“We Don’t Have a Clear Vision”

I think the CEO has three main jobs: Set and evangelize the vision, attract and retain top talent, and make sure the company doesn’t run out of money. Fred Wilson is one of the people I’ve known that has helped me understand the importance of reducing the CEO role to these three activities. I found that setting and evangelizing the vision was both the most fun and sometimes the most frustrating of the three.

The CEO typically has to say the same thing 10,000 times and demonstrate emotion and meaning each time. It is exceptionally hard to stay focused and present when you’ve given the same speech that often. I found myself sometimes repeating one of two or three speeches that I had given easily that many times, and sometimes thinking about something else while I was talking. Meaning my mouth was moving but it was on autopilot – like dribbling a basketball but thinking about something totally different. It’s a bizarre feeling, particularly when it still works- i.e. the receiving party is still compelled and engaged. I meant the words with sincerity but sometimes it was hard to not also drift mentally.

One of the talks you’ll have to give repeatedly is laying out the company’s vision. As CEO you are responsible for both setting and evangelizing the vision. You will first work hard to set the vision. You may have experience doing that or this may be your first time. In either case you may feel tremendous insecurity about laying out your vision- I did. “What is the company vision” sounds daunting, amorphous and at times unanswerable when you’re the CEO. You know the answer, at least you did right up until you were asked to articulate it. You’re visionary, why should you have to explain the vision?

You may decide to Google “how to lay out a vision” or “vision statements” or specific companies and whether they had vision statements. I did. You may feel embarrassed about doing those things, afraid that as CEO you should just know how to lay out a compelling vision. I did. Even if you’ve never seen it done before. I went through those things. I Googled those, and many other things, in crafting our vision. I felt those feelings. 

After working for what feels like an eternity you may feel insecure. Should I just say our vision? Is that a statement or a paragraph? A long monologue? Should I lay out a presentation? Should I articulate it to the senior team first or the entire company at once? Should this be over email or live? Questions like those for first time leaders are common- I too asked them all. I felt insecure in communicating our vision initially, and frankly often for years as the vision evolved. Then the result sometimes was more difficult than my concerns.

I would worry that people wouldn’t be inspired. I would worry that my vision, or me as a CEO wouldn’t give people a reason to run through walls. But occasionally something worse happened; sometimes teammates would communicate they didn’t understand the vision. Or worst of all that they believed we didn’t have any vision at all. On a few particularly excruciating instances, I remember giving a vision pitch and then hearing within 24 hours certain employees complain that the company didn’t have a vision. That was one of the harder pieces of negative feedback for me- I felt great shame when I heard those comments.

It took me more than a year of hearing that feedback to understand what was behind it. Sometimes “we don’t have a clear vision” is often code for other things. These are things I’ve learned over time to help more effectively communicate and evangelize the vision:

Ensure the entire team has access to the vision (- believe it or not, a common driver behind someone complaining for the lack of vision was the person not being in the room for the vision conversation(s) or not being mentally present (i.e. on their cell phone, checked out etc). This is solvable when you can address each person individually but as the company scales you should just assume that no matter what you do there will be a portion of the company that will just say “we dont have a clear vision” in part because they weren’t listening. Consider recording the conversation or sharing slides and emails that lay out the vision so people can refer to it asynchronously. 

Help the team absorb the vision- People absorb information in different ways. Some people love slides and connect with visuals, some like small group discussion, some like absorbing an email over time and referring back to it. Regardless you should be prepared to communicate the vision in a variety of different ways, as you likely have a variety of different learning styles that need to hear the vision. Some groups like to ask questions. I found for example, that it was helpful to have separate vision conversations with our product team each quarter so they could ask detailed questions about how their work and product roadmap connected with the overall vision. 

Win their hearts and minds in order to inspire- Vision isn’t always about logic or believability. In fact if there is a clear path to how it will be accomplished, that is typically less inspiring.  America wasn’t inspired in the 1960s to cross the Atlantic, which everyone knew could be done, they were inspired to go to the moon- which no one initially knew how to do. Winning the hearts and minds isn’t easy, but in my experience critical to a successful vision conversation. How can you make and emotional and intellectual appeal to inspire the team to climb a new mountain? Consider what is inspiring you to run through walls.  If you’re honest, money and fame is probably a component. But put that aside because there are almost certainly other jobs that are easier which could accomplish those same goals. What are the other things about your company and product that are inspiring? I recently talked to a CEO that has launched 360 Feedback software. He didn’t have much excitement about his own product and thought that to some it may sound boring. My mind went wild at all of the inspiring things you could talk about with their product. They help people develop professionally to grow. They help organizations to function more effectively. They create better teams and help people thrive. To me that’s akin to creating happiness- and is incredibly inspiring. Expect that your vision won’t be inspiring to everyone. That’s ok- they should do something else.  Your vision, properly articulated, will pull people into the company that are inspired by it- and act as an appropriate screen to those that aren’t. 

Recognize some people just aren’t happy in any given day. They may be unhappy with their job, their manager, a teammate, a girlfriend or a boyfriend, have a personal health issue or a host of other things. Their pain may manifest itself into complaining to you about the vision. I’m not saying this drives most of the complaints, but recognize some people weren’t going to respond positively to a vision talk today. But if you find that is common, then there is a bigger issue.

Repetition is key to learning- I discovered through trial and failure that if I didn’t reiterate the vision at least every six weeks, our culture would fray at the edges and the frequency of “we don’t have a clear vision” comments would increase meaningfully. I found that switching up how we gave the vision talk was helpful. Presentations were typically by me and my co-founder, but sometimes I would ask other leaders across the company to talk about the vision- so that the team could hear it articulated in different voices. We would sometimes use slides, sometimes not. Sometimes leverage emails or smaller groups. We even occasionally would move the placement of our chairs so that the room felt a little different – and I think people would tune in just slightly more. Repeating the message was helpful, but we tried to vary slightly how it was done to keep people engaged, even those that had heard it several times.

Listening to feedback- The vision is not perfect. Sometimes even if the communication is effective people don’t absorb it, understand it or feel inspired by it. You should listen to that feedback. The vision isn’t resonating. The key though is who is it not resonating with? For example, it might be a vocal employee that just doesn’t want to be at the company. Or it could be every customer you try and sign up. It could be just one lazy VC who isn’t engaged in the conversation, or it could be all of your board members.

One of the hardest things about being a CEO is knowing when to be persistent and charge through adversity, and when to pivot and adjust your course. If the vision isn’t working with key constituents month after month, it may be time to listen to the feedback. 

Want more reading? Here is one of the better pieces about vision that I’ve seen. Thank you to Ed Batista for sharing it with me.