A Simple Concept: Lead with a Vision

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When it comes to making lasting change in the world through business innovation, the simplest concepts are often the best. I have come to that conclusion after 45 years of work: on the client side with Fortune 500 companies like Gillette; with several successful entrepreneurial ventures; advising businesses globally (primarily at PriceWaterhouse Coopers before it became PwC); and now teaching MBA students and executives at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Indeed, I have found that the best way to stretch yourself creatively as a leader is by collecting “nuggets”: short, accessible reminders of what you probably already know but may have forgotten to put into practice. The best nuggets are easy to grasp and to communicate, meaty enough to lead you to pause and reflect, and open-ended enough that you can think of ways to apply them to your own business, or even of changes that would bring them up to date.

One of my favorite nuggets has to do with stating a vision. Leaders of successful innovation efforts are gifted visionaries. They can paint a picture of the future. What need is being filled? How can the product or service uniquely fill it? What new opportunity exists out there that has not yet been identified?

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A vision needs two qualities. First, it has to be a winning concept. People like to be associated with a winner, a long-term success. Second, it has to be so clear and memorable — so simple, really — that people will never be able to leave it behind them. Simple doesn’t mean being simplistic. It means getting to the heart of the matter, in a way that enables you to draw in everyone around you to master the complexities together.

These two qualities are essential for achieving buy-in. A winning, memorable concept will keep a team positively focused and sustain it during the inevitable disappointments and trying times.

In the 1980s, General Electric CEO Jack Welch came up with a great winning concept when he coined the word boundaryless to describe the antidote to the common problem of silos. At GE, managers’ behavior was oriented to their function, division, or country. GE had been financially measured by division for years, but unfortunately, it bred a lack of cooperation. People rarely communicated across division lines.

The word Jack Welch coined—boundaryless—was difficult to pronounce. That brought attention to its importance. Then he kept repeating it.

Welch didn’t use the familiar language of silos or talk about working together. The word he used instead was difficult to pronounce. That in itself brought attention to its importance. And the fact that the CEO kept repeating boundaryless didn’t hurt. Then there were a few exciting experiments with multidivisional wins in GE Aviation, GE Healthcare, GE Plastics, GE Appliances and Lighting, and GE Capital. Welch began celebrating those “cross-boundary” wins through his internal communications, GE’s annual report, and a barrage of national and international media. After that, there was momentum to change. It meant winning more business going forward.

I also recall the celebration of David Calhoun, an executive who had risen through the GE ranks to lead Internal Audit, Locomotives, and was transferred to a new frontier in Singapore, which opened up Asia for the company. Calhoun was celebrated for his “boundaryless” attitude while working across divisions, functions, and countries within GE. He became an executive to watch with a successful career, and when he left GE in 2006 as vice chairman, it was to become the CEO of Nielsen. (Today, he is the media company’s executive chairman as well as senior managing director, private equity at Blackstone.)

Businesses everywhere still talk about breaking down silos and building cross-functional teams. But the word boundaryless outshines all that. It represents a simple communication triumph that has never gotten stale. Jack Welch coined the word, and it became part of GE’s culture. You don’t have to coin your own word, but if you can find a simple, clear concept at the heart of your strategy, and if you can get others to appreciate it, then you’re on your way to creating nuggets of your own.