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Do you speak “vision”? Managers as interpreters of important company messages

6 min read


Many years ago, when I was a corporate training consultant, my client hired a translator named Antonio to work with me to convert a two-day supervisory skills training program from English to Spanish.

The participants of this class all spoke English, but said they’d be more comfortable learning in their native language. Although I hold a degree in Spanish, my Spanish-speaking skills were rusty; a person more skilled in the language was necessary to bring the training to life.

Antonio and I worked together to omit English slang that didn’t translate well and modify activities to better fit the needs of the Spanish-speaking audience. When it came time to hold the training session, I facilitated the class in a combination of English and Spanish, and Antonio provided interpretation as needed. We were an excellent team and the classes went very well. I can’t help but wonder: What if I had tried to go it alone without an interpreter? Most likely, those classes would have been ineffective; I wasn’t capable of fully translating the training concepts from one language to another.

My days in the classroom working with an interpreter remind me of a challenge that midlevel leaders face: translating the high-concept, visionary language of senior management into real-life meaning for the frontline workers. When your company CEO says, “We will align our competencies to our true north,” what does a middle manager do with that statement? What does that even mean? If you are asking yourself that question, your team is, too.

At their best, company vision statements provide direction and focus for all members of the organization. The challenge is that the statements are often aspirational, and that’s precisely why they can be problematic. In an attempt to provide inspiration, vision statements use imagery that might not be clear to everyone in the organization. As a midlevel manager, one of your roles is to provide communication clarity. Oftentimes, this means being a “vision interpreter” of sorts.

Team members who understand what the company is trying to achieve with its vision are more likely to feel engaged. According to a 2014 Emerging Workforce Study conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of staffing company Spherion, 54% of employees who reported themselves as “highly engaged” at work agreed that their company communicates its mission extremely or very effectively. And it’s up to you, as the team’s manager, to help them “connect the dots” when a vision statement lacks clarity.

Here’s what you can do to help “interpret” the company’s vision for your team:

Clarify definitions. Make sure you understand the key components before you pass along information. For example, find out exactly what “true north” means — how will you know it when you see it? Ask for several examples, and don’t leave the discussion until you are crystal clear as to what the vision is (and isn’t).

Create meaning out of vague concepts. Sometimes nebulous phrases like “best in class” capture the essence of what a company is trying to achieve, but it leaves frontline workers scratching their heads (or worse, rolling their eyes) at the imagery. Whenever a senior manager tosses a vague concept out during a conversation, be prepared to push back. “Ravi, what exactly is ‘extreme customer care’? How are you defining ‘extreme’?” Also, watch for irritation on the part of the senior management team when you question them. They have been discussing this concept for a long time, so it seems “obvious” to them. Diplomatically remind them that not everyone was privy to those conversations.

Provide perspective. People inherently want to understand how an idea relates to them. Yet, in the workforce, they often lack the framework that helps them make sense of a vision statement. Sometimes, all it takes for people to “get it” is a bit of context. A manufacturing team was struggling with a newly launched “100% Safe” vision. They told their director of manufacturing, “Accidents in the manufacturing facility happen, so how can we ever meet this goal?” The director helped her team by saying that the new mantra was the “ideal.” She said the purpose of the vision was to keep this important element “front and center” of their daily actions, not to make them feel demoralized when an accident did happen.

Connect everyday tasks to the bigger picture. By the time a vision statement rolls down several layers of the organizational chart, the daily tasks that your team engages in may resemble nothing like the lofty saying. Here’s where your communication as a manager really pays off: When team members question how the work they do matters, help them see how it connects to the vision. If neither one of you can see a connection, it’s time to figure out how to reconfigure the task so it does “fit” — or eliminate it.

Point out nuances in meaning. One of the most important roles of any interpreter is to be aware of how slight differences in meaning can add up to potential miscommunication, and therefore, misalignment to an organizational vision. For example, one person hears the word “empower” and thinks that means he can make all decisions autonomously, while a co-worker may construe that word to mean that he gets to give input into decision-making. Be sure all of your team members have a shared understanding of your company’s vision. Likely, there will be differences of opinion, but with your guidance, you can help create a mutually agreed-upon set of operating guidelines within your department that support the company’s vision.

Your role as an interpreter is an important one. Just as my colleague Antonio was able to help translate my message to a Spanish-speaking audience, your team members need you to explain a company’s vision or mission in terms that make sense to them. After all, nobody likes to be left wondering, “What the heck does that mean?”

Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow Jennifer on LinkedIn and sign up for her quarterly e-newsletter offering tips for the savvy workplace professional.

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