So They Can Stand On Your Shoulders

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October 24, 2013

At a board orientation that I supported, a long-tenured board member summarized the reasoning behind the specific wording of the vision and mission to new board members. The board chair, who was also helping give the orientation, enthusiastically remarked that it was very helpful for him to hear this explanation. He had come onto the board after they had created the vision and mission and was unaware of the reasoning behind them. He felt he would find this understanding extremely helpful in his current leadership role.

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One immediate response to his comment might be to say that the vision and mission statements need rework. If current leaders were not getting the inspiration and clarity intended from those who created those statements they are probably not clear. An action  that may well be worth considering. Another perspective that struck an even deeper chord for me, is that the reasoning behind the vision and mission that was explained in the orientation was not documented anywhere. Because of this, it is likely that when the leaders of the organization gather at some point in the future to update the vision and mission, they will be starting from scratch. They will lose all of the wisdom and experience of the previous leaders.

When organizations plan  it is always a challenge to decide how much to document. Rarely, though, do we err on the side of documenting too much. Usually the problem is too little or ineffective documentation. If we want to maximize the advantage future leaders will have organizations must capture the full rationale behind current plans guiding the organization.

Recently, I complimented a leader who was able to pull out a number of historic documents to share with her leadership team as they embarked on a new planning effort. She replied that their organization found it invaluable to review the work of previous leadership teams. She used the metaphor “we stand on their shoulders” to emphasize the importance of understanding and recognizing the thoughts, risks, and deliberations that previous leaders have taken in the organization.

In our practice, two important criteria guide the documentation we create. First, document to guide action, does the documentation provide the current leadership team with what they need to take action? Present plans in a format that allows current leaders to access the strategies and goals that they need to pursue. Second, provide context for the plan, does the documentation capture enough of the reasoning behind the plan to allow it to serve as a stand-alone reference document for future leaders. Concise summaries of the reasoning and processes behind the chosen strategies will be a valuable guide for future leaders as they determine the next set of strategies for the organization.

Action oriented plans and concise summaries take work. But it’s an investment in the future of the organization. It will allow your future leaders to stand on your shoulders as they take the organization to the next level.