Leader, what is it you want?

Every day I see how senior managers communicate about their strategy. Rarely do I see true inspiration.

The words people choose speak volumes about their personal connection to the organisation. How often do managers use phrases such as ‘I want’, ‘I am convinced’ or ‘I will personally ensure that´? In fact, communication about strategy often has more to do with rational analysis and substantiation than personal conviction and ambition. Strangely, the familiar McKinsey slides packed with data work fine to convince heads, supervisory directors and investors. But your own people need something else. They need a leader who believes in something. Someone with a concrete vision of the future and personal convictions about the right way to get there.

Strategy does not equal vision

Often top managers are so caught up in everyday problems, projects and concerns about short-term results that they can barely think about what they want with the business. What is their personal ambition? What does the organisation’s ultimate success look like? What do they believe is the best route to achieving that success? Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting everyone should take a course in authentic leadership. But it is particularly useful to hear your senior managers’ personal drives, convictions and ambitions for the organisation once in a while. Apart from your strategy, it will help you develop a real vision that will inspire employees.

When Fortis had just taken over part of ABN AMRO in 2007 there was a great need for a vision of the future for the merger bank. A ‘compelling strategy story’, the beckoning perspective that would serve as an anchor to hold on to during the years of painful integration that were to follow. Top management of the two banks discussed this at length in a multitude of project groups and produced one storyline after the other. But it was never more than a paper vision of the future. There was nothing compelling or inspiring in any way.

Vision can not be delegated

Why? Because the entire process was nothing but a technical exercise, performed by people who had no idea if they would actually ever get round to managing the new company. It wasn’t founded on any real convictions or personal ambitions. For personal ambitions should certainly not be expressed in the fight down the trenches of the integration process.

The integration fell through by the way; Fortis collapsed and the Dutch state took over. But there are some interesting lessons to draw from the experience. Lesson 1: Staff will not be mobilised by a strategy but by leaders with a vision. Lesson 2: This works only for people who are actually in charge. You cannot delegate your vision to a working group or staff department. And lesson number 3: When reorganising or during a post-merger integration, first set up the new management team, and only then talk about vision and strategy.