In the fall of 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University about the nation’s young space program. A year earlier, in the first year of his presidency, Kennedy had pressed hard for huge expenditures for the program, and he had set a seemingly impossible goal: man would go to the moon by the end of the decade.
Rice University is in Houston, a place that was to be central to the space program, so it must have seemed like a good place to talk about why we were spending all this money on a project whose goals were more than a little obscure to many people at the time.
I re-read that speech every once in a while because it’s a fantastic example of how leadership can inspire and enlist others in a vision. On that day, President Kennedy didn’t say a word about how we were going to get to the moon—he didn’t know how. The technology, fuel, and communication necessary for such an undertaking had not yet been invented. Instead, he sketched out a vision of what he felt we needed to accomplish and why it was important:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
I revisit the speech because it helps me better understand the role of the modern-day CEO, a person who is called on to enable others to “deliver the goods” to the board of directors, the shareholders, the customers, and other stakeholders. The best top executives do this with only one hand because the other is busy orchestrating a vision of the future, the kind of vision Kennedy talked about in his 1962 speech at Rice.
Short strategies, long vision
As Kennedy’s speech demonstrates, vision and leadership have always mattered. But those qualities are even more valuable today. One reason is that the half-life of any business strategy is much shorter than it used to be. Companies used to talk about the importance of good five-year plans; today, it’s difficult to follow a five-year plan because the rules of the game may change in less than half that time. And that reality has had an enormous impact on the way the professional development field is viewed.
Executives tend to be skeptical about the value of professional development training, tired of the “flavor of the month” approach. Many believe that people in the professional development field embrace one message one minute and something entirely different the next.
I’m not offended when I hear that criticism because I think it contains an element of truth. The fact is, professional development tactics change frequently because the playing field changes so rapidly. We do change direction, and it’s because the way we do business changes so fast. That has become a simple reality in my business, but it is now a reality in every business.
One thing that doesn’t change is the need for a clear and simple vision, a bottom-line directional view of the future—the “whys” of business, if you will. Establishing that vision is one critical step; inspiring that vision is another. But those two steps won’t ultimately matter much if the message doesn’t get repeated, forcefully and frequently, to everyone up and down the organization. The process doesn’t end at the point that the management team buys into the objective; the message has to become a drumbeat, a mantra that burrows itself into the entire organization’s fabric.
Team members need to hear that drumbeat over and over again, until it becomes second nature behavior. Whatever the organization does—every step, every initiative, every strategy—has to be aligned with that vision.
So when a CEO thinks about training for an organization’s top executives, the emphasis must be on the kind of culture that will be required to turn the vision into something tangible. We shouldn’t be simply seeking a smoother process or an up-tick in efficiency; instead, our focus must be on moving everyone in the same direction, and knowing why we’re going there.
If the training program really does its job well, it will also instill a serious dose of passion about the organizational vision and message. Inspiration is what it’s about, so let’s not be afraid to inspire.
If top executives aren’t likely to benefit a great deal from conventional management training, and if the ground rules for visualizing the future keep changing, exactly what sort of training is likely to help people at the top run their companies? Here are some ideas:
Learn to inspire and enlist others in the vision.
You may have a very clear picture of where you want your company to go, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to get there if the other team members aren’t on board.
Exhibit passion, and demand it in others.
Any vision worth believing in should really matter, and it should generate a healthy dose of excitement. When you talk about your shared vision, the ground should tremble a little and your heart rate should go up. If it doesn’t, something’s wrong.
Set the bar high.
Once people see the vision you describe, getting there may seem impossible. But if the shared vision really means something, people can do seemingly impossible things. And doing that together feels great.
Give people permission to challenge the process. People can’t do things if they aren’t empowered to do them. It’s not about thinking outside the box anymore; it’s about acting beyond the box. So empower them.
Set the stage.
Every organization has a culture. CEOs and executive leaders are the architects of the culture and contribute greatly to it whether they mean to or not. Since you are going to establish much of your company’s culture anyway, model the way. Think about what you want the company culture to be, and make it so.
Everything from the culture of the company to the feelings of self-esteem possessed by the employees spring from the values that the company embraces and cares about. And values come from the top.
The media loves to focus on colorful CEOs, and although some enjoy the attention, many of the best corporate leaders are people most of us have never heard of. The really good ones are those that take an active role in mentoring and coaching at every level of their business. That’s what creates good corporate cultures, and corporate cultures are what set the stage for success.
Nicholas D. Conner is Vice President of Program Development and COO of TeamBuilders.
For nearly twenty years he has enjoyed sharing his experience and expertise with organizations that include small business to Fortune 20 Companies.
His unique facilitation style combining humor with knowledge creates workshops that are both entertaining and insightful. Nick is one reason why TeamBuilders’ client list reads like a Who’s Who of global business.
EXPERIENCE AND EXPERTISE
Nearly twenty years of designing and facilitating sophisticated workshops in Team Synergy – High Performance Teams, Mergers and Acquisitions and Change, Leadership Synergy, Leading & Coaching for High Performance Teams and Self-Managed/Self-Directed Work Teams.
Myers Briggs Type Indicator Level Eight Facilitator-MBTI, MBTI Step II, MBTI Executive Coaching
Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership-Kouzes and Posner
The FiveStar Team Performance Indicator
Key Note Speaker