A senior leader was determined to strengthen her organization’s culture. She recognized that getting her executive team to work together more effectively was a key first step. In preparation for an offsite leadership team retreat I interviewed each executive with a series of team and organization assessment questions and ratings.
It became clear that a major cause of the executive team’s struggles with each other and building their culture were disjointed views of what they were aiming for. Teamwork and culture are general terms with a broad range of meanings. It was as if the executives were putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, with each leader working on a different color — some green, some brown, others blue, and so on. Each team had a different image of what the finished puzzle should look like.
The team had a vision statement but not a shared vision. “Imagineering” is a vital element in bringing teams and organizations together. Envisioning our desired future together is one of the most powerful elements of team building and culture development.
Andrew Carton, assistant professor of management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found that “visions with image-based words are more consistent with the literal meaning of the word ‘vision.'” He and his research associates discovered that when leaders use vivid images, they transport people to the future and make stronger emotional connections. “We determined that a vision communicated via image-laden words (‘our toys…will make wide-eyed kids laugh and proud parents smile’) triggered stronger performance than a vision with similar content but without visual wording (‘our toys…will be enjoyed by all of our customers’). We found that image-based words have a galvanizing influence — they inspire people to work together toward the same crystal-clear snapshot of the future.”
But many executives are informing (head-based goals and targets) rather than communicating (heart-based images and feelings). Carton reports, “my co-authors and I have found that more than 90% of leaders communicate visions without any image-based words.”
During their offsite retreat, the executive team of an international mining company were debating and describing the culture they wanted to build. Their silent envisioning and clustering exercise showed strong alignment across key themes. The team also described the behaviors they needed to model to move from passionate lip service to involved leadership. A key component of that culture meant putting safety front and center. Rather than using a target like “zero harm,” they headed their culture shift as “work safe, home safe.” That paints a clearer and more compelling picture of what the company is shooting for.
Management is seeing things as they are. Leadership is seeing what could be. As the pioneering French psychologist, Emile Coue, observed, “Imagery may be the highest form of mental energy we have. Reason can analyze and organize, but only imagination can create. It is through imagination that we create the future — ours and the world’s.”