3 tips to becoming a visionary leader

By Jo Miller, CEO, Women’s Leadership Coaching Inc., Cedar Rapids

Are you a visionary? Most people wouldn’t answer yes.

Being visionary sounds like a lofty designation reserved for the rarest of business gurus. To anyone tending to the day-to-day running of a business, being a visionary can seem like an indulgence for which there simply is not time.

Though she would not refer to herself a visionary, Elizabeth Iversen, a vice president and general manager for Northrop Grumman Corp., was referred to me by employees who nominated her as an authority on this topic.

She has been tapped to lead an $800 million business, and when she took the reins she saw the need for a new vision. She communicated this by saying, “Guys, we’re going to sculpt a lot of fog.”

To Iversen, being visionary means conveying a concise sense of purpose.

“For me,” she explained, “vision means creating a shared purpose, making sure that you can draw a picture around it for people, and then making it comfortable for them (because change is always uncomfortable). First, you rally their hearts, and then you rally their heads.

“So, what skills does it take?” Iversen continued. “Being a visionary requires asking: Where do we need to go to be competitive? Where are we now? And what do we need to do to get there?”

Whether you consider yourself to be a visionary, having a greater sense of shared purpose is something most organizations can benefit from, and there are visionary thinking skills you can polish, just as with any other business skill.

Here are three of them.

1. KNOW YOUR FACTS AND FIGURES

If being a visionary requires knowing where we are now, then creating an effective vision that starts with gathering baseline information.

“It always helps if you have facts” Iversen said. “One of the tools everybody needs is to have a baseline in understanding how their business is run.”

To deepen this understanding, Iversen takes time to network with colleagues inside and outside her organization.

“I’m one who likes to walk around and see what’s going on,” she explained. She talks with people at all levels of the organization, asking questions such as: How are we doing? What do we need? and What do you think our current state is?

When this uncovers an insight, she goes back and shares the results. This helps her to see if her observations are on the mark.

She also feels that financial literacy is a must: “You really need to understand the financials of the business and how it runs.”

Financials provide a tool kit to answer that important baseline question, “Where are we now?”

2. TEST OUT YOUR VISION

Leaders who gather facts and figures develop a gut sense for discerning long-term versus short-lived changes. Those insights assist in imagining a future state and what might be possible for an organization.

This can help to carve out a new vision that is more likely to remain relevant.

Once you have a basic vision, test it out on others. Iversen likes to accomplish this by starting conversations with, “You know people I don’t know. What could possibly go wrong with this thinking? What haven’t I thought about?”

One of her keys to successful visionary leadership is to identify early adopters in her organization and approach them first.

“Pick the ones that you can work with who are genuine and are willing to try new things,” she advised. “But also pay close attention to the person that is complaining the most. Sometimes the biggest complainer is the one who moves over and becomes one of your greatest champions.”

Using these strategies, you can test out your vision and identify potential challenges while taking early strides toward gaining supporters.

3. COMMUNICATE WITH ENERGY AND COURAGE

When it comes to communicating a vision and gaining buy-in, Iversen remarked, “I think it’s very important to be able to communicate and make things simple.”

She also believes leaders need to have a fair amount of confidence and courage, but that energy always helps.

“Energy is infectious,” she said. “I was very blessed to work with Jack Welch (General Electric chairman from 1981 to 2001) for a while. His energy was magnetic, courageous and confident.”

Building a vision is never an easy thing. It takes a thorough understanding of the business, a hard look at what needs to be done and why, and clear communication so people understand how the organization needs to change and why.

But by putting those elements in place, a new vision is attainable. By using the skills above, you can become a visionary leader.

Iversen offers one other strategy: When articulating a vision, she connects it directly to her values, and the values of the organization and the people she works with.

“I think values are very powerful,” she said. “People need to know what you stand for.”

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