A hammer is just a hammer. Without a vision for the home you want to build, you will just have a hammer and a bunch of raw materials. It’s your vision for the hammer that determines what it will ultimately be used for.
Our businesses are the same. A business is made up of people, technology, materials, and tools. You can use your business to provide value for customers, make money for yourself, or make a larger change in the world. It’s your vision for your business that determines what it will ultimately be used for.
Every morning, our entire team has a standup. We take 15 minutes to ask one another a question. Sometimes it’s a fairly lighthearted question — something like “what is your ideal day and why.” Other times, it’s a little more serious. Last Friday, we asked everyone “Why do you work at GAN?”
Two people on the call said something almost identical. They said something to the effect of, “I’ve worked at high-growth companies where the vision was solely on our financial performance and what I produced to reach our financial goals. As an employee, I was treated as a means to an end for the company. Here at GAN, while it’s important to hit my numbers, the ultimate vision isn’t hitting numbers. Rather, our vision is that all humans — both those humans on our team and those we serve — live thriving, whole lives and have all of the tools, resources, knowledge, and freedom to become who they were born to become. Our quantitative goals help us attain that vision, but our goals aren’t our vision.”
That final statement I can’t stop thinking about. Our short term goals aren’t our vision. Rather, it’s a company’s vision that leads to its goals along the way. And while that sounds simple, I’m realizing that there are profound implications that come as a result of this statement.
The Right Vision Leads to the Right Goals
What happens when it’s the opposite — goals leading to your vision? Unfortunately, the goals become your ultimate priority. For example, think about how many venture scale companies have a financial or exit-oriented goal? Their business practices become focused on efficient means (i.e., how to maximize the humans on our team) and growth at all costs (i.e., disregard for the environment, not caring about equity), rather than building something for the betterment of others.
Instead, think about the companies that lead with vision. Look at AirBnB’s vision as an example. Their vision is to “tap into the universal human yearning to belong — the desire to feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated for who you are, no matter where you might be.”
Their vision is focused on tapping into a universal truth and ensuring that no matter who you are, you feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated. You can imagine the goals that then come as a result of that vision. AirBnB’s business goals focus on how much they’re able to welcome and create experiences for all people. At times this might mean taking a financial hit, but the payoff of increased loyalty and trust is both vision-aligned and worth it.
The Right Vision Creates Focus on What Really Matters
I alluded to this above, but there are drastic consequences when we have an internal quantifiable goal masquerading as our vision. For instance, the two individuals on the GAN team who came from those high-growth companies experienced incredible burnout. Why? Because once their financial “vision” was attained, the executives moved the goalpost. The vision was solely focused on some internally-determined goal for what “success” would look like.
Compare this to Patagonia’s vision that stands the test of time — “a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet.”. Patagonia is focused on restoring the earth to a healthy place. And if they experience business success and financial gain along the way, that’s great.
Vision Helps Us Avoid Myopic Perspective
Lewis Carroll famously said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Without vision, any goal will get you where you think you want to go. If we focus only on business achievements like profits and metrics, we lose sight of the positive change we could make in the world.
Without vision, we’re stuck with whatever seems to be the easiest metric we can use to measure our success, which typically translates into some financial goal. Martha Nussbaum shares in her book Creating Capabilities that most international development goals are focused solely on gross domestic product (GDP) output. Meaning, the companies in the international development space have said that the goal of their work in developing countries should be to increase the production of goods and services, and subsequent income, of that country. Yet, Nussbaum makes the point that an increase in GDP only shows us a metric, it doesn’t point us towards the vision of what people could become through increased GDP. So instead, Nussbaum created a vision for what “thriving people” could look like, and defined ten attributes of a thriving person. Her vision of a thriving, whole person (not a productivity goal) creates a perspective on thriving humanity as the end, not the means to an end. This brings us to the final, and most significant point.
A Vision Must Focus Beyond Ourselves
In Gilbert Meilander’s book Neither Beast nor God, he speaks at length about the purpose of the human. He shares that “there is a kind of centeredness to an organism’s life. It lives only by working to sustain its life through constant exchanges with the surrounding world.” He later goes on to say, “For without openness to the world, (the person) cannot sustain itself…. A living being — centered as it is on the task of sustaining its own existence — cannot accomplish this if it is self-centered. To preserve its centered identity it must risk it, must turn outside itself — a kind of “death” that is the secret of its life.”
The secret to a vibrant life is to focus beyond ourselves, considering all of the inputs and outputs that sustain life, culture, and community. Vision orients us beyond ourselves and our success. So, the question becomes, why inherit the world but lose your soul? Why gain everything (financial success, wisdom, reputation, status), yet do it all in a way that was focused on your own success either at the detriment of others or without any value you’ve created for others.
What to Do with All of This?
Start with a vision you’re proud of. I’m not going to into much detail here because I wrote all about this two weeks ago, but I’ll leave you with two ways to think about a vision that works.
First, visions that are externally-focused and empowered seem to be the ones that stand the test of time, motivate others, and allow you to actually make a change. An external, empowered vision imagines what the world could become as a result of human flourishing.
LinkedIn’s vision to “create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce” is focused beyond its own success and imagines a world that is uniquely better than it is today.
You’ll notice their vision is not “to be the most trusted and profitable social network”. Instead, it draws us into something transformative for the whole world.
Finally, how can you make your vision be both an explicit and implicit vision? Many visions you see are powerful explicit statements, yet when you talk with the management teams, that vision isn’t what they are implicitly working towards. They may have that powerful, explicit vision on their website but internally, their vision is for a profitable company that is returning a certain amount to its shareholders. So, instead of just making your vision one that sounds good, what does it mean for your vision to be one that you actually live and work by, one that transforms you and others?
So, a business is just a business without a vision. What is your vision?