Immigration, abortion, fracking, surtaxing the 1% — presidential elections may seem to hinge on issues like these, but that’s just a façade. In reality, elections are about vision: what values each would-be leader thinks our nation should stand for, what we should try to achieve, how people should be treated.
It’s no different for leaders of companies. If you want people to follow you, you need “the vision thing,” as former president George H.W. Bush called it.
“A lot of financial advisors get into the business because they love to help clients,” observed Greg Friedman, founder and CEO of wealth management firm Private Ocean in San Rafael, California. But as a firm gets larger, he said, keeping it going in the right direction becomes “exponentially harder.”
If you’re the leader of a growing enterprise, your people need to know your vision. Regrettably, many advisors who enjoy grappling with client challenges tend to sidestep employee issues. Aren’t good employees supposed to be self-directed, after all? What’s the payoff of having a vision?
Why Vision Matters
“Vision” expresses what an organization aspires to be. By defining it, you can seek out potential partners, staffers, clients and referral sources who agree with this aspiration and want to be associated with it.
Consider the difference that articulating your vision could make to junior advisors, paraplanners and support staff you hire. Like most of us, they’d rather work for a firm whose values align with theirs. “But when people don’t know what their company is trying to do or how important they are to its success, they end up giving only a fraction of their creativity, skill and initiative to their work,” said Le Herron, a retired CEO who wrote “Making Your Company Human: Inspiring Others to Reach Their Potential.”
Advisors tend to focus on keeping their clients happy and their revenue stream flowing. But remember, Herron noted, that organizations actually stand on three legs: not just their owners and customers, but also their people. All three are equally important for success.
In addition to squandering human capital, lack of a coherent vision can turn the whole enterprise into an orchestra where everyone is playing different music. The results may include inconsistent behavior, confusion, dissatisfaction and, ultimately, higher turnover among both employees and clients that affects the bottom line.
Walking the Walk
To be useful, your vision needs to be based on values that you consider non-negotiable. (See sidebar, “What Do You Stand For?”) More importantly, those values need to be an integral part of you.
In other words, Herron pointed out, it’s not enough to profess what your organization stands for. You need to live it, day in and day out. “I have a hanging that my wife, Betty, put on our kitchen wall soon after we were married,” he explained. “What you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say. No matter what we say we are, people can see what we really are.
“So anyone concerned about leading needs to start by asking the question, ‘What am I?’ Are you all about ‘me, me, me’? About ‘my career,’ ‘my name recognition’? Or is your vision about making your organization very successful, about making people part of that success and feeling ownership of it?”
Private Ocean’s Friedman, the author of “Advisory Leadership: Using the Seven Steps of Heart Culture to Create Lasting Success for Any Wealth Management Firm,” is equally passionate about leading effectively. “An organization will very much reflect its leadership,” he observed. “As they say, fish rots from the head down. When you see a front-line person who doesn’t treat a customer well, chances are he’s reflecting the views of a superior.”
Like Herron, Friedman believes that leadership is about helping other people get what they need to feel engaged and be productive. “I put a lot of energy into creating an environment so people know where we are going and what our purpose is,” he said. “That’s what creates excitement and meaning. People need to know, ‘What’s my part in this? What’s in it for me?’ At the same time, you need to ask yourself, ‘What’s my role in supporting them?’”
If this sounds like servant leadership, that’s exactly what it is. In Herron’s case, it extends even to the language he uses.
“The word ‘employee’ is not inspiring,” he said. “It implies an exchange of services. It’s even kind of degrading. ‘Associate’ suggests people coming together for a common good. But you still need to breathe life into it, make it come alive. You do that by showing how coming together will help them, both individually and collectively.”
After retiring from O.M. Scott & Sons (now Scotts MiracleGro) in Marysville, Ohio, Herron and his wife stayed in the community. He still bumps into workers he formerly led. “They tell me, ‘We were family,’” he said. “They felt important and part of the success.” Thirty-three years later, they still cherish that experience.
Communicating and Reinforcing Your Vision
Once you’ve defined your vision, it’s critical to get buy-in from all key team members. If your organization is too widespread for easy one-to-one contact, there are other effective ways to tell the story. Big organizations sometimes hold companywide rallies with lots of hoopla, signaling the importance of the messaging with the scale of it all.
“If you are small, you can do something different,” Herron suggested. “For example, take the families to dinner.”
His own communication task at the 1,200-person, multiple-location firm was tricky. A few years into his tenure as CEO, the closely held firm was unexpectedly sold to ITT Corp. The challenge was to persuade numbers-oriented managers at the huge conglomerate — as well as the young MBAs they sent to Marysville — not to cost-cut the heart out of the family culture that had made Scotts successful.
Herron’s solution was to write a series of letters about aspects of the company’s unique culture, such as the absence of factory time clocks. Over a multi-year span, dozens of these letters were sent to associates’ homes and to ITT offices in New York. The bean counters backed off — and sharing the company’s vision heightened Scotts associates’ pride and loyalty.
Translating Vision Into Culture
The shared values and beliefs of a company culture are greatly influenced by its leader’s vision. “I think of culture as what happens when nobody’s looking,” Friedman said. “It’s how you treat birthdays and other events, whether your people work in teams or in silos, whether they feel a sense of urgency or they’re laissez-faire.”