The Return on Vision (ROV)
What does a company get from a clear, compelling, rallying vision?
If you want to know if the person shaking your hand is the person who can help you, listen to how others describe them. Executive? Taken literally, an executive is someone who executes a program or set of initiatives, ensuring that everything gets done as planned. Necessary but not inspiring.
Leader? That’s the person who sets the example, goes first, and takes hostile fire. You could say that the executive is the what of an organization, while the leader is the how. By that logic, the visionary—literally, the individual with the vision of the future that drives the organization forward—is the why, the purpose behind everything that happens under the company banner. And that brings us to Leah Penniman.
The recipient of the 2023 Visionary Leadership Award from the International Festival of Arts & Ideas (past winners included George Takei and Roseanne Cash), Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, author, mother, and food justice activist who holds an MA in Science Education and a BA in Environmental Science and International Development from Clark University. In 2010, she co-founded Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a project that seeks to promote food sovereignty for Black and Brown people and overthrow racism in the food system. Her 2018 book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, begins with the extraordinary line, “Black land matters.”
“Leader: The person who sets the example, goes first, and takes hostile fire.”
That’s a battle cry, and much like a vision—clear, concise, compelling. In an interview with Vogue, you can hear Penniman’s unique ability to move and inspire. “When I started thinking about making a career out of this, I attended all these farming conferences and saw what a white scene it was,” she said. “And I started to really wonder if I should lend my strong shoulders and a bright mind to something more relevant to my people. I think a big part of the healing and recognition of belonging in the movement has been learning about the history of Black farming beyond and before slavery.”
That’s how visionaries speak and think, and that’s their value to an organization. We’re not machines. We’re capable of working for a paycheck, but we do our best work—our most profound, creative, innovative work—when we’re motivated by a clear, personal sense of why the work matters and how it serves a larger purpose than just making the next quarter’s numbers. That’s when people engage and dedicate their hearts and minds to the work, not just their hands. Vision gives us a reason to show up and do what we do, as well as a future to work toward.
The ROI of vision is not as nebulous as some skeptics might think. The research firm Porter Novelli regularly surveys corporate leaders and consumers about the importance of purpose and values, and it finds that organizations driven by values and purpose consistently outperform their less vision-driven counterparts. Nearly nine in ten business leaders polled (89%) agreed that companies driven by purpose have a competitive advantage, and 85% agree that purpose drives profit.
That’s nice, but how? How does the leader’s vision for what an organization can be five years from now become a bottom-line benefit?
“Vision gives visionaries a reason to show up and do what we do, as well as a future to work toward.”
Here are some possibilities:
When goals are hazy, and the reasons for showing up are unclear, employees at all levels may find it easy to “coast” and become complacent. A clear, passionate vision incentivizes quick action and taking the initiative in the market.
The numerous bank failures of 2023, among others, highlight the perils of corporate behavior driven purely by the profit motive. Vision and values are closely intertwined, so much so that vision statements tend to look like, “We will transform the single-family rental industry in five years with integrity, compassion, and the understanding that shelter is a basic human right.” When the vision and values are real (not window dressing), they’re reflected in corporate actions at every level. The result is more ethical behavior, fewer regulatory violations, and less legal liability.
As cancel culture rolls on, it’s hardly surprising that a Harris poll found that 82% of consumers want a company’s values to match theirs. You’ll never appeal to everyone, but by placing your vision (and the values that naturally descend from it) at the center of your company, you’ll ensure that everyone knows what you stand for 100% of the time and earn lasting loyalty from those who appreciate your authenticity and character.
Engagement and retention
The Great Resignation showed that while workers crave better pay and more freedom, they also want to work for an organization whose purpose and character they respect and admire. Vision is the source of both. Communicate yours clearly and consistently, and you’ll keep more of your best personnel and keep them more engaged.
A compelling vision helps clear away the extraneous projects, time-wasting side hustles, and bycatch of meetings and brainstorming sessions. You can zero in on what’s profitable and productive.
“The executive is the 'what' of an organization, while the leader is the 'how.'”
That brings us back to Leah Penniman again, because her vision features the three qualities that make all these bottom-line benefits possible: clarity, concision, and a compelling message. Clarity is straightforward: People should be able to grasp the future you see in one short sentence, with no empty buzzwords or fluffy jargon. Concision means to keep it short and tight. Punchy phrases and the right word choices—i.e., “Black land matters”—can land with a thunderous impact. A compelling message means the substance of your vision is relevant and meaningful to the other people in your company—not some half-baked “do it for the Company” rah-rah, but a courageous, principled stance that affects their lives and relates to what they care about.
The ROI of vision may not be as obvious at first glance as the ROI of technology or marketing, but it’s far more important and lasting. To put it in a squishy way, vision defines the soul of an organization, and like it or not, people want to walk through fire for something that touches their soul. Commitment and passion, paired with strong values and a deep sense of purpose, are a hard combination to beat.