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Lead Your Team Strategy

What Is a Vision Statement?

image for fizkes / Getty Images
fizkes / Getty Images

Sitting down to write a business vision statement can be a daunting task even for the most focused and articulate of entrepreneurs. A powerful vision statement stays with you, such as Disney's "to make people happy" or Instagram's "capture and share the world's moments." But for many companies, vision statements are relegated to unassuming posters in the office lobby or staff lounge, forgotten even before they are hung up.

However, not every vision statement needs to reconcile itself to such a dire fate. Business owners willing to be intentional in their efforts and committed to doing the hard work can create a vision statement that encapsulates their organization's core ideals and provides a roadmap to where it wants to go.

"A company vision statement reveals, at the highest levels, what an organization most hopes to be and achieve in the long term," said Katie Trauth Taylor, CEO of the writing consultancy Untold Content. "It serves a somewhat lofty purpose – to harness all the company's foresight into one impactful statement."

A vision statement provides a concrete way for stakeholders, especially employees, to understand the meaning and purpose of your business.

Why does this matter? Research shows that employees who find their company's vision meaningful have engagement levels of 68%, which is 18 points above average. More engaged employees are often more productive, and they are more effective corporate ambassadors in the larger community.

Given the impact that a vision statement can have on a company's long-term success, and even its bottom line, it is worth taking the time to craft a statement that synthesizes your ambition and mobilizes your staff. 

Before determining what your vision statement is, you need to understand what it is not. It should not be confused with a mission statement. Those statements are present-based and designed to convey a sense of why the business exists to both members of the company and the external community.

Vision statements, on the other hand, are future-based and meant to inspire and give direction to employees of the company rather than customers. "The vision is about your goals for the future and how you will get there whereas the mission is about where you are now and why you exist," explained Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a global strategic marketing consulting firm. "The vision should motivate the team to make a difference and be part of something bigger than themselves."

"While a mission statement focuses on the purpose of the brand, the vision statement looks to the fulfillment of that purpose," added Jessica Honard, co-owner of North Star Messaging + Strategy, a copywriting and messaging firm that serves entrepreneurs.

Although both mission and vision statements should be core elements of your organization, a vision statement should serve as your company's guiding light. "A vision is aspiration. A mission is actionable," added Jamie Falkowski, managing director at marketing and communications company Day One Agency.

The first step in writing a vision statement is determining who will play a role in crafting it. In a small business, it is simple enough to gather the insight of every member of the organization. In a larger operation, you may need to be more selective while still ensuring that you capture a range of employee voices.

To accomplish this end, Brandon Shockley, director of research at branding and marketing firm 160over90, recommends hosting a series of workshops with key stakeholders who represent a cross-section of your organization. Teams of people can create alternate versions of the statement and receive feedback from the rest of the group.

Falkowski also suggests using individual stakeholder interviews as an effective way to encourage candor among all invested parties and to gather real and honest feedback. Employees can identify and highlight common themes, as well as describe an organization's future in words or pictures, as a basis for crafting a vision statement.

A business should determine early on where its vision statement will appear and what role it will serve in the organization. This will prevent the process from becoming merely an intellectual exercise, said Shockley. It is pointless to hang a vision statement in the lobby or promote it on social media if it is never truly integrated into company culture.

"The vision business statement should be thought of as part of your strategic plan," said Shockley. "It is an internal communications tool that helps align and inspire your team to reach the company's goals."

As such, a vision statement should be viewed as a living document that will be revisited and revised. Most importantly, it must speak directly to your employees.

"If your employees don't buy into the vision, you'll never be able to carry it out," said Keri Lindenmuth, marketing manager with the Kyle David Group, a provider of web and tech solutions. "The vision statement should be something your employees believe in. Only then will they make decisions and take actions that reflect your business's vision."

One way to help employees take ownership of the vision is to hold company workshops and brainstorming sessions where employees are encouraged to identify concrete ways they can incorporate the values of the vision statement into their day-to-day jobs. You can then acknowledge and reward employees when they are caught living the vision.

