My brother and I grew our business in the decade after our father died from 80 to 325 people. We went from three locations to eleven, we went through two rounds of visioning. In our work to put a vision in place, we came to understand the importance of getting people on board with the vision. People can respond to an announced vision with reactions from compliance (with a bit of passive aggressive thrown in) to full enrollment. We became keenly interested in getting the full enrollment of our people in a shared vision, and found the process changed as our organization grew. (For more on Visioning, check these posts: Successful Visioning in Church, and Climb out of a Rut? It takes a Plan.)

Our first round of visioning came a couple of years after our father’s death. My brother and I were focused on moving from survival to success, and making the rare successful transition to a second generation in a family business. When my father died in 1990, we had no budgeting process in place, no monthly financial reports, and didn’t receive our audited year end financial statement for six months after the end of our year. For the first year, we worked to put in place monthly financials, to give us a clear picture of current reality.

At the beginning of the second year, we did an annual budget, so we could put a plan in place for the year, instead of just looking back at our results. At the beginning of the third year, we entered into our first round of visioning and put a three to five year plan in place.

We envisioned creating an empowered organization, moving to a participatory management style, and growing our equipment rental business. Our father had built a construction equipment business much like a car dealership for heavy equipment. He was used to being the decider, so people were not accustomed to taking responsibility and making decisions.

Three years after our father passed, we moved off a decade-long plateau at $20M in sales, and were doing $30M+. We had locations in Atlanta, Macon, Augusta, Columbus, and Dalton/Chattanooga. My brother and I went away for a day or two of visioning with our Chief Financial Officer and the Dean of a local business school. Out of that work came a vision to build an empowered workplace, a learning organization. The ‘96 Olympics had been awarded to Atlanta, and the spending meant the construction market would be thriving for several years. 

We articulated the following vision: Within five years, we want to be a $50M company operating in the heavy equipment, industrial material handling, and equipment rental business with locations in each city over 100,000 in population in Georgia.

We had 100 people at this point, and they rallied fairly quickly around the vision. We soon realized that the major challenge in realizing the vision was the strength of our management team. This led us to consider a merger.

We had a competitor who had stores in Savannah and Albany, the two markets where we wanted locations. They also had directly competing lines, and some really good people. With a merger, we could strengthen our team with their people, take a direct competitor out of the market, move into the two markets and pick up some good suppliers.

We negotiated a merger, and the results were spectacular. The first full year after the merger, we hit $56M in sales, and essentially accomplished our vision in three rather than five years. The power of vision is that it propels us into a desired future. It was easy to get buy in from our people. It was easy for them to see that a growing company would create opportunities for their own careers moving forward. We stumbled into one of the key elements of creating a shared vision.

 Image from Wikimedia Commons

My friend Rev. Dr. Mike Foss came in to do a visioning workshop for churches in Atlanta for a leadership initiative I was working on at the time. He inspired this image. Mike said, “When you cast vision, open a big umbrella with room under it for people to open up their own umbrellas in the shadow of the larger vision. Mike was onto one of the key elements of visioning: shared vision is always rooted in personal vision.

This helped explain why the vision we cast was embraced. Everyone could see how they could benefit. Working for a dynamic growing company in an otherwise staid and mature industry sounded good. Success for the company could result in their own personal success, and most were willing to work towards that end.

Any visioning process is like herding cats. When you articulate a vision, you will find widely varying levels of alignment with the vision, as illustrated in the picture below. 

The big arrow points towards the vision, and is the direction the leaders hope to take the company. No vision will ever get legs in an organization if it doesn't align the organization's resources with the goals set, and unleash the energy of the people in a way that moves in that direction. The shift looks like this:

The successful merger of our two companies rested on combining two cultures that had each existed for thirty plus years. The companies were very competitive with each other, and the idea of a winner and a loser in the merger would have poisoned the atmosphere.

Instead, we brought the management teams from both companies together and told them we were creating a new company that would be the best of both companies. We designed a new logo, chose the color scheme of the company we were buying, and engaged the collective management in dialog in order to pick the best people for the management team of the new company.

We told everyone we knew this would be a stressful time, and we would bring clarity within a month as to where people fit in the new organization. We only ended up with a few surplus positions, and offered good packages to the half dozen or so that got let go. A few more retired, and the rest of us went about the business of creating a new company with a healthy culture. We truly found synergy, and a meritocracy emerged where people understood that you would advance by showing competence, not by being a family member or a long-time employee.

As we empowered our people and pushed decision-making closer to our customers, the company grew stronger. We learned of a decision-making model that we employed throughout our organization. We recognized that some decisions were more strategic, and would require stronger commitment from the whole group. The problem is that collaboration takes time and energy. Other decisions were more tactical, and needed to be made quickly.

When you know what needs to happen, and need it done quickly, you just 'tell' people, and you move on. When decisions take on a little more complexity, you at least make an attempt to 'sell' the idea to the people affected. When you are not sure what to do, or not sure of the reaction of the people. You float a trial balloon and 'test' the idea before implementation. 

As decisions become more important and will affect more of your people, you might want to 'consult' with them. Most visioning falls into this category in larger organization. Make clear, however, that you are asking their opinion before you make your final decision. Otherwise, this mode looks just like the next one, where you 'join' to make the decision. In this case, you really don't know the answer, and you enter into a process where you just get one vote.

Our next round of visioning was a six month process facilitated by my mentor, Charlotte Roberts, a partner of Peter Senge's at Innovation Associates. Our company was around 275 employees in eight locations around the state. We invited eleven people from senior and middle management to join us in the visioning process. My brother and I had dual roles. We were both the President and Vice President and we also spoke for the family's ownership. So, it was clear to everyone in the room that we would make the final decisions. But we asked the management team to help us chart the strategy, examine our current reality, and shape the vision going forward.

By creating an empowered learning organization, an open book company where every employee saw monthly financials, we moved people from compliance to enrollment. I had a practice of sitting down with high potential people who had joined the company in the last year. They all worked a couple levels down in our organization, and didn't really expect face time with the boss. I brought them in and spent an hour or so with each, asking, "What would the perfect job look like for you in five years? Where do you want to go with your career? How can we help you get there?"

Two things emerged from these conversations. I understood how ambitious this young person was, and what it would take to keep him/her engaged. And, their loyalty and commitment deepened. They implicitly understood this equation, "If I help boss achieve his goals, I'll have a better chance of achieving mine." And, they had never had a boss ask them what they wanted out of life.

Competitors had to come at them with a much better offer or significantly more responsibility to even  get them to listen. That's the difference between compliance and enrollment. Yes, it takes more time, but in the important matters, consulting with your people is critical to the successful implementation of any significant initiative.