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Visionary Leaders Build Vision-Based Cultures, Not Companies

By Sunny Bonnell
Posted on 01/06/24
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Jump in the Wayback Machine, and let’s zoom back to the year 2000. Everyone’s just relaxing after Y2K proved to be a nothingburger. September 11, 2001 is just another date on the calendar. And Reed Hastings, the founder of a mail-order video company called Netflix, is flying to Dallas to meet with Blockbuster CEO John Antioco and his team. Hastings has a proposal: The video store giant and the upstart will partner. Blockbuster will promote Netflix in its network of stores, and Netflix will manage Blockbuster’s online brand.

Antioco and his team said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It would prove to be a major miscalculation. By 2010, Blockbuster would be bankrupt, and Netflix would be on the way to becoming, well, Netflix. But why? Was this just another case of a complacent, fat-and-happy company on the top of the world, assuming it would always be on top? Certainly, few people could have foreseen the technological leaps that made streaming entertainment fast and cost-effective, but that’s not it, either. Blockbuster launched its digital service, Blockbuster Online, in 2004, but by then, they were hopelessly behind Netflix.

We think this was a failure of vision. Not the boldness of Anticoco’s vision for the company or its execution. No, what’s become clearer and clearer in the last few years is that while the scope, relevance, and audacity of a leader’s vision are critical to its success, something else matters even more: What that vision is applied to.

It’s Not About Where You’ll Be in Five Years

Here’s how most corporate leaders think about developing a vision: “Where do I see the company being in three/five/ten years?” They look into the future, and based on some blend of data, what they know about the market and their industry, what other visionaries have done, and gut instinct, they draw up some hypothetical new identity for their organization that they believe will put them ahead of the curve and their competition and on the path to sustainable growth. Then, they develop a step-by-step plan to take the organization from today to the distant future.

In the past, that might have been a valid way to execute a corporate vision.

Here’s why it’s not anymore:

Change happens too quickly now. We’re doing business in a world filled with more disruptive forces than ever in modern history. Viruses capable of sparking global pandemics. Climate change. Artificial intelligence. Geopolitical upheaval. Social media. A cyberattack or a break in the global supply chain can disrupt an entire industry in a few days, completely changing the preconditions for success. We’ve already seen this in industries like cryptocurrency, and we saw it constantly during the pandemic.

“Instead of trying to reshape your organization to compete in an unimaginable future, reshape your organization’s culture to counter the disruptive forces at work.”
Sunny Bonnell, Co-Founder & CEO, Motto®

Suppose your vision is essentially, “In five years, I will take this organization from here to over there.” The fatal flaw is that in five years (and probably a lot less time), “over there” won’t be where it was when you started. The market will have shapeshifted, perhaps more than once. Heck, your market might not exist at all! This “target-based visioning” just isn’t valid when seismic shifts in entire industries and economies can happen quickly.

The alternative is “culture-based visioning.” That’s what we preach to our clients. Instead of trying to reshape your organization to compete in an unimaginable future, reshape your organization’s culture to counter the disruptive forces at work with some disruptive mojo of your own. Instead of aspiring to build the latest gadget, open new offices in ten locations, or out-innovate your nearest competitor—what we call “visioning outward”—focus your planning and resources on remaking your culture into one that adapts easily, pivots on a dime, breeds and nurtures wild ideas, and brings diverse, disruptive energy to everything it touches. That’s “visioning inward.”

Ingredients of a Culture Driven by Vision

In this scenario, a visionary CEO treks to the mountaintop and, instead of seeing a future of new products and services, sees an ecosystem of diverse people, fresh ideas, flat hierarchy, open communication, empowering systems, and high engagement. That’s a culture equipped to adapt and compete with whatever the future turns out to be and to change just as quickly as conditions in the marketplace change. This is a prescription for survival in the current world! Applying your visionary powers to culture, not R&D or operations, means even if the ground in your industry is in ways no one can anticipate, your organization and people can shift right back.

What does this kind of culture look like?

“The cultural nuts and bolts of an aerospace engineering firm will be completely different from those of a Manhattan ad agency.”
Sunny Bonnell, Co-Founder & CEO, Motto®

It’s different for every type of organization.

The cultural nuts and bolts of an aerospace engineering firm will be completely different from those of a Manhattan branding agency. But when we paint with a broad brush, some common traits seem to pop up again and again when we look at brands that have successfully applied visionary thinking to culture:

They focus ruthlessly. In visionary cultures, leaders discourage employees from holding certain projects sacred or engaging in turf wars. If something doesn’t work or doesn’t fit the mission, it’s dumped in the recycle bin, and the team moves on. Pivots happen fast and without mercy, making the entire organization flexible and adaptable.

They encourage skunk works. Side projects, sandboxes, skunk works—call them what you will, but a visionary culture wants its people to tinker, brainstorm, and ask, “What if?” Its leaders know that “Ideas Worth Rallying Around®” as we call them at Motto, frequently arise when you least expect them. Some even give their brightest, most curious people the space and resources to play.

They don’t look back. Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige famously said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” That’s sound advice for visionaries building innovative, disruptive cultures. Don’t dwell on mistakes or take yourself out to the woodshed over missed opportunities. What’s done is done, and why the other guys are spending their time trying to figure out what went wrong, you’ll be busy getting it right.

They’re diverse. We don’t mean performative diversity here, checking a box for every racial category, ethnicity, faith tradition, disability, and sexual or gender orientation. Diversity in this context means diverse backgrounds and experiences that lend fresh, unique perspectives to problem-solving and creativity. Sure, building a workforce of people with broadly varied views on technology or finance but also means having a team where multiple skin colors and places on the LGBTQ+ spectrum are represented.

They’re extroverted. Brands with vision-driven cultures don’t huddle in the shadows to keep their secrets. They talk to everyone: competitors, peers, the press, elected officials, customers, everyone. They gather intelligence from every source possible, share what they know and what they guess, build alliances and create fans. Of course, trade secrets stay secret, and some discretion is observed, but from the C-suite down, these organizations have their finger on the pulse of their industries.

They’re democratic. Everyone has a voice in these cultures, even the new hire stuck working in the former supply closet until space can be freed up. The voices of the people in the C-suite don’t dominate the conversation, and ideas from unlikely sources are treated with respect, not disregarded. You could say that instead of having a “herd mentality,” these organizations have a “heard mentality.”

They’re humble. Finally, leaders don’t think they’re all that. They know they can be wrong and accept that some of their most cherished ideas and business models might be roadkill. In this culture, risks are encouraged, bold failures are celebrated, and nobody rides their high horse.

Again, your mileage may vary. The specifics of your culture will look different. But the idea—that leaders who want to thrive in times of lightspeed change should apply their vision to their culture, not their business model—is inarguable. We’ll talk a lot more about what this kind of culture looks like in future articles.

Sunny Bonnell profile picture
By Sunny Bonnell
Founder & CEO Motto®