Vision, Communication and the Front-Line Employee

Vibrant and meaningful vision is intimately tied to leaders’ dreams hopes for the future. To be effective, though, vision cannot, remain at the level of senior leadership. Only to the extent that it is communicated throughout an organization and collectively embraced does vision become relevant to the work of the organization and begin exerting influence on concrete operational realities.

We once had the pleasure of visiting a family resort famous not only for its spotlessly pristine grounds, but also for its ability to maintain such cleanliness through the efforts of teenagers whose mothers couldn’t get them to clean their rooms if they tried.

Seeing one such youth patrolling a plaza with a broom and dustpan, we introduced ourselves and asked him to tell us about his job. The young man described the kinds of routine duties that one would normally expect. But when we asked what he was trying to achieve with his work, he, knowingly or unknowingly, began describing a powerful vision of service.

“Everybody who comes here has problems,” he said. “They have problems when they come, and they’ll have problems when they go. What we try to do is create a fantasy world where, for at least a little while, they can forget their problems.”

Impressed by his answer, we asked how he furthered such a noble goal. He shrugged and said, “Sweeping junk off the ground.”

Remarkable as the young man’s understanding of his job might be, it bears emphasis that his attitude was no happy accident. He wasn’t simply a singularly mission-driven employee that some manager had the good fortune to discover. Rather, his thinking was the effect of a leader-created culture that consciously surrounded even the most mundane tasks with meaning.

Raising attitudes such as this to the level of culture ensures their continuation and steady proliferation throughout the organization. Rather than being an attribute of the employee filling any given position, they are an attribute of the system as a whole.

Getting to this point is no simple task. To become an element of culture, vision must be communicated throughout the entirety of an organization. It must be communicated in terms and through channels that are meaningful and appropriate to each particular level. And it must be communicated not just once or even periodically, but constantly and continuously.

This requires considerable effort.  John Kotter, a former professor at Harvard Business School and one of the foremost authorities on leadership and change, suggested that most organizations undercommunicate their vision by a factor of ten.  For every instance the average leader refers to an organizational vision, Kotter says he or she should do it an additional nine times.

It becomes clear, then, that while leaders may appreciate the importance of communicating vision, almost all drastically underestimate the work needed to establish it as a vibrant element of workplace culture.

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