A critical element for developing strong, consistent and high performing cultures in any organization is for the leaders to talk about the exciting vision they see for the future of the company, and how they see each person in the organization being a part of it.
Of all of the animals on the planet, human beings are the only ones that actually think (or worry or speculate) about their future, so it’s only natural when a discussion is about the future, and it involves “me,” it’s going to get my attention. All humans have a deep desire to belong and be a part of something significant – there is no avoiding the fact that we want our work to be meaningful. Leaders who are able to talk excitedly and enthusiastically about the future of the company, and each person’s benefit in that future, are going to have an advantage.
Because of this, it’s critical that leaders of any organization engage all members of their team in meaningful discussions about their vision for the future.
Having an Inspiring Conversation
As I’ve often stated, anyone can challenge a leader’s strategy, style, or performance, but no one can challenge a leader’s vision of the future. Leaders hold a unique monopoly on the role of inspiring the organization with a future, exciting vision. While it is rarely considered, I contend that more often than not people leave one organization for another in search of a more exciting, compelling future for themselves.
A leader’s role is to bring life to a future that others will wish to participate in and contribute to. If you’re not a leader who has done this, or the thought of inspiring an entire organization makes you uncomfortable, or you’ve been told you are not a great speaker, that’s perfectly fine. Because the best way to inspire an entire organization is one person at a time. Consider how you might sit down with each key contributor in your company and have a conversation with them about their future and – most importantly – how their future can be achieved by being a part of your vision for the company’s future.
If you’ve read this far, it is likely you’ve already considered that having a conversation like this might be a bit intimidating. The good news is, there’s a formula to it. And that formula is based on a set of specific and probing questions designed to get your team member to come up with their answers, instead of looking to you for the answers. It’s about having them define their vision for the future and seeing if they can achieve it by aligning it with the vision of the company.
The formula works because of human nature; it is important for people see themselves as part of the big picture, part of a successful story that has significance over the next 3, 5 or 10 years.
Start With a Commendation
To start, begin the conversation with a commendation. Tell them what you appreciate about them and then outline the purpose and intent of the conversation. Let them understand that the purpose of the conversation is about them – to discuss how they view their future, what they dream about, and what they aspire to achieve through their work. (And let them know this is a conversation you are willing to engage in at any time in the future.)
Then, ask each of the following 6 questions. Give them time to talk through their thoughts and feelings, and then move on to the next question.
1. What do you dream about (want) for your future over the next 10 years?
This is designed to get at their goal(s). It’s important to get them to think about this in very clear terms. Sometimes you have to ask two or three times, “What else do you want? What more do you want?” in order to get them to truly open up about their thoughts. You will often discover that you are into the third question before you hear something specific.
Then, get them to expand on what they tell you. If they say they want a better life for their family, a better home, more responsibility, greater financial security, etc., ask them to describe in detail what that looks like to them. You want them to be as specific as possible, because the human brain does much better when it has tangible, quantifiable data. Have them paint a clear picture of their dreams. I suggest 10 years, but if they can only envision 3 to 5 years, that’s okay as well.
Their dreams can be big, exciting, and even seemingly hard to reach, but try to guide the conversation toward realistic goals. “I want to run the company” or “I want to be a senior V.P.” are great dreams – hard to achieve but worth pursuing. On the other hand, “I want to win the lottery and be living in the Caribbean Islands” is not practical. Their dreams must be something that causes others to say, “Wow, that would be impressive, but I believe you can do it if you try!”
2. Why do you want it?
The “why” is getting at purpose – it’s giving you insight to the passion they have for this dream. Why you want it is more important than what you want. If the “why” is not big enough, the “what” will never happen. Again, you will have to ask “Why do you want it?” numerous times to get them to think deeply about why they are doing what they’re doing. It’s the “why” that will allow them to accomplish the “what.”
If the “why” isn’t emotional – isn’t powerful enough – and if they don’t feel or see the contrast in their present situation and their future dream (what it’s like without it and what it would be like to gain it), then it’s not real enough to them yet. And it’s difficult for the “what” to become important when the “why” is so vague. It might require asking them to dig deeper, before they finally connect with that “all important” reason for traveling this course to the future. Sometimes, you may need to go back to question one and work on refining their goals first. Or, in rare cases, they may need a few days to think about their motivations. Either way, in the end they should have a solid “what” and a powerful “why” before you move forward.
3. What do you need to do or to learn, and what people do you need to meet, in order to accomplish this?
This is where their strategy comes in. You are listening to see if they really have a plan for this or if they are just hoping that it will happen – wishing that it might occur. Is their strategy more training, more education, a change in habits, improving characteristics, or finding a mentor? Do they have someone they admire, someone they want to be like? Do they need to read more or go back to school? Look for the strategy, inquire about the strategy. Make sure they have one; that it’s not just a “hope it happens” strategy. Leaders help people develop their strategy to accomplish their dreams.
4. What is blocking you?
This can be an interesting conversation. It’s about any self-limiting beliefs the person has – I’m too old, my kids are too young, I don’t have the money, I don’t have the education, I don’t have the time, etc. You’ll hear all kinds of self-limiting beliefs. Even if the why is strong, the what is clear, and the strategy is evident, if there are strong self-limiting beliefs, you will need to spend time helping them understand how to get around those roadblocks.
5. When do you start?
This will reveal their sense of urgency or importance that they place on their future. If it’s something they are going to start five years from now, it’s probably not worth talking about – it’s not very purposeful. If it’s something they are going to start tomorrow or they have already started, that is more powerful and meaningful. Starting something is oftentimes more important than when they are going to finish. Remind them that it usually takes 90 days to form a habit. So anything that requires focus and repetition means 90 days of uninterrupted effort at a minimum.
6. What can I do to help you? How can I help you accomplish this future?
There is a compelling, psychological reason for asking the question this way. It doesn’t create victim thinking, it doesn’t allow for procrastination, and it doesn’t allow them to blame you for not doing something. “How can I help you?” is different than “When can I help you?” or “Who can help you?” This is about giving them a sense that you’re there to help guide them through the other five steps. Anything is possible if the first five steps are clear. You began the conversation with a commendation; now end with a recommendation and another commendation (I recommend X, and I commend you for Y).
During these conversations, mention your company’s purpose and the exciting vision you have for them as a part of that future. Ask them specifically if they believe that the vision you have for the company can help them achieve their dreams. Then ask them how they see this happening. Invite them to clarify thoughts they have about any dreams they feel might not be possible to achieve with your company.
If your purpose, for example, is to provide products and services to protect life and property, ask them how they see themselves contributing to that in a meaningful way and how can that purpose also serve them. It’s important to realize that if your focus is always on the customer, the product, the profits or the company, then you are missing a powerful piece of the puzzle by excluding your team members’ dreams. Inspire a shared vision of an exciting future and help them to paint a future picture that is integrated with the company’s future vision.
Here is the key insight: While this conversation obviously excites each team member because it strikes at the core of that very basic human need to feel secure and be a part of something that is important, perhaps the greatest take away I’ve discovered in having these conversations is the recognition from each person that you really care about something other than the bottom line – that you care about them – and nothing builds a stronger, more powerful culture.