Friday, December 7, 2007


This was actually my father’s infuriated ‘coupe de grace’ statement at my teenage nephew! According to him, my nephew’s vision could be compared with that of a bottomless pit... totally undefined! Accusing my nephew of not having even one clear defined objective in his life, my father shouted at him that – despite his having joined the undergraduate business management programme at a leading business school in India (much at the behest of ‘the family’) – the only profession that would welcome his zero vision attitude would be the honourable one that’s been mentioned above! Being a mute amused spectator to all this, and seeing the nonchalant grunt of a response of my nephew, I decided to find out whether vision was really as important to companies as all those management gurus – and my father – had made it out to be?

It was perhaps the illustrious Jim Collins who – through an almost 70 year long study (ending 1995) – in his exceptional book, Built To Last, showed that ‘visionary companies’ gave stock returns that were almost 700% more than ‘comparison (not so visionary) companies’. More recently, Stanford, in its electrifying May 2005 working paper, (Vision, Key to Creating Shareholder Value) quoted John Browne, CEO of global energy giant BP, who says, “You have to remember what your vision is, and you have to be disciplined about sticking to it in order to create shareholder value!” No wonder, since Browne took over as CEO in 1995, BP’s annual revenues have increased from $26.95 billion to $274.32 billlion – a stupendous rise of 917.88%! In a 2003 HBS report (Guiding Growth: How Vision Keeps Companies on Course), famed author Mark Lipton, who wished to prove that having a vision is of no use, amusingly had to finally confess to the contrary that “vision, in fact, makes a profoundly positive difference” to a firm’s performance. Lipton goes on to show how even “the best talent is attracted to firms with a compelling vision.”

The top-line global consulting firm, Grant Thornton’s Catalyst (their business journal) mentions that “companies maximising their shareholder value have clearly defined strategic plans (vision) that are forward looking and focused on long term success.” According to the results of a massive research by the remarkable Ken Blanchard Group of Companies (covering 2,004 worldwide respondents between 2003-2006), “failing to communicate the vision in a way that is meaningful,” is the biggest mistake that leaders make when working with others. But then came the shocker! The most respected management author, Jim Heskett, in the HBS paper titled ‘How much of leadership...’, quotes, “Companies growing (shareholder) value the most are the ones with leaders that have a clear vision, continually communicate that vision, and then get out of the way!”

And in this discreet line lies the most dramatic and compelling vision theory of modern times! The concept of ‘Zero Vision’ corporations, the other name for companies like GE, Toyota, Wal-Mart etc! How’s that you might wonder! This ‘zero vision’ concept was in reality initiated by CEOs of Japanese corporations in the late 1950s and 60s, who – in their patriotic endeavour to become world leaders – drilled into their business managers that it was purely their vision, and not their CEO’s vision, that was going to determine their firms’ success... or failure. However paradoxical it might sound, the fact is that this philosophy immediately forced the business managers working below the CEO to suddenly assume quasi-CEO responsibilities. And history shows that Japanese firms succeeded like nobody’s business, and purely because of the unbelievably high passionate commitment that was instilled in the managers due to zero vision at the top!

Interestingly, if one were to think about identifiable American visionary leaders, one would find quite a handful (from Michael Dell to Steve Jobs, from Jack Welch to Sam Walton); but if you had to name ten visionary Japanese leaders, your name list would most probably stop at one (that is, if you knew Akio Morita of Sony). That’s the extent of their commitment to zero vision! But thankfully, the same ‘visionary’ US leaders of yesteryears – from Bill Gates (Chief Architect, Microsoft) to Sam Plamisano (CEO, IBM); from Paul Otellini to Craig Barett (Intel) – are now changing to appreciate the fact that unless zero vision is passionately embraced at the top, and unless promising managers are shoved forcefully into the battlefield, radical growth beyond preset benchmarks can never be attained. However much my dad might hate it, zero vision is the philosophy of the future, and is here to stay within modern day CEOs...and oh yes, within teenaged nephews too...