Nov 7, 2010

Where’s the Vision?

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools main fall conference, which included a keynote to heads of schools and board members, as well as a marketing conference on the second day.  It was a great visit to the Philly area and I believe the talks were well-received.  The general focus of my talks were both on the importance and impact of vision on strategic communications. 

Where is the vision for schools today?  Interestingly enough, in all of our work with independent schools and colleges, fewer than 20% of them possess a vision statement when we initially work with them.  Sure, all of them have a mission statement but very few actually possess a vision statement.  What’s the difference?  There is an enormous difference between a mission and a vision.  Try these definitions on for size.

Mission Statement = The reason for your organizational existence

Vision Statement = The successful completion of your mission rendered in terms of contributions to society

From my vantage point, very few organizations actually change their mission over time.  Sure, they might change the current language describing their purpose, editing the actual statement, but they really don’t alter their general purpose or reason for existence.  But, since a mission is actually a “rear-view window” sort of glance, does it really help move an institution forward?

Most strategy planners would agree that vision is far more important to formulating strategy and empowering an organization to work together.  Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have have shared his vision for equality (“I have a dream”) or if John F. Kennedy, Jr. would not have shared his vision for NASA (“by the end of the decade we will place a man on the moon”)?  It turns out that a compelling vision is what really drives people to work together and energizes a movement.  Why is it, then, that independent schools and colleges fail to articulate a vision if they are so important?

In my talks at ADVIS last week, I spent a great deal of time trying to show attendees the importance of how a compelling vision not only inspires an organization to move forward, but how vision really should inspire communication programs.  I used a bunch of our industry buzz terms – from strategic planning to identity – to try to articulate why a great communication program starts with an excellent vision.  I advocated that the following order is really the most important way to start a communication process:


  1. Visioning is the most important aspect of any organizational exercise.  It all starts with vision, and great visions are long-term, ambitious, and bigger than the organization.
  2. Great positioning is the result of a strong vision.  Positioning is finding that which is singular and differentiating about your organization.  And, keep in mind that positioning is competitor-centric.
  3. Strategic planning is the work of creating a three or five year plan that helps operationalize the vision and positioning platform for the current short term chapter of an organization.
  4. Marketing is the art of creating value for the client by turning that vision, position, and plan into a short-term strategic marketing focus.  And, keep in mind that value is in the eyes of the beholder, so marketing is a client-centric process.
  5. Branding is the cultural expression of organizational values.
  6. Identity is the visual expression of those values.
  7. Messaging is getting the talk points down.


Most organizations jump right in at #4 through #7 in this process, failing to get the larger picture in focus, rather than doing the important work of creating a vision. I believe that setting long-term vision is just as important in creating empowering communications as it is defining organizational objectives.  Vision is bigger than mission, because it is bigger than the organization and it answers the question of “why you do what you do”, not just “what you do”.  It is the why that is so important in not just developing strategy, but in creating compelling communications.

Does your organization have a vision?  And, how is it informing your communications program?  

All my best,



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