Very few leaders have the bully pulpit of the President of the United States, making it sometimes more difficult to communicate a vision to a large number of people, but it can be done.  In this next section I will show you examples of how two well-known CEOs approached the task.

The Name You Can Trust

Over a decade ago the executives at Johnson & Johnson became concerned that the Credo, which was essentially their vision and mission statement, was no longer valid.  Although the Credo was still prominently displayed in various places around the company, there was concern that it was nothing more than a “plaque on the wall” that nobody paid much attention to any longer.  After all it had been around for many years, and times had definitely changed.

At the time Jim Burke was the CEO of J&J.  Upon reflection he decided to take a bold step.  He decided to mount a two-year campaign to determine if and how the vision should be changed.  In a time when most CEOs were heavily immersed in the operational aspects of their companies to ensure optimization of short-term profits, Jim decided to personally throw himself into this project.  During that time he spent countless hours meeting with managers and employees at every level within the organization to assess the validity of the company’s Credo and vision.  There were numerous working sessions where employees were encouraged to challenge the language and the content.  After roughly two years of doing this work, virtually every employee in the company was involved.  This is no small task considering they had over 80,000 employees.  In the end J&J changed very little of the Credo, and the vision stayed pretty much as is.

The Pay-off

Many might argue that a CEO has no business devoting this much of his or her valuable time meeting with employees regarding something as elusive as a company credo.  And you can bet that if the CEO was that involved, the entire management team was also heavily involved, making it a very costly project.  Many would argue that the payback for this kind of effort would never pass the financial test.  Based on the way returns are normally calculated they would be correct.

Shortly after J&J revisited their vision, mission and credo something tragic and wonderful happened.

“In 1982 seven people in the Chicago, Illinois, area died after taking Tylenol capsules laced with the poison cyanide.  The capsules had been poisoned before they were sold to consumers at stores.  Johnson & Johnson immediately recalled all Tylenol capsules on the market and stopped advertising them.  The company’s fast, open, and honest response to the tragedy was praised as a model of corporate responsibility and also helped to save the reputation of its product.”[1]

Tragic was the deaths of seven people.  What was wonderful was the incredible show of leadership and integrity by J&J employees from various levels throughout the organization.  They did the “Right Thing”, and they did it without question or hesitation.  Why?  Because they knew who they were and what they stood for.  They understood their overarching purpose and mission.  They had a shared vision for the company.  Would they have been able to respond as quickly and positively had they not just invested so much time getting in touch with what they were about? I think not.  The pay-off in this case was enormous.  No one knows how many lives were saved by their response, but what is known is that it created goodwill for the company and the brand that exists to this day.  Instead of causing sales to plunge, they went up.  Instead of killing the brand it improved.  Two decades later they use the slogan “Tylenol, the name you can trust”.

Jim Burke understood the need for a shared vision within an organization, and he was willing to invest his time and money toward creating it.

What’s in a Word?

My second example is more current and probably less dramatic.  But it points out some of the tools available to leaders today to create a shared vision.  As a part of their 1999 kickoff, IBM used what is known as “push” technology to get the message to roughly 250,000 employees.  In fact, the tool itself helped to reinforce the vision of IBM’s CEO, Lou Gerstner.  As employees signed on to any of the companies many intranet sites early in 1999, a pop up window appeared welcoming them to “Kickoff ‘99” and encouraging them to learn about the company strategy, Lou’s vision for the company and its key strategies, “E-Facts” (quotables about the e-business revolution), and “E-Business” (everything you ever wanted to know about e-business).

As you start through this journey the question is asked “what is IBM”?  Embedded in the answer is the following statement in the form of a question: “Is there a greater purpose (Italics added) that holds us together?  Decades ago it was clear what IBM was about, what we stood for, why we existed.  By the early ‘90s, our role became murky in the minds of many.  In an industry dominated by PCs and small niche competitors, the world didn’t seem to need us – our size and scale, our way of working with customers, our approach to computing.”  Do you think Lou understands the need for people to believe in a purpose greater than the individual?  It sure sounds like it.  Throughout the remainder of the session the leaders in IBM make it clear what the vision and key strategies of the company are.  This is no small accomplishment considering the company is made up of countless organizations and divisions that do different things.  What Lou attempts to do in this piece is tie all of these efforts into a single common goal.

He does this in a number of ways.  First he explains how the industry has evolved over the years.  Then he goes on by describing how IBM radically shifted the debate in the industry “about what’s important, about where computing is headed and how it will be used by businesses and people.”  He goes on to say that “A few years ago, when we said, ‘the Internet will be about business, not browsing – and working, not surfing,’ we half expected people to yawn.  We were wrong.  They laughed.”  Throughout the rest of the presentation it is clearly stated that “we have galvanized the people of IBM around e-business as our company’s strategy.”  He then goes on to say that “This revolution is easy to misread – because it isn’t about technology.  This is about the search for better business strategies.  Companies of all sizes are finding out that the Net is the most potent tool to build competitive advantage they’ve ever had”.  And Mr. Gerstner makes it clear that he wants every employee of the company to be about helping them do that.  The word e-business is used at least 35 times in the first 10 screens of the presentation.  Great trouble is taken to tie in many of the divisions within IBM regarding their role in the e-business solution.  Finally he speaks of how IBM will be a leader in the industry as a result of this position.

In addition to the tools like IBM’ Intranet sites to communicate the message, Lou invested more than $1 billion in e-business advertising at trade shows, with shareholders and business partners, in meetings with customers, at press conferences, in briefings with financial analysts and industry consultants.  The man had a vision, and he wanted to make sure everyone associated with him knows what it is, and wanted to be a part of it.  Said differently, he invested heavily in creating a shared vision.

More than ever before we live in a time when there are numerous causes and ideas vying for the attention of those we wish to lead.  Most people will not be willing to invest significant efforts into any one of them until they are convinced that it is truly worthwhile.  Oftentimes the difference between a great leader and a good one is determined by that subtlety.  Regardless of your leadership role, it is absolutely essential to create a shared vision among your followers if wish to inspire them to greatness.  It is hard work, and it requires significant investments by you, but it is worth it.  There is nothing quite as rewarding as seeing a team of people accomplish things nobody thought was possible because they believed in and were committed to a shared vision.

© Mark P. Loschiavo


[1] “Johnson & Johnson,” Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia

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