TACKLING THREATS TO A CLEAR AND COMPELLING DIRECTION
by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach, firstname.lastname@example.org
Every mission-based leader knows that it is important to consistently communicate a clear and compelling vision and direction. One reason this is important is that it is increasingly untenable to provide constant oversight and direction to employees.
More and more, we must empower people throughout our organizations to make more independent decisions. But, in order for distributed leadership to work, the organization’s vision and direction must be very clear to everyone. Independent decision-makers throughout the organization must have a thorough understanding of the big vision, direction, and goals they are working toward.
Mission-based leaders must make it a priority to ensure that the direction is clear — and they must overcome certain common systemic challenges that often make organizational direction appear muddled.
Here are 3 Threats to Communicating a Clear and Compelling Direction—and Strategies for Tackling Them:
Threat #1: Different leaders may be going different directions. Or they may be communicating very differently about the vision. These tendencies are very common and underlie the reasons many of my clients are seeking coaching or consulting. It causes confusion and sends resources flying out the window! It’s only natural that different members of the leadership team are passionate about different aspects of the mission. It’s so easy to talk about the direction in different ways—whether senior leaders are focusing on individual department goals over shared organizational goals, or it’s a matter of the organization’s founder continuing to define the organization’s purpose in historical terms, in spite of the board setting a new direction. But if it appears to your staff or supporters as though different leaders are leading in different directions, your organization’s ability to fulfill its mission and achieve meaningful impact will be seriously diminished.
Tackling Threat # 1:
- Develop effective mechanisms for clearing up diverging opinions among organizational leaders about direction, goals, and priorities. Many organizations lack such mechanisms — with the result that differences of opinion are either endlessly vented to no benefit whatsoever or differences are avoided and ignored while different leaders blithely lead in increasingly disparate directions. If you don’t have such mechanisms, it is worthwhile to consider getting help from an astute organizational consultant.
- Work to ensure that everyone is communicating the same vision —and taking the time to communicate the vision and direction of the organization very thoroughly at all levels. Make sure to take adequate time with middle managers hearing their concerns and answering their questions. Two-way communication is critical here. Middle managers can help senior leaders to recognize the realistic challenges that must be addressed in achieving specific goals. They also need to understand the reasons for a goal well enough to effectively lead the work to achieve the goal.
- Develop mechanisms to test whether the direction is clear to everyone in the organization who must make independent decisions on a regular basis. How often do leaders believe they effectively communicated a direction or goal only to realize later, after great expenditure of resources, that there were various interpretations and that different individuals or groups are working on different goals?
Threat #2: When your mission involves serving people in need, fulfilling bureaucratic requirements may be so critical that the amount of organizational resources devoted to doing so may make it appear that the paperwork IS the organization’s purpose. It’s understandable—you can’t afford to lose the funding that allows you to serve your clients. The risk is that it can appear that the organization’s whole purpose and reason for being is all about checking boxes—and that can lead to confused and distracted staff and turnover—it’s not why most staff in mission-based organizations get up and go to work!
Tackling Threat # 2: Find a way to put bureaucratic requirements in context of the big, inspiring vision. Never take it for granted that the inspiring big vision is top of mind when you are devoting massive organizational resources to teaching staff how to complete new paperwork. Work with staff toward understanding how the bureaucratic requirements and paperwork, while often time-consuming and tedious, make it possible to serve the population who needs your services. The paperwork and checkboxes are not the end goal– they are a priority only because they make it possible to serve the clients who need the services.
Threat # 3: Rapid environmental changes can obscure the direction. We’re doing what now?! What happened to our goals and priorities from last year (or last month!)?
Tackling Threat #3: Put changes in context of the big picture. Take time to fully answer questions and doubts about what’s changing and what isn’t. Is the big vision and direction still the same? How does the new change affect that?
Many organizations also face many temptations to go after the next shiny thing, and this often causes undue diversion and distraction from the primary organizational mission. This temptation is sometimes driven by a scarcity mentality, i.e. we need this grant funding or this restricted donation which will take us in different directions– we can’t afford to say no to any dollars of any sort. Sometimes, the motivation is for recognition– for the organization (we need to do this additional work because it will raise our stature in the community) or to raise the stature of a leader in an organization where getting ahead requires standing out. Whatever the motivation, it is increasingly important for mission-based leaders to take a hard look at the advisability of leaping at the next opportunity.
In sum: mission-based leaders seeking to maximize impact and prevent resource escape must work hard to consistently communicate a clear and compelling vision and direction throughout the organization. It is a primary responsibility of mission-based leaders to manage common threats to this clarity.
What do YOU do to sustain a compelling vision? How do you recognize and manage, on a regular basis, any confusion about your organizational direction?
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