Vision and strategy are both important. But there is a priority to them. Vision always comes first. Always. If you have a clear vision, you will eventually attract the right strategy. If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.
I have seen this over and over again in my professional and personal life. Once I got clear on what I wanted, the how almost took care of itself. Let me give you an example.
In July of 2000, my boss suddenly resigned. I was already the Associate Publisher of the division, the second-in-command. With his departure, I was asked to take his job. I became the publisher of Nelson Books, one of the trade book divisions of Thomas Nelson.
I knew our division was in bad shape. But I didn’t know how bad things really were until I became the publisher. I took a deep breath and began to assess reality. Here’s what I found:
- We were the least profitable division of fourteen in the Company. We had actually lost money the previous year. People in the other divisions were mumbling about our performance and how we had drug the whole company down.
- Revenue growth had been basically flat for three years. In addition, we had just lost our single biggest author to a competing publishing company. This made revenue growth going forward even less likely.
- As a percentage-of-revenue, inventory and royalty advances were the highest in the company. In other words, we were the least efficient users of working capital. We were consuming enormous corporate resources and providing virtually no return to our shareholders.
- We were publishing about 125 new titles a year with ten people. Everyone was overworked and the quality of our output showed it. We simply had too much to do.
Honestly, things could not have been worse. However, as the new divisional executive, I recognized that things could not have been better for me. This was a great career opportunity. If I turned the division around, I would be a hero. If I didn’t, that would be okay, too. After all, the division was a mess when I inherited it. I couldn’t lose.
The first thing I did was to go off on a private retreat. I had one objective in mind. I wanted to get crystal clear on my vision. What did I want to see happen? What would the division look like in three years? I didn’t care about strategy; I was only concerned with vision.
Through the years, I had learned that if you think about strategy (the “how”) too early, it will actually inhibit your vision (the “what”) and block you from thinking as big as you need to think. What you need is a vision that is so big that it is compelling, not only to others, but to you. If it’s not compelling, you won’t have the motivation to stay the course and you won’t be able to recruit others to help you.
For example, if I had been strategic before I was visionary, I might have said, “Well, I don’t see how we can accomplish much. The situation is so dire. We don’t have many resources to work with. Let’s just try to get to break-even this next year. Maybe we can reduce our working capital some by selling off a little obsolete inventory. And, maybe we can sign a few new authors and get a little revenue growth.”
Do you think anyone would have gotten excited about this? Would this vision have attracted the right authors? Would it have retained the right employees? Would it have secured additional corporate resources? I don’t think so.
The problem is that people get stuck on the how. They don’t see how they could accomplish more, so they throttle back their vision, convinced that they must be “realistic.” And, what they expect becomes their new reality. This is simply faith applied negatively.
I didn’t take this approach. Instead, I developed a vision statement that I found compelling. If I couldn’t get excited about it, I couldn’t sell it to others. Instead, I gave myself permission to envision the perfect future. Here’s what I wrote down:
Nelson Books is the world’s largest, most respected provider of inspirational books.
- We have ten “franchise authors” whose new books sell at least 100,000 copies in the first 12 months.
- We have ten “emerging authors” whose new books sell at least 50,000 copies in the first 12 months.
- We are publishing 60 new titles a year.
- Authors are soliciting other authors on our behalf because they are so excited to be working with us.
- The top agents routinely bring us their best authors and proposals because of our reputation for success.
- We place at least four books a year on the New York Times bestsellers list.
- We consistently have more books on the Christian bestsellers list than our competitors.
- We consistently exceed our budget in revenue and margin contribution.
- Our employees consistently “max out” their bonus plans.
- We are the fastest growing, most profitable division in our company.
Once I had this on paper, I came back to the office and called a meeting with my entire staff. I reviewed our current reality. I was brutally honest. The situation was dire, and I didn’t pull any punches.
I then shared the new reality—the vision—and described it in as much detail as I could. I was genuinely enthusiastic and committed. Because I found the vision compelling, most of the them did, too. Some were slow to get on-board, but in the end, even the most reluctant ones came around.
I personally read through this vision daily. I prayed over every part. I asked God to guide us. Little by little, He brought us the strategy and the resources. However, I spent way more time—probably ten-to-one—focused on the what rather than the how.
When people would ask, “How in the world are you going to accomplish this?”, I would just smile and say, “I’m not sure, but I am confident it is going to happen. Just watch.”
And, guess what? It happened. I thought my initial vision would take at least three years to accomplish. Amazingly, we had an almost complete turnaround in eighteen months. We exceeded almost every aspect of our vision.
Over the next six years, Nelson Books was consistently the fastest growing, most profitable division at Thomas Nelson. It had one bestseller after another. It was home to almost all of our company’s bestselling authors during that time.
This didn’t happen because we had a great business strategy. It happened because we had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve. That’s where it started, and that’s where you have to start if you want to experience a different reality than the one you have now, you have to get clear on what you want. Everything begins with vision.
To help you get started on envisioning your future, I've created a free resource, 3 Leadership Pitfalls to Avoid in 2020. Claim your copy here.
Remember, everything begins with vision.
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