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Leading Off
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The failure of a company is often attributed to its leader’s lack of vision. Focusing on the long term may seem impossible in our unsettled times, when many leaders are overwhelmed by the fallout of COVID-19 and scrambling just to manage day-to-day operations. Yet having a vision of the end goal is particularly important during a crisis—in fact, it may be the key factor that motivates managers and employees to keep going. This week, let’s explore some strategies to develop an enduring vision that offers both stability and the flexibility to pivot as circumstances change.
Photo of McKinsey’s Scott Keller
Set a clear direction—and don’t play it safe
Whether or not you’re new to a leadership role, setting and communicating a clear direction should be a priority. In this video on CEO excellence, McKinsey’s Scott Keller uses the analogy of a captain assigned to command a $10 billion ship with 200,000 people on board. Given the extent of this responsibility, most skippers would tend to be cautious and steer the ship in the same direction as before. But while interviewing the best CEOs, “that’s not the mindset we saw,” says Keller. “It’s the mindset of ‘fortune favors the brave.’” For example, the captain might decide to install faster engines or replace the sails and might need to explain to a skeptical crew that this would let the ship travel faster, in a different direction, and to a better destination. “That boldness mindset is definitely what characterizes direction setting,” says Keller. Research shows that only 22 percent of employees believe that their leaders have a clear direction for the organization, one reason that strategic plans often fail.
That’s the percentage of executives in a McKinsey survey who rank presenting an inspiring vision as the most important individual leadership behavior during a crisis; 45 percent rank it as most important after a crisis. Inspirational leadership and clear direction—articulating where the company is heading and how to get there—top the list of organizational capabilities considered most important for managing performance, chosen by 42 percent and 39 percent of respondents, respectively.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
President John F. Kennedy’s iconic declaration from 1961 is certainly visionary and inspiring. But it is also grounded in reality: at the time, Kennedy was grappling with the political implications of the space race and sought to galvanize public support to increase funding for the Apollo program. Similarly, in today’s organizations, leaders must balance aspirations with practical considerations: what are the odds of success within five, ten, or 15 years? Consider reframing your vision so that the reference point for success is different, even if it departs from traditional leadership models. For example, the CEO of a manufacturing company that aspires to be the industry leader (the conventional approach) can broaden the objective to be in the top quartile among all industrials. Such a reframing acknowledges that companies compete in a bigger arena than just their industry.
illustration of Grab cofounder Hooi Ling Tan
A single differentiator led to the explosive growth of ride-sharing company Grab from a 40-driver operation to the leader in Southeast Asia within eight years. In this interview with McKinsey, Grab cofounder Hooi Ling Tan attributes the company’s success to its empathy for customers. “It is important to clearly identify and believe in the one single factor that is the stable core of your initial and future success,” she says. Tan and her cofounder, Anthony Tan, implement their vision of elevating the quality of life in Southeast Asia by serving local communities, employing a diverse workforce, and building ecosystems and partnerships to help the region thrive. “We as a leadership team embody our values,” Tan says.
Photo of a squeegee cleaning a window
You may not have a crystal ball, but there are ways to gain greater clarity about the future and shape a vision in sync with it. One systematic approach involves dedicating between 10 and 20 percent of your time every week to envisioning your organization’s future. Work backward from that point to today and reverse engineer the tasks to perform and investments you’ll need to make along the way. Learn, adjust, and revisit and rally your team around your vision—and you’ll find that your organization has a renewed sense of purpose.
Lead lucidly.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford office
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