As “rolling layoffs” continue in technology companies, there is a contagion of anxious malaise among workers. Employees, many of whom are still impacted by the loss of coworkers and growing workloads, live with the day-to-day fear that yet another round of layoffs is coming. As one manager at Amazon recently said, “It’s gut-wrenching to lose co-workers […] but dragging this out over 6 months is torture.”
Leaders have even more to manage, as they deal with their own emotions while navigating their employees’ anxiety and unanswerable questions about the future.
Surprisingly, at times like these one of the most powerful moves you can make as a leader is to pick your head up, pull yourself out of the malaise, and focus on the most inspiring vision for the future that you can imagine. That may feel like starting an exercise program right at your greatest moment of exhaustion. But such a bold, counterintuitive move can refresh and energize not only you, but the people you lead.
There’s an old saying, “Without a vision, the people perish.” That’s because without an empowering, positive picture of the future, people get bogged down in the challenges right in front of them, or the fears that creep in during tough times. We need a mountaintop to fix our gaze upon. As one CEO described it, “I think the essential act of leadership is to provide this attractive, achievable, inclusive, life-affirming vision of the future.”
An exciting, shared vision can be powerful medicine to pull people out of a funk. And after three years of pandemic upheaval—we need that! What’s more, you can be the harbinger of such inspiration wherever you sit in your organization. Of course if you’re the CEO, your company is looking to you to enable that vision. But regardless of your level, you can have a massive impact on the direction, focus and energy of the people you lead. You may even be able to inspire the layers above you to catalyze a powerful direction for the future of the whole company.
To pull yourself out of today’s predicament and lift up your organization, make these five moves:
Step away from the reality in front of you.
If you’re immersed in a “stew” of challenging emotions, take a few days away. Your brain is less likely to ignite an exciting vision when you’re bombarded with negative emotions from all sides.
What is the source of the mood in your organization? Fallout from layoffs, a loss of trust, fear for the future? Whatever the drivers, set them down as best as you can. It’s OK—you can and will return to them, so don’t worry about leaving them. You are creating some healthy white space.
Reconnect with yourself.
One element of visioning that is often overlooked is that your organization’s direction has to be informed by your self-awareness. Put another way, how can you chart a course for others to follow if you don’t know who you are? Great leadership is not just a collection of techniques; it springs from understanding what you are most passionate about. Companies get lost when their leaders get lost—when they stop being grounded in and aware of what is truly important to them. And that’s never just revenue and profitability.
There are many ways to find your true north. To get started, spend time alone in nature, listen to music, create art, meditate and pray, or journal. Reflect on your core values by asking yourself, “What’s truly important to me?” “What am I passionate about?” and “What is my mission before I leave this world?” (Research shows that questions beginning with “what” are more useful for creating self-awareness than those beginning with “why”). Talk with people who have known you for a long time and ask them, “What do you think is most important to me?” You might be surprised how insightful they are.
Reconnect with your company’s DNA and history.
This next step is an act of imagination. It involves looking past the surface realities you’ve been dealing with, and imagining what’s possible. Start by reconnecting you with what used to inspire you about your company.
What was there in the early DNA of your company that brought about its rise? Every great company is built upon a set of principles or strengths. What are those strengths? A fanatical focus on product quality? A yearning to uplift the world? A bold and fearless creativity? Reach back into the history of your company and let that memory inspire you, reminding you of what greatness can look like. Don’t worry if you feel some of that has been lost, because invariably it is still there, living within hundreds or thousands of people who are still around from years ago.
There’s also an added value of looking to the past: the Janus effect. It’s well known that leaders (CEOs in particular) who spend time studying the history of their companies are able to look further into the future. To quote a famous historian, “The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future.”
Look out into the world.
Want to create an inspiring vision? You need to understand what’s happening in the broader ecosystem. The future of your organization doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While part of good vision and strategy formation has to do with knowing ourselves, the other part has to do with knowing what the world needs. Look around. What does the world need that your organization is uniquely primed to deliver? Or, if you are further down in your company, what does your company need that only your team can deliver?
Practically speaking, dive into reading about your industry. Catch up on business news and global news more broadly. Wander around the magazine section at a bookstore and see what catches your eye. Schedule coffees with colleagues who have valuable, refreshing perspectives. Be sure to include people outside your company and your industry. Get more current on the great big world in ways that spark your imagination and inspire bold ideas.
Capture your vision over time, and partner with your team.
The idea of articulating a vision can be daunting. But you don’t have to do it all at once, and you don’t have to do it alone. Once you feel more grounded and inspired, start writing down what you know, or think you might know, about the best possible future for your organization.
At this stage you are not wordsmithing. A vision is not the same as a vision statement. Just start capturing ideas in words or pictures or however your mind works. Whatever you write down, make sure you feel personally excited by it.
Come back to this over a period of days, weeks, or months. Keep capturing more, and refining. Eventually you’ll land on a version that’s ready for prime time.
You may want to do this work with your team. You get to decide how your team will be involved in the entire process. But whatever you do, do not skip the step of knowing what you personally feel is important. If you leave that out, you won’t have the excitement and energy to lead the vision once it’s formed.
Finally, a word on communicating the vision. Many a good vision has died on the vine because of poor communication. Once the vision is clear, you need to begin the process of inspiring the troops and bringing them together around those ideas. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your vision is “done” once you and your leadership team knows what it is. That’s really just step one.
Germinating a vision may have taken you weeks or months. It’s going to take a long, deliberate effort to instill those inspiring ideas in the minds of others. You can’t expect hundreds or thousands of people to grasp in a single all-hands meeting what it has taken six months for you to discover yourself. You need to take them on the journey that you’ve already been on.
To do this, create a formal communication plan. You need to communicate, and recommunicate, and tell stories about, and celebrate, and clarify the vision over and over in the coming months and quarters. Think: steady drumbeat. It’s like marketing, people need to hear it a dozen times before it starts to sink in. Talk about the vision frequently, in different contexts, and in ways that will truly reach your audience.
Think you’re too junior to create a vision? Not in the right role? Need more direction from above? No. The fact is, the best ideas can come from anywhere in your company. People at the VP, Director or even more junior levels often have the ability to create much greater change for the good than they realize. Most of us have so much more power to influence things towards a positive vision than we know. We just need to be willing to be bold, find our true north, and lead others to achieve it.
Yes, we’ve all been through a lot these past three years. The challenges have touched everyone. And it shows in our organizations. But today is the perfect moment to reimagine a compelling, positive future. In fact, it’s exactly what we need to move forward with energy and joy.