this workplace vision into their own identities, filling part of the personal story that each member writes every day. From this individual sense of value and identity comes group identity and a sense of community. This is the foundation of a shared effort, guided by leadership towards excellence.
To get from a vision of a product or service to a vision of leadership, we have to avoid three major pitfalls. These mistakes are:
Not telling the complete story of vision.
Not using the words, ideas, and expressions that others understand.
Not using the right forms and frequency to create a shared vision.
Fortunately, there are tools within the functional approach to do exactly this. Let’s look at each in turn.
The Five Factors of a Story of Vision
The five factors describe the complete connection between an individual’s tasks and a meaningful change in the world. This change occurs only when the product or service is excellent, which creates the standard of excellence that allows the members of the group to hold themselves and each other accountable.
The five factors of vision are:
The change, or the physical way that the world is different because of the group’s product.
The worth, or the reason that this change creates meaningful experiences for our customers as human beings.
The possibility, or the way that the group as a whole can achieve this meaningful change.
Individual contributions, or the way that individual tasks fit into the possibility.
Our belief, or how we as leaders show that we are committed to making this change become real.
When we talk about vision, we have to communicate all five of these factors. If we leave one out, then members of the group will not see the straight line between their work and the group’s shared outcome.
Entrepreneurs focus on the first two factors, but leaders tell all three. This is the difference between the entrepreneur’s vision and the leader’s vision.
The SEEING EXERCISE Writing the Story of Vision helps you identify the five factors for your vision.
Once we understand what the story of vision includes, we need to fill in the words, ideas, and expressions that make up each of those factors.
Cultivating the Words, Ideas, and Expressions of Vision
As entrepreneurs, we often think that we must come up with the organization’s vision all by ourselves. Or, because we have experience with this product or service that no one else does, we think that our understanding and explanation is the best way to tell the story of vision.
In fact, we have to seek out the words, ideas, and expressions for each of the five factors. We cultivate, not create, the story of vision. This is because a story is only as powerful as it is understood by the listener. The content that we find most familiar and comfortable might not be the way that others understand.
To avoid using the wrong words, ideas, and expressions, we must listen to others’ conversations about the product or service, its impact on the customer, and the work that creates it. We must listen to our customers to understand what physical difference comes about in their lives in the change, and why that difference is meaningful. We must listen to our employees as they go about their tasks to see how they connect to one another, and the way that the work is divided up into individual tasks which are performed and then combined into the final product.
Our role as leaders is to combine this content into the right forms and tell the story with the right frequency so that others understand it. As entrepreneurs, we have performed this work ourselves or with our co-founders. As a result, we do not see the process anywhere but in our own experiences, as it occurs in our heads. When we add new people to the performance of the work, we change this process of dividing, performing, and combining work. As we will explore in the next part of this series, the connections between members of the group – leadership relationships – are how work is performed, and they are built upon the shared story of vision. In turn, the story of vision and productive relationships lead to the function of learning, the final part of the series.
The SEEING EXERCISE Meaning-Making in the Group helps you practice seeking out the words of vision in your employees.
Once we find the right words for each of the five factors, we have to begin our storytelling. Our understanding the story without telling it is pointless, but the act of storytelling is difficult and we often shy away from putting the story into the world. To have an effect on the group, we need to put our words, ideas, and expressions into the right forms and frequency.
The Forms and Frequency to Tell the Story of Vision
Our goal with the story of vision is to tell the story so that it becomes shared, where each member of the group has the same understanding. Only when the vision is shared does it create a single, common standard of excellence and thereby become the foundation for group identity and community.
We know this occurs when members of the group use the story to make decisions about the performance of – and specifically, the quality of effort they put into – their tasks. The story of vision becomes shared only when members of the group think of the details at the time when they make decisions about their effort.
To avoid using ineffective forms and the wrong frequency, we must use stories that stick in members’ heads. This is why it is so important that words, ideas, and expressions be understood by others.
We use forms whenever we talk about the five factors of vision, and frequency describes how often we talk about these details. We select which factors to emphasize, and the words, ideas, and expressions we use for a specific moment. The more that we weave the story into our interactions with others, the more likely it is to become a shared story.
For example, we might give feedback to an employee about how his low performance resulted in an inferior product. This connects individual contributions through the other factors to the change. We might talk about an excellent customer story, to demonstrate the value and worth of the change. We might show how one person’s tasks depend on other people, which connects the possibility to individual contributions.
We may also use forms other than words. For example, we post customer stories, or encourage members of the group to share their successes with customers. These forms are effective when a different voice is more authentic or powerful than our own.
The goal of creating a shared vision requires all three tools we have just introduced: the five factors of a complete story, the cultivation of words, ideas, and expressions, and the right forms and frequency. Success in telling the story of vision requires that we use creativity and insight, which we develop by practicing our storytelling and observing the impact on members of the group.
The SEEING EXERCISE Grand and Small Things helps you select an appropriate form and frequency for a specific leadership moment.
Vision as a Function
All of these concepts come from the functional approach to leadership. Vision is a function: it occurs within each member of the group, constantly and without any intervention. People make sense of their lives, and they create stories that they tell themselves and others.
When leadership does not create a shared vision, then individual members create their own explanations for the value of their efforts and the way that their jobs fit into life. These individual visions often contradict each other and prevent the group from aligning towards a single outcome.
Telling the story of vision is the unique responsibility of leadership. The story of vision is how we guide this function towards a shared, group-focused expression within each members’ individual story. If we don’t do it, then nobody else will. While the members of the group are constantly writing their individual stories, they are not including a shared vision for the group. That only comes from leaders, or those people who chose to guide this function towards productive ends. If we want members to make sense of their work in a way that makes them perform with excellence, we have to provide them with the story of vision.
When vision is a shared understanding among the members of the group, they can work together towards a single goal, and they can do so with excellence in work that produces an excellent product or service.
Now you have several tools and enough knowledge to apply them in your delicate, expanding organization. The transition from an entrepreneurial venture to a company, non-profit, or firm is a critical moment, and the way that you tell the story of vision will impact the success of your group for the rest of its existence.
And all of this comes from replacing the question, “What do good leaders do?” with the question, “What does the group need?” This is the functional approach, in practice.
When you are ready to take the next step, check out Part 2 of this series to learn how the connections between members of the group – leadership relationships – will limit or expand the quality of work that your new employees produce, and how you can shape these relationships to create excellence.