Creating the perfect vision statement may seem like an overwhelming task, but it does not have to be. You do not have to reinvent the wheel to develop a powerful vision statement. Instead, use the information you already have to guide your work, suggests Alison Brehme, founder of Virtual Corporate Wellness, a provider of employee health and wellness programs.

"A company's mission, purpose, goals and values are all involved in the creation of a company vision," Brehme said. "Weave these concepts and beliefs into your vision statement."

Additionally, Lindenmuth advises looking at the vision statements of competitors within your industry to get an idea of what they are saying and to determine how you can differentiate your business from theirs.

A vision statement should be concise, no longer than a sentence or two. According to Falkowski, you want your entire team and organization to be able to quickly repeat it and, more importantly, understand it. However, a vision statement needs to be more than a catchy tagline. "[It] can be smart and memorable, but this is for your team and culture, not for selling a specific product," Falkowski said.

Don't fret if you feel that a short vision statement doesn't fully express the intricacies of your vision. You can create a longer version, but it should not be the one that is broadcast to the world.

"Let's be honest, most business leaders, not to mention boards of directors, won't be able to sum up their vision in a pithy sentence or two. That's OK," said Shannon DeJong, the owner of the brand agency House of Who. "Have a full-length version of your vision for the leadership's eyes only. Think of the long version as your reference guide to why you're in business in the first place."

You can start by mapping out the most audacious goals your business hopes to achieve, Taylor suggested. "Reviewing your long-term goals in a collaborative setting will help you then zoom out on what your organization and the world will look like if you achieve them. That zoomed-out view of your success is really the heart of your vision statement."

According to Taylor, her team established a foundational understanding of their company vision by asking probing questions about the core of their business. This included asking what deliverables they most enjoyed working on, the partners they loved working with and the ambiance they hoped to create when collaborating.

"It's important to start with the big questions – after all, this type of statement establishes your organization's vision for what impact your business makes on the world," said Taylor.

Honard advises asking questions that reflect the eventual scale and impact your business will have when constructing a vision statement. 

These are a few of the questions she uses in guiding clients to identify their vision statement: 

  • What ultimate impact do I want my brand to have on my community/industry/world? 
  • In what way will my brand ultimately interact with customers/clients? 
  • What will the culture of my business look like, and how will that play out in employees' lives?

"Once you've answered these questions, you've created a roadmap between your present and your future," said Honard.

Don't be afraid to dream big once you gather all the information and get down to writing. Don't worry about practicality for now – what initially looks impossible could be achieved down the road with the right team and technologies. Work on shaping a vision statement that reflects the specific nature of your business and its aspirations.

Shockley said there is nothing wrong with a vision statement that is daring, distinct or even disagreeable. He said, "If a vision statement sets out a generic goal that anyone can agree with, it is likely to produce mediocre results. A goal like 'delivering an exceptional experience' applies equally to a hospital, bank or fitness club."

Those interested in taking their vision one step further can create a brand vision board, according to Taylor. A vision board includes a company's tagline, a "who we are" statement, a "what we do" section, a business vision statement, an overview of ideal clients, client pain points, content mission statement, advertising, products and SEO keywords.

"A vision board serves as a one-page business plan that anyone in a company can reference quickly to remember the key concepts that drive the work," said Taylor.

If you are still stuck on how to create a vision statement and cannot afford to hire professional help, you can easily access a host of downloadable worksheets and templates that offer a framework for developing a vision statement. These free resources can be used individually or collectively with staff and offer step-by-step instructions to help you identify key values, priorities, and goals, and bring you closer to articulating your own unique vision.

Checking out some memorable and distinct vision statements may be all you need to be inspired to write your own. Here are examples of a few of the best:

  • Amazon: "To be Earth's most customer-centric company where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online."

  • Ben & Jerry's: "Making the best ice cream in the nicest possible way."

  • Caterpillar: "Our vision is a world in which all people's basic needs – such as shelter, clean water, sanitation, food and reliable power – are fulfilled in an environmentally sustainable way, and a company that improves the quality of the environment and the communities where we live and work."

  • Google: "To provide access to the world's information in one click."

  • Habitat for Humanity: "A world where everyone has a decent place to live."

  • Hilton Hotels & Resorts: "To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality."

  • IKEA: "To create a better everyday life for the many people."

