How do you get people to rally around your vision and execute on it effectively?

I was recently asked by a coaching client, whom we’ll call Victoria, “Todd, how do you get people to rally around your vision and execute on it effectively?”

I’m going to share a simple three-step system for moving your organization forward towards a better future.

A hallmark of leadership

Having and communicating a clear vision is one of the hallmarks of effective leadership. We look to leadership for inspiration, direction, and clarity. It all starts with the ability to craft and effectively communication your vision.

When leaders lack vision, their organization and company suffer. When leaders lack vision, innovation is stifled. When leaders lack vision, their teams lose trust and confidence, and ultimately people leave.

Stephanie’s company had recently gone through a large re-org, which wasn’t going well. In fact, to call it a disaster would be an understatement. As part of the re-org, she and her team would report to Alex, one of her colleagues. Stephanie’s entire team threatened to quit. 

Alex and Stephanie arranged a town hall style team meeting. Alex wanted to welcome in the new team members. Stephanie saw it as a great opportunity to reassure her team and get them excited about the future. 

Prior to the town hall, Stephanie scheduled a 1:1 with Alex. She wanted to understand what his vision was for the future of the organization and how she and her team could support Alex.

“Alex,” Stephanie began, “I’m going to be honest with you. This re-org hasn’t gone well. My entire team has threatened to quit. I’m having 1:1s with different team members on a daily basis just to get them to stay.” 

“How can I help?” Alex asked.

“Well,” Stephanie replied,”If you tell me what your vision is for the organization, I can rally the troops, get them behind it, and they’ll bend over backward to deliver for you. What’s your vision for this organization?”

Twenty minutes later, it was clear to Stephanie that Alex didn’t have a clear vision for the organization. 

Within two weeks, Stephanie and part of her team would report to a new VP. Over the next 90 days, the rest of Stephanie’s team would leave the company. Within six months, Alex lost 18 of his highest performers. A few months later, Alex was dismissed from the company. 

When have you experienced this?  Maybe it’s been your manager. Maybe an executive or even the C-suite at your company. Or maybe that leader is you. 

As a coach, I’m often working with leaders to develop, cast, and clearly communicate their vision. In some cases, the leaders have bits and pieces of a vision scatter about deep in their head. I help them get it out and craft it into something clear and inspirational. In other cases, they have a vision, but haven’t communicated it to their team. 

Here’s a simple three-step system to help you craft and communicate your vision. 

The three-step system

Step one—start with the end 

Start by jumping out 18-24 months into the future. Tell the story of where you are, what you’ve accomplished, what the new organization looks like.

When I was at Workday, the vision I cast for our organization was “A year from now, design is no longer a department. It’s simply the way we work and deliver products here at Workday.” 

I didn’t start with “Today we are here. We’re going to do these things and eventually land there.” I also didn’t talk about how we’re going to do it. Not yet. 

Step two—talk about it in the past tense

By sharing your vision in the past tense, you’re setting yourself and your team up to overcome objections and limiting beliefs.

When we start with where we are and what we want to do in the future, inevitably, someone on the team will rain on the parade. We’ve all experienced this.

“Well, the problem with that is, we can’t do that with our current technology.” 

“I don’t think we can get legal to sign off on that.”

“I already have too much on my plate. I can’t see how I’m going to get that done too.”

In each case, because people have a hard time seeing how we’re going to get there from here, they tend to self-sabotage. 

When we share our vision using past tense language, however, we flip the script. We remove objections and take all the “Noes” off the table. When we present our vision as if it’s already happened, then the only option is to explore how we got there. 

In short, we were successful. So, whatever challenges we met, somehow we were able to overcome them. Now, instead of battling objections and self-sabotage, we’re focused on creative solutions and problem-solving. 

Step three—reverse engineer how you got there

Start with the end result and work your way backward. 

Include your team in this step and make them part of the conversation. When you do, they’re more likely to be invested, feel a sense of ownership, and will go from adversaries to advocates. 

The reverse engineering process has a number of additional benefits:

  • You’ll develop a clear strategy and plan of execution
  • You’ll identify potential pitfalls and how you overcame them
  • You’ll be able to identify owners of each stage with clear outcomes

Coming back to the Workday example, using this approach we were able to stand up five major initiatives and see success in under six months. 

  • We grew the organization from 40 people to over 100 in just four months. 
  • We created a center of excellence (COE) responsible for design education across the company. 
  • We created a DesignOps team and delivered a comprehensive design system, Canvas.
  • We launched a Design Playbook. 
  • We released a career growth path framework for the design organization, which HR used to shape career growth paths for product and engineering. 

I contribute our success to three things:

  • Using this simple three-step system
  • A significant commitment from my leadership team
  • Support and funding from my manager

I can’t say it was easy. In fact, there were several moments when we wanted to throw in the towel. But our vision of the new future, that promise of tomorrow and the impact we were going to have, helped carry us through the pain and struggle. 

What’s even more impressive is that each of these initiatives has continued to grow over the years, long after my departure. It’s a true testament of our ability to create transformation that’s durable and sustainable.

Better than imagined

“Todd, I’m continually surprised at how well this works.” —Victoria, coaching client and executive at a startup

Back to that recent conversation with Victoria, my coaching client. In our follow-up coaching session, when I asked how things were going, she replied, “Initially, I was really worried and skeptical that I couldn’t pull this off. I followed the script and it has been amazing. The co-founders have gotten behind the vision. My team is all in and we’ve already started executing. We’re seeing results. Honestly, Todd, I couldn’t have imagined it would be this successful.”

Victoria is now going through another transformational change at this company. She’s following the same script and once again seeing success. 

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