Book review: Leading With Vision by Bonnie Hagemann & John Maketa

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Title: Leading With Vision: The Leader's Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce​
Author: Bonnie Hagemann & John Maketa
ISBN: 978-1857886825
Reviewer: Jasmine Gartner, Jasmine Gartner Consulting
Reviewer's rating: 3.5 out of 5

Back in 2014, I read an article from McKinsey that really transformed the way I think about employee engagement - Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer’s Redefining Capitalism. In it, the authors make a simple point: “every business is based on an idea about how to solve a problem.” Therefore business, they say, “is transforming ideas into products and services that solve problems.”

Leading without Vision essentially builds upon this, most likely unknowingly, by saying that engagement comes from getting buy-in into that idea from your employees.

There were a few ideas that I really liked in this book and which worked well for me. There were also some major weaknesses. Let’s start with what was good.

The pros

For me, form and content are equally important. However, I recognise that form is subjective; content isn’t. So with books like these, I try to ignore the form (the style of writing, the ways in which ideas are expressed) and focus on the content.

In the case of this book, the form felt strongest when the authors expressed themselves through metaphor and imagery.

The authors capture the central idea of the book – vision is about expressing your why - with a strong and perfect image:

“In a company, a vision that can’t be visualized is just a statement… Just think about a wall with a painting hanging on it. Imagine that the painting is slightly crooked, maybe thirty degrees off. What do you want to do? If you are like most people, you want to straighten the picture. Why? Because you have a mental idea about how a painting should hang on a wall. If all of your employees have a mental idea about what success looks like concerning the vision of your organization, then any time something is a little off from what is needed to get there, your employees will want to straighten it” (p44).

This is the book’s strongest argument. It sums up engagement perfectly.

From there, they develop some useful definitions – vision is “a clear picture of a positive future state;” (p28) the mission should answer why the business is here and why it exists; and the organisational goals are the “bite-size pieces that get the organization to the positive future state” (p28).

This is the most useful, pragmatic part of the book, and the examples given illustrate the simplicity of the idea very well. There’s the hospital who encouraged patients to collaborate in their own health and wellness, whose vision is captured as “My Health, My St. Luke’s” (p38).

Or Coresystems, the company that helps sort out home technology, where the CEO, Manuel quickly realised that what he was providing was not just technology, but more importantly, customer service. That became the company’s slogan: “We make core moments, because customer service should be a core moment.” (p66).

They also use a powerful metaphor in their description of how organisations can approach corporate culture.

Perhaps, they say, “culture change may not be the right term. A more appropriate term is probably culture shaping.”

This is when they introduce their lovely metaphor: “Like pottery sculptors who can take clay and shape and reshape it on the potter’s wheel, leaders can take an existing culture and begin to reshape it” (p58). As an anthropologist, this feels inherently right to me. The culture is there – it already has some form as soon as an organisation comes into existence – and it will continue to be there.

The material – the clay – may always be the same, but the shape it takes can change, subtly or drastically, quickly or slowly or somewhere inbetween, in fits and starts, or consistently over time.

From here, they move on to a discussion of culture, and again, built upon the solid foundation of their metaphor, they create a useful list to define culture that leaders can use to examine their own culture and conceivably analyse and improve it: artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions.

Overall, the strong parts of the book are those that give us these solid definitions with perfect visualisations that are unforgettable.

The cons

For me, the book falls down in its use of stories.

The authors use a lot of stories, because, as they say, they’re an effective way of communicating. While this is true, the use of stories is a tool: the story has to have a take away, something that your reader can apply. Too often in Leading with Vision I think the reader will walk away saying, “but I’m not like that; how can I do that?”

Take the story of Chris, the CEO of Bumble Bee Seafoods. A soccer-playing, competitive man, Chris takes the same approach he uses in the game at his company. But what’s the practical takeaway? What if you’re not a soccer player and you’re not competitive? What if you don’t thrive in teams? (If you want to see this sort of storytelling done well, read Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules.)

Other stories don’t work because they take the generalising too far.

For example, there’s the story of a millennial named Bruce, who didn’t like his first job at an accounting firm because his manager never said hello to him. He loved his next job, though, because his boss said hi to him three times a day. Even when Bruce was on the phone! The authors then generalise about all millennials (83.1 million of them in the US alone) based on this one story. That’s lazy.

A report came out recently showing that the unhappiest people in the workplace are in fact those older than 35 (“One in six British workers over age 35 said they were unhappy—more than double the number for those under 35”). Everyone needs engaging, not just one generalised generation.

I suppose that my issue with these kinds of books in general, and the stories that they’ve chosen to share here, is that they ignore that in order for our society to function as it now is, a lot of crappy jobs need to be done. Of course I believe engagement is important: however, I think there’s something inherently patronising in assuming that every person, in every job, everywhere can be engaged – if you can just come up with the right message.

Can the leader of an abattoir really come up with a vision that will engage the staff working on the assembly line? Or any assembly line, really? If your company makes bedpans or plastic bottles, can you inspire your employees? If you rely on people to work long hours picking fruit seasonally, can you get them to care about your company’s vision? What about people who work in sweatshops?

You can’t engage everyone – in fact, it’s possible that there are people who don’t want to be engaged, who just want to do their job and go home – and that not every job is fertile ground for engagement to happen in, no matter what the leadership vision is.

To come back to Beinhocker and Hanauer’s article, and even some of the strong messages in this book, I think if we can avoid trying to put the romantic gloss of engagement onto every company out there, and instead focus on the admittedly less exciting task of just identifying what problem a company is trying to solve (and that might mean some difficult decisions – if your company doesn’t really solve a human problem, what should you do?), that might be a good first step.

About Jasmine Gartner

Image of Jasmine Gartner

Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas.

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