As you know, every company or organization ought to have a great vision statement–a single clear statement of their preferred future. However, as you’ve also probably noticed, most “vision” statements aren’t very visionary. In fact, you may feel that way about the vision statement you have for your own company or organization.
But before we look at how to write a great one, let’s first take a look at what DOES NOT create a great vision statement.
1. A mission or purpose statement
Organizations and leaders confuse these all the time—and they’re not the same. A vision statement is future-oriented. It’s about what you want to be. Whereas a mission or purpose statement is about what you do.
So if a “vision statement” sounds like, “To help our clients achieve their financial objectives by serving as their tax and financial partner,” (the mission statement of H&R Block—which, by the way, is a good mission statement), that’s not very visionary because it’s what they do today. It’s not about who they want to become.
2. Generic feel good statements
I run into this in companies all the time. For example, “We want to be known as a good community partner.” While that is a good and noble end, it’s a terrible vision statement.
3. Kitchen sink vision statements
This is another common mistake. Trying to make everyone happy in one sentence so it runs a whole paragraph or two long is a bad strategy. Here’s a snoozer from Gilette (Note: you don’t need to read this, just observe the length).
To build Total Brand Value by innovating to deliver consumer value and customer leadership faster, better and more completely than our competition. This Vision is supported by two fundamental principles that provide the foundation for all of our activities: Organizational Excellence and Core Values. Attaining our Vision requires superior and continually improving performance in every area and at every level of the organization. Our performance will be guided by a clear and concise strategic statement for each business unit and by an ongoing Quest for Excellence within all operational and staff functions. This Quest for Excellence requires hiring, developing and retaining a diverse workforce of the highest caliber. To support this Quest, each function employs metrics to define, and implements processes to achieve, world-class status.
4. Statements that don’t say anything unique about your company/organization
A vision statement that could be used by any company on the planet is a terrible vision statement. For example, here’s the vision statement of Caterpillar.
“To be the global leader in customer value.”
Really? And how does that relate to their field? Do they really want to set themselves up against Apple, Amazon and Zappos?
Okay, that’s what doesn’t work. So what DOES make a good vision statement.
1. It should be future-oriented
A good vision statement should be something that isn’t true of an organization now, but could be some time in the future. That means that a good vision statement should usually start with the words, “To be,” or “To become.”
For example, the vision statement of The Ken Blanchard Company is, “To be the number one advocate in the world for human worth in organizations.” That is a future-oriented vision statement.
2. It should be aspirational
A vision statement should cause people to say, “I want to be a part of that,” which is one of the reasons why you often see the words, “To be the best …,” or “To be the premier …,” or “To be the preeminent …,” or “To become a world-class …” There’s nothing wrong with using those words (even if others have) because the goal is to inspire your people (or the people you want to recruit to your team) to be a part of something great.
Another aspirational vision statement would be that of Norfolk Southern, “To be the safest, most customer-focused and successful transportation company in the world.”
That’s not just about today. Nor, does it simply say, “railroad company.” Nor does it simply say, “the US.” Their vision is to be the most successful “transportation company in the world.” That’s aspirational.
3. It should clearly define what business you’re in
The problem with Caterpillar’s vision statement is that it has nothing to do with who they are. But a good vision statement should fit in with who you are as a company.
For example, Amazon’s vision statement fits pretty well with who they are and who they want to be,“To be the world’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they may want to buy online at a great price.”
4. It should be no longer than a sentence
If you want a vision statement to be operative, it must be short. No one, including you or your board members will remember a paragraph. You want a simple sentence. And the shorter the better.
For example, my company’s vision statement is, “To be a world-class business growth coaching, consulting and executive education firm known for helping business owners and entrepreneurs build more strategic, scalable and successful businesses.” Short, simple, and easy to remember.
5. It should fit with your current strategy
For example, during a strategic planning process, you may realize that you company needs to make a significant strategic change of direction. For example, maybe you’ve been a service company, but you’ve decided that you want to become a product company.
Or maybe you’re in a field that has radically changed and your vision statement hasn’t caught up. For example, let’s say you’re in the document management field and your vision statement still reads, “To be the preeminent microfiche company on the planet,” you may have a problem since very few companies use microfiche anymore. It may fit the first four criteria, but it would be a terrible vision statement because it doesn’t fit with a winning strategy.
So, now that you know these four Don’ts and five Do’s, how does your current vision statement stack up? Is it a winner? Or is time for a vision statement makeover? If so, you now have a few guidelines that can help you create a great one that’ll win with your employees, your future hires, and your marketplace.
1. Make sure it’s future-oriented (i.e. it’s who you want to become, not who you are currently)
2. Make sure it’s aspirational (it should motivate you and your team)
3. Make sure it clearly defines what business you’re in (i.e. not be good for anyone in any other business)
4. Make sure it’s no longer than a sentence (the shorter the better)
5. Make sure it fits with your current strategy (not something that was your strategy, but will be your strategy moving forward)
Follow these five guidelines and you’ll have a great vision statement.
To your accelerated success!
Note: These aren’t the only guidelines for creating a great vision statement, but they are a great starting place.
Bruce D. Johnson is the founder of Wired To Grow, a business growth coaching, consulting and executive education firm that helps business owners and entrepreneurs build more strategic, scalable and successful businesses. He’s also the author of “Breaking Through Plateaus” and the creator of Delegation Mastery, Personality Type Leadership, Attract More Clients Like Crazy and The Obvious Choice Blueprint. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.