“We don’t have a North Star.” Despite working hours to develop a company’s visions, mission and strategy, executives are often surprised by this comment from their employees. Often times these senior leaders go straight back to the outside, trying to refine the statements and make things clearer, only to find that the problem still exists.
There are five issues underlying this employee complaint. First, there is a lack of communication. Explaining the vision once is not enough. It needs to be delivered in different ways and repeated. Second, some vision and strategy statements are at a high level of view, at 50,000 feet, rather than ensuring that the message is suitable to be delivered to all levels of the organization. Third, individual decisions and actions may not be aligned with the communicated commitment. Fourth, team members may dislike or disagree with the vision. Finally, change, by definition, is disruptive. Employees are worried about the extra work that could come with the new vision.
Management teams often spend hours articulating their company’s vision, mission and strategy, only to hear employees complain, “We don’t have a North Star.” Executives are often surprised by this return of a lack of ambitious vision and immediately spend more time trying to write the perfect statement. This flawed approach makes little progress in clarifying their people’s perception of a clear path forward.
Roman, CEO of a consulting company, was excited about the vision and purpose expressed during an offsite leadership team. They had looked for competitors, thought deeply about core skills, and looked to the future. They spent hours fine-tuning each point and communicated the result of their work to the company. However, within a year, many senior executives began to say the company lacked a North Star. Frustrated, Roman wanted to get his management team together for another offsite to refine the work they had already done. But first they decided to investigate the reason for people’s lack of clarity. They were surprised to find several very different underlying issues.
After working with hundreds of teams and watching CEOs jump in to provide immediate answers, I observed five possible reasons for this common complaint. When employees ask for a way forward, take a break and diagnose the reason for their query before providing a response. Once you know what is behind the request, you can resolve the issue more effectively.
Lack of communication.
Executives often think that a mention in an all-inclusive meeting or a single email ticks the box to communicate their vision. But the further away a person is from the executive suite, the more they need to hear your message. Getting the message across in a variety of ways helps. For example, your audience may not get everything verbally, and it would help to have something in writing or via video – sometimes both. As well as giving people time to understand what you are sharing, the rehearsal ensures that newcomers hear it too, and broadcasts that that prospect is here to stay. It’s not just a management style or a flavor of the quarter.
As we communicate a consistent message over time, we may also provide specific examples of how the vision came to life. For example, Roman never shared the vision for the company without associating it with a recent example of its success in practice. Treating every customer as if they were their only customer was at the heart of the company’s vision. So, each week, Roman spotlighted employees who had provided extraordinary customer service, regardless of the size and dollar value of the account. Very quickly, the vision was cemented in the culture because people could relate it to these specific examples.
Some vision and strategy statements are at a high level of sight, at 50,000 feet. They may sound good, but leave too much room for the imagination of an employee working lower, trying to make a connection between their day-to-day work and the purported purpose of the organization. Make sure the message is suitable for dissemination to all levels of the organization. When someone completes a project, emphasize the connection between their work and the bigger picture.
This type of message cannot however be the exclusive responsibility of the CEO who is perched from another point of view. Individual managers must participate. For example, Roman involved all of his direct reports to craft slogans specific to the Global Vision that aligned with their division’s specific contributions. They then turned to their direct reports for additional information in order to bridge the gap between the C suite and the cabin. When we translate the vision from the boardroom to the hallways, teams know how to translate your ideas into reality.
Managerial behavior informs the true purpose of the organization. Bold statements on paper circle the drain when managers say yes to everything. In this case, what employees mean when they say “there is no north star” is that if there is a written statement, individual decisions and actions are not aligned. on the commitment communicated. In the case of Roman’s organization, people were overworked to serve multiple priorities and spend as much time on trivial and seemingly non-essential work as they were on their supposed top priorities. Author Antione de Saint-Exupéry said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. Pair your new-found clarity with a decision-making framework that defines criteria for the types of work that support the mission. Cut out nonessentials and support those who say no to work that goes against the overall goal so they can do more of what matters most.
Sometimes it’s easier for a team member to say they don’t know the vision than they don’t like or agree with it. This is especially true the larger the power differential, or the culture avoids conflict or is dangerous. If you’ve clearly communicated a business vision and aren’t suffering from the symptoms mentioned above, consider how well people are on board. Begin this process by digging into the underlying concerns. To come up with what’s really going to spoil progress, you may need to run anonymous polls where you ask people what they fear losing or the fear might be exposed as a gap. Analyzing the fears, losses, and worries of your constituents will be a better time investment than chasing after the next slogan in a futile attempt at greater clarity.
Avoidance of work.
Change, by definition, is disruptive. It forces us to stop doing what is comfortable and to reprogram the way we think and function. Many people would rather be hardened by the status quo than exploring the unknown. Aligning with the mission can also mean more work for some. Rather, they might abdicate that responsibility and place the burden of further clarification on your plate. If this is a problem in your organization, look for ways to encourage adoption of the business program and positively reward (even small) gains in the right direction. Roman’s human resources manager partnered with him to ensure that bonuses and other incentives match the successful execution of the new strategy. One of the division heads also held a monthly triage session where legacy practices were scrutinized and people had to work hard to explain why they existed. At the same time, they boosted funding for appropriate policy practices.
Roman and his direct reports were surprised to discover the five reasons that were festering beneath the surface and fomenting resistance to the Pole Star. Seeing the situation with fresh eyes, they created a frequent and consistent communication plan; enlisted the help of their teams to relate the vision to specific daily activities; set up a tracking system to reward those who have turned to the new vision and monitor those who have not; provided reassurance and training to those who feared losing relevance; and supported employees who reduced noise to focus on priorities. After six months, Roman asked everyone he met to articulate the vision for the company and be assured of a clear and cohesive story. By stopping to understand the real challenges of adopting a North Star, Roman and his organization could achieve it much faster as their teams moved forward with them instead of swimming upstream.
Having a vision is essential for a team to determine and deliver results. Equally essential is understanding when the perception that a pole star is missing results from what is not expressed more than words on a mission statement itself. Once we are in touch with the real concerns of our employees, we can connect them to our vision rather than chasing revisions.