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Align teams with your strategy using a Guiding Light

What is your organization’s Guiding Light?

In his episode of the Toughest Call podcast, Mark Bowden, a world-renowned expert on body language and communication, takes me through the process he uses with leaders to arrive at an economical, truthful, and credible statement that can align an entire organization.

Many people think this is what mission and vision statements achieve.

The unfortunate truth is that they typically fail miserably at this task.

What’s worse is the process to arrive at these ultimately useless statements is usually painful.

You spend months in and out of meetings. Maybe you’re working with expensive outside consultants and facilitators. Dozens of emails have gone back and forth. You’ve been promised the endless “wordsmithing” will be worth it. In any case, everyone seems to believe this is “very important work”. And then you have it; the perfect mission and vision statement. You send out a memo, slap it on a poster in the lunchroom, put it up on your website and then…

(Insert sound of crickets here.)

Too often, mission and vision statement writing ends up being an academic exercise that results in something wordy and generic with no tangible effect on your organization.

The last point is the most damning.

Any strategic planning activity that does not have a real impact on your organization by having a positive effect on behavior is a waste of time, energy, and resources. 

When I first started working as a strategist, I would often ask the CEO or Executive Director what their mission and vision statements were. Most of the time they would have to look them up or would paraphrase something that mildly represented them. 

Taking it a step further, I would ask the same question of individuals outside of leadership. They could often tell me what the mission and vision statements were. However, I would then ask them a follow-up question. How are the mission and vision statements brought to life in your day-to-day work? 

(Insert sound of crickets here.)

This is not the fault of the CEO or the employee. 

It is the fault of a commonly used process that seldom works.

At this point, the Mission/Vision Statement Zealot in you is revolting, “But, then how do we get people united around a Purpose? How do we demonstrate we are about something larger?”

The first thing I would suggest is to look at how ubiquitous mission and vision statements are. Are they the exclusive domain of well-run organizations? 

Next, look at the wording. How often do you see the same words? Excellence. Performance. Innovative. Bold. Integrity. Commitment. Responsibility. Do they even mean anything?

Now, ask yourself whether they say anything unique about those organizations and whether you believe their organizations truly align with their stated missions and visions.

Finally, for the true death blow, ask someone who works there what they think of their mission and vision.

Create your Guiding Light: The process for aligning teams & strategy

So, if we are going to suggest tearing down one of the Ivory Towers of strategy development, what do we replace it with?

A Guiding Light is a maximum seven-word statement that acts as a brief yet tangible guide for all of your organization’s activities.

In my strategic planning methodology, The Lighthouse Framework, it sits at the top.

A great Guiding Light matches up with the acronym T.R.I.M.

  • True – It holds true for both internal AND external stakeholders
  • Repeatable – It’s easy to remember
  • Instructive – It acts as a North Star for EVERYONE’s activities
  • Motivational – It has an aspirational quality

Though it may become one, it is NOT a marketing slogan or tagline. The reality is your Guiding Light may only ever be used internally.

For the fictional company, Terrific Toboggan Co., that Mark and I focused on in our podcast episode, the Guiding Light is: “We craft the world’s best premium toboggans.”

That one clear and simple statement has the ability to be the primary touchstone for all of the company’s activities.

Once you have your Guiding Light, it also acts as an anchor for further strategic planning. From this simple yet powerful statement trickles the rest of your strategy around Values, Strategic Imperatives, Performance Metrics, and Tactical Initiatives.

In a world where planning too often gets bogged down in outdated processes and useless semantics, Guiding Lights have been a powerful tool for bringing clarity to our clients’ organizations. 

From that clarity comes a greater ability to quickly make aligned choices. Something that mission and vision statements seldom achieve.

Sample one page strategic plans for corporate & non-profit organizations

If you would like to see some examples of Guiding Lights and the plans that emerge from them, go to now, and under Sample One Page Strategic Plans, select either the corporate plan for Terrific Toboggan Co. or the non-profit plan for Central City Food Bank.

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