Skip and go to main content

Strategy & Organisation October 15, 2018

Leadership without a vision

Dept talk

How often are businessmen and women asked about their vision? Nowadays, it would appear to be the standard that every entrepreneur is expected to have, a strong and clear-cut vision. However, not all of them do. So what then? What if you don’t have a vision?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop in Lisbon along with a number of other digital agency executives from across America, Europe and Russia. They too were asked about their vision. And their answers were actually quite shocking. From a group of ten men and women, all of which were CEOs of a top-notch agency, that all produce brilliant work for major brands, not a single one was able to give a satisfactory answer. How was this possible given that they all run agencies that are growing, profitable, and have really talented staff?

Come to think of it though, I don’t actually have a clear and explicit vision either. Nevertheless, Dept is growing steadily and is flourishing. So how have we managed to do that? After all, there are plenty of gurus that have written volumes on the importance of a vision. And they all emphatically state that success is impossible without a specific vision.

Vision, mission, strategy

But what is a vision? I often talk to entrepreneurs, clients and colleagues who refer to vision as part of the combination of vision, mission and strategy. However, vision, mission and strategy are concepts that often get confused with each other.

I have found that a way of making the distinction between vision, mission and strategy that works well for me is to think of Vasco da Gama, who lived in the 15th century, in the times of the real explorers. He would have put it like this: “My vision is that the Earth is round. My mission is to explore this and to prove it to everyone in the world. My strategy is to sail a ship westward towards the horizon.”

It’s terrific when you have such a powerful vision, being convinced that the Earth is round while everyone else thinks that it’s flat. Visionaries like Vasco, who succeed in linking a vision such as this, to a mission and strategy – and sail off – are the ones that are able to change the world.

Elon Musk is an excellent contemporary example of a visionary with a strong vision, mission and strategy. In essence, his vision is that humanity can only survive by living on more than one planet. His mission is to get people to Mars and to demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible to live on other planets. His strategy is to use his aerospace company, SpaceX, to develop the rockets and resources needed to fulfil his mission. This is a rather simplified explanation of what he is trying to achieve, but I’m sure that the message is clear enough. Moreover, there are more examples of visions of powerful companies with incredible market values:

Shell: Shaping the energy future
Philips: At Philips, we strive to make the world healthier and more sustainable through innovation
Audi: We have the potential to revolutionise mobility.
Alibaba: We envision that our customers will meet, work and live at Alibaba

These are attractively worded visions, but at the same time they are a little meaningless, certainly the first three. I believe that Alibaba has the most powerful vision of the four. However, I do wonder how many of their employees actually know their company’s vision. I’d bet that the figure that actually does, would be rather disappointing. But having said that, I think that I can also safely say that many of our Dept staff would also be unable to rattle off our vision within three seconds of waking up in the middle of the night.

A shared goal

Dept’s vision is that technology is connecting people to each other, and people to brands, at an extremely rapid pace. This lays the foundations for our mission, which is to build positive connections between all these people and brands. Our strategy to fulfil our mission is to connect the best digital talent to Dept that we need to produce the best work for our clients.

My brother and Dept co-founder, Bart, and I were involved in defining our vision. And although we did not have one when we founded Dept, our colleagues gave the impetus for its formulation. Moreover, I don’t think that Dept actually needs a vision to set the company’s course and give us our drive: what we do need is something slightly different – a shared goal.

I love goals. A goal is much less bombastic than a vision, it’s easier to remember, it’s a great help in determining the company’s course, and it’s easy to substantiate with a strategic plan. In 1996, Bart and I set ourselves the goal of building a real company. In 2007, our goal was to rank among the top three Dutch internet agencies. Six years later, in 2013, we set our sights on building up an international agency. In 2015, our next goal was to expand our operations to ten countries within the coming five years, with a turnover of one hundred million euros and about one thousand staff members. Given that we have achieved this, this year we set ourselves a new goal for the upcoming years: to evolve into a leading worldwide agency.

Dept worldwide

If you were now to wake up any Dept staff member, I think that they would all say that our goal is to become the world’s best digital agency. It’s an ambitious goal, and it’s an important motivator for many of us. Goals that aren’t so easy to reach, combine both drive and focus.

In other words, I have found that it certainly is possible to define and adopt specific goals, and then go for them, without first needing to formulate a highly defined vision. Nevertheless, I am not implying that I am advocating leadership and entrepreneurship without a vision; only that good entrepreneurship is possible without one. Working with your team on defining goals that will gain broad support also gives the company focus.

Operating a company without an enthralling vision will probably not fundamentally change the world – but a well-managed company with an eye for people, clients and development will add serious value to our society. So let’s continue to focus on starting up great companies, with or without a vision!

 

Questions? We are here to help!