  • Intel: "If it's smart and connected, it's best with Intel."

  • LinkedIn: "Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce."

  • Oxfam: "A world without poverty."

  • Samsung: "Inspire the world, create the future."

  • Smithsonian: "By 2022, the Smithsonian will build on its unique strengths to engage and to inspire more people, where they are, with greater impact, while catalyzing critical conversation on issues affecting our nation and the world."

  • Southwest Airlines: "To become the world's most loved, most flown and most profitable airline."

  • Walgreens: "To be America's most loved, pharmacy-led, health, well-being and beauty company."

  • Wyeth: "To lead the way to a healthier world. By carrying out this vision at every level of our organization, we will be recognized by our employees, customers and shareholders as the best pharmaceutical company in the world, resulting in value for all."

A vision statement should stretch the imagination while providing guidance and clarity. It will inform direction and set priorities while challenging employees to grow. But above all, a vision statement must be compelling, not just to the high-level executives of your company, but to all employees.

Often, the hardest part of creating a vision statement is coming up with wording that truly defines your values and shines a light on your corporate identity without sounding too vague. A vision statement that is specific and unique is a good place to begin to distinguish your business from the rest of the industry.

"Vision statements should demonstrate how the world will be different now that your business is in it," said DeJong. She believes there needs to be legitimate passion behind a vision statement in order for it to be effective.

"So many leaders play it too safe with their vision, and this is a big mistake when it comes to developing a brand people actually care about," said DeJong.

Based on our expert sources' advice, here's a quick recap of what to keep in mind when formalizing a vision statement that reflects the uniqueness of your organization:

  • Project five to 10 years in the future.
  • Dream big and focus on success.
  • Use the present tense.
  • Use clear, concise, jargon-free language.
  • Infuse it with passion and make it inspiring.  
  • Align it with your business values and goals.
  • Have a plan to communicate your vision statement to your employees.
  • Be prepared to commit time and resources to the vision you establish.

Your completed vision statement should offer a clear idea of your company's path forward. Honard said that many of her clients have used their vision statements to direct their overall plans for the future. For example, they've adopted new marketing initiatives aimed at moving them closer to their vision, pivoted their focus to clearly reflect their desired outcome or doubled down on one particular aspect of their brand that is working in service of their vision.

Now that you know all the rules involved in creating a vision statement, there is only one lesson left to learn – sometimes you need to break one or more of the rules in your company's journey to define its own vision.

Many companies benefit from having a vision statement right from inception. Maybe that's not the case for yours.  If you have a very young company, know that is perfectly acceptable not to commit to one specific vision from day one.

"Getting too tied into one master statement can really mess with the learning and creation process in the early stages," said Sonia Langlotz, CEO and founder of the marketing and communications collective Round-Twelve. She encourages her clients to write a vision statement every month, save the previous drafts and see what sticks and what doesn't over time.

"After the first year, you can look back and see how much you have evolved. What parts or words within the statement stuck around and what was dropped? Those key words tend to end up being major brand pillars you can always come back to and eventually become part of the brand ethos," explained Langlotz.

Being too tied down to a particular vision statement in the early days of your business may limit your opportunity for growth or blind you to the need for change. "At the end of the day, trust your gut, test and check, look at the analytics, invest in the feedback your customer is giving you. If you aren't willing to step outside of your initial vision for your business, you might miss a huge opportunity!" said Langlotz.

Regardless of how many years you have been in business or how long you have had your vision statement, it's important to know that you are not stuck with it. Don't be afraid to change it, even if you spent time and money developing it, if it stops feeling right.

DeJong recalls how her agency developed a new vision statement a few years ago that just didn't fit. "While the words sounded beautiful and it seemed accurate, our vision was simply too intangible to lend itself toward a mission that felt real," DeJong explained. As a result, she reworked her vision to better align with her brand, and she couldn't be happier.

She said, "Having a tack-sharp, specific vision has helped me and my entire team double down on our efforts, think more creatively, and feel more motivated every single day."

Above all, your vision statement should be a constant reminder to you and your team that the end goal is bigger than the everyday. This message is an important one to hold on to, especially on the most difficult days.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.