Apr 11, 2024

Why Everything Starts and Ends with a Clear Vision

In all of the years that I have been doing this work, there are a many things I have learned that are truly durable truths across industries. Of all of those truths, this is the most important:

Everything — and, I mean everything — starts with a compelling vision. 

Oddly 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?

The importance of how a compelling vision not only inspires an organization to move forward, but how vision really should inspire how it positions itself, sets priorities, and even communicates about itself.  If you want a lock-step recipe on how nearly everything flows from a vision, here’s a simple 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, meaning that it is finding where your organization sits in the landscape of others.
  3. Strategic planning is the work of creating a longer term plan that helps operationalize the vision and positioning platform for the next 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 and must account for how the client defines value, not the organization.
  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 in promotional materials.

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 foundational to creating empowering communications or 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, plans, and identity.

This is not a new concept.  Thought leader Simon Sinek wrote a book called Start with Why.  I truly believe that all schools and colleges should start with their vision if they want to create an enduring impact, mobilize people toward inspirational goals and cultivate a compelling identity.

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