Lead Strong Episode 33: Strategic Vision

This episode of Lead Strong saw hosts and Directors of Cappfinity’s Talent Practice, Celine Floyd and Stephanie Hopper join with Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Business Services Officer at SUEZ UK and Peter Attfield, Chief Talent & Learning Officer at Jardine Matheson to discuss how leaders can balance long-term strategic vision with the need to be agile in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

What is strategic vision?

In Cappfinity’s recent meta-analysis of leadership strengths, strategic vision was found to be one of the most important for successful leaders.  Here, strategic vision was defined as:

  • Enjoying problem-solving and strategizing to move a business forward and create greater value
  • Anticipating change and planning how to respond to it
  • Thinking in terms of years, not months when it comes to business objectives
  • Being able to see lots of disparate links and understanding how they will interact and come together

Where have you seen a leader successfully bring their vision to life?

Leaders with strategic vision can identify and maximise on priorities and opportunities that deliver on their organisation’s mission and empower their teams to find a way to deliver it.  Vision needs to have substance, should not be made overcomplicated and have meaning for the employees who are going to deliver it.  This is key to engaging and empowering employees to want to be a part of the vision.

Tracey shared how when she worked in local government, Children’s Services had gone through a major shake up following the horrific murder of eight-year-old, Victoria Climbié.  This led to many local government organisations needing to drastically redefine their structure and create a united Children’s Services Department.

Children’s Services had previously sat separately under several directorates meaning nothing was properly connected and so the council went through a period of change to create a Children’s Services Department.  As a result, lots of other services were redistributed to other areas.  Tracey worked in Adult Social Services at this time, and during the redistribution process, they were given, libraries and museums.

Many questioned how you could sit these things together to make a vision as part of the department.  The leader at the time saw things differently and shared their vision that if they were to encourage people to use libraries and museums to enrich their wellbeing, together with parks for exercise, then perhaps there would not be as many people who found themselves in need of social care.

It was a simple vision, but it made sense to Tracey and to the directorate’s newly formed leadership team, and for the first time, she saw someone who was visionary in their approach to a degree she hadn’t experienced before.  It was something she could connect with personally, everyone wanted to get involved because they could see the meaning of it, and the leadership team were encouraged to work as one team across their areas of responsibility.  So, challenges and successes were jointly owned.

How do leaders create impact?

Peter shared examples of where he had seen leaders create impact and humanise their vision during difficult times.  Leaders like the Co-Founder and CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky who made the incredibly tough decision to begin redundancies during the pandemic as the company’s bottom line took a hit when nobody could go on holiday.

Leaders with impact and strategic vision can take any number of routes.  They could take the purpose route like Medtronic CEO, Bill North by following his purposeful vision to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life.  People can get on board with this and work towards that vision.  AstraZeneca followed a similar route in choosing not to make any profit from their Covid-19 vaccine.

Bringing in his own experience, Peter has worked with a number of different leaders throughout his 40+ years in industry.  As an ex-Unilever employee, he feels blessed to have worked for one of the world’s best companies, where he saw successful transformations in Latin America and globally.  He also cited the impact former CEO, Paul Polman has had on pushing the sustainability agenda and asking difficult questions of some of the world’s biggest companies about their sustainability impact.

There are lots of examples, but the red thread that runs through any leadership impact story comes from three things – the ability of the leaders to create trust, clarity and momentum (i.e., a strong execution capability).

Where have you seen leadership vision have a positive impact on sustainability?

At the CIPD Conference this year, so much of the content focused on Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) and it was clear that it is HR and People Leaders who are taking a leading role in this.

As an environmental services organisation, sustainability is part of everyone’s job at SUEZ UK.  The organisation manages around 11 million tonnes of waste each year, but their vision is to live in a world where there is no more waste.  To have an impact on sustainability, SUEZ UK try to keep things simple and interweave it into everything they do, so that their people live and breathe their sustainability commitments.

Tracey explained that they take a ‘triple bottom line approach’ around People, Planet and Profit.  The view is that by looking after their people (managing them well, developing them and engaging them to achieve their sustainability aims), they will deliver for the planet through the provision of excellent customer service.  This in turn leads to profitability.  Despite the pandemic, by taking this approach, SUEZ UK have been the most profitable they’ve been in 30 years.  This creates a circular positive effect, with profit available to invest in our people and our business to achieve growth and job creation.

People, planet and profit are linked.  This is a key message for commercial leaders, it isn’t something you need to do as an extra for your organisation, it’s interlinked.

Peter agreed with this, highlighting how it plays out in talent attraction at Jardines, as at least half of the questions they receive from graduates considering the graduate recruitment scheme relate to sustainability.

Peter noted that whilst many Jardines Business Units have a long history of taking action on sustainability, as a combined Group they have just released their first ever sustainability report.   They are clear with graduates about the progress they have made and their vision to continually improve this through practical actions, not just words.

In summary, strategic vision must have substance and meaning, but it should also be uncomplicated to make it easy to connect with.  Throughout the pandemic, leaders have had to step up in a way they have not before, to create inspiring narratives to communicate difficult messages that could impact the strategy of the organisation.  Finally, any organisation that is passionate about including sustainability within their vision, should weave this into everything they do, it cannot be an add on.

Watch the full episode here.