Over the past 5 + years I have had conversations with hundreds of accountants about their firms. One of the things I have noticed is that the owners and team members in a firm are often not readily able to articulate what their vision for the firm is. You may say “so what, does it really matter?” and my answer is yes it does.
A clear vision that you control and own supports effective strategic decision making. That is, decisions are able to be made by reference to how aligned they are with your vision. Decisions can be made faster and more effectively as there are some clear criteria to apply. Many people are familiar with the idea that action without strategy can be ineffective. Likewise, I suggest strategy without vision can be equally ineffective.
I recall a firm who had invested considerable time and money in building a new website. When that work was nearly complete they requested I facilitate two sessions on vision. They had never got really clear about their vision but once they did they realised that the website would need to be changed to support its achievement.
If they had worked on vision first, then done the website, they would have saved considerable time and money! Vision first, then strategy, then action. The order is vital. As Stephen Covey said in his fabulous book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “begin with the end in mind”. See my review of his book here
Traditionally, vision statements describe where the business wants to be at a point in the future – often some way out in the future, say 5 or 10 years. When the vision is defined the company leaders describe in some detail when they want to achieve it. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal article in the Harvard Business Review of 1 October 1996 introduced the concept of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal or BHAG as fundamental to an organisation’s vision.
In the 80s and 90s companies created vision statements such as “to become a leading supplier of widgets in Australia” this statement is very thinking (data) based. It does not connect with the heart and therefore cannot motivate. If people can attach feelings to the vision, they become engaged and the vision creates energy and action.
Collins and Porras noted that a true BHAG “is clear and compelling, serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a catalyst for team spirit”. A true vision captures both the head and the heart of everyone in the organisation.
Collins and Porras noted that a BHAG has a finish line but I think there is an argument that we can also describe vision as a space a person or a business inhabits, not just an end destination. In defining vision this way, we don’t imply time horizons – maybe some visions could get done today. Companies and people who put their goals five years out generally take five years to get there.
I think there is an argument that putting a date on a goal doesn’t guarantee it will happen when you say – and is more likely to constrain delivery. Having said that if you are aware of the danger then go ahead put a time frame on your BHAG. Collins and Porras talk about the core purpose of an organisation as the reason it exists. In my words – you can live this day to day without a time frame and it is in complete alignment with your BHAG.
The other thing for owners of accounting firms to consider is the notion of their personal vision. In most of the planning sessions I have facilitated this is where I like to start. You need to understand yourself and how the firm fits into your life, before you do anything else. The question I might ask is this: Is your firm driving your life or is your life driving the firm? In my experience it is more often the former.
A famous story which highlights the power of vision, and in particular the power of connecting with the heart, is the story of Alfred Nobel. He was horrified to read his own obituary in the paper after a mistake over the death of his brother. What horrified him most was being described as a “merchant of death” and other less than flattering descriptions. He had made a fortune from the invention of dynamite and he was seen as “evil”.
Alfred Nobel had an epiphany and realised his intent was always truly to do “good”. The result, and his legacy to the world, was the funding of the Nobel prizes which today remain among the most prestigious awards in the areas of literature, medicine, science and working for world peace.
What will your legacy be?
It may not be quite as grand as that of Alfred Nobel but nonetheless we commend to you the value of taking some time away from your firm to think about your personal and business vision. In that order.
The lead up to a new financial year is a great time to do this and if you would like help I please contact me