At C-Level #11: Creating a Vision and Sense of Urgency

Mike Sayre is a highly experienced and successful software, e-commerce, and manufacturing services CEO, COO, CFO, and Board Director. He is an Executive Leadership Development Coach at the Innovative Leadership Institute, a trusted partner inspiring and enabling perpetual innovation, evolution, and growth in leaders and their businesses. Mike was featured in Maureen Metcalf’s May 2017 Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations interview on VoiceAmerica entitled “7 Characteristics of Leadership 2020 In Practice: A CEO Story.”

In At C-Level #10-18, I write about three of the most successful transformations I’ve had the opportunity to lead in my career so far, following a seven-step transformation model similar to the Metcalf & Associates Innovative Leadership Transformation Model below. This blog is about the first step in the process.


Create a Vision & Sense of Urgency

“Starting with the end in mind” is important when beginning any new transformation. However, having a vision of what is at the end of a transformation is not enough. The vision must be so compelling to those leading the transformation and those in the organization being transformed that all involved are impassioned and feel an intense sense of urgency to make it happen.

Do you and your team have a vision you are passionately working toward in your organization? How urgently is everyone working toward that vision? What drives that urgency, or lack thereof?

Here is how the visions were created and the sense of urgency developed in the three transformations I outlined in At C-Level #10:

  • Large Manufacturing Company. Early in my career as a new financial analyst at a $2B heavy manufacturer with over 60 operations worldwide, I wanted to learn all I could about the business and the people in it. I visited plants and met with plant controllers and general managers, I asked lots of questions to better understand their businesses and their needs. The controllers were still using antiquated accounting systems and spreadsheets to produce their monthly financials and had little time for much else. The general managers were anxious to better understand the financial aspects of their operations and the potential new investments they were proposing to Corporate. They wanted more resources, but didn’t understand that they had the right resources in their controllers—they just weren’t using them very efficiently.

The vision became clear to me and I began sharing it with everyone who would listen. The controllers spending most of their time in their offices working on accounting and financial reporting needed to be upgraded to financial business partners in their business units. That vision resonated with both controllers and general managers and catapulted me into leading a significant organizational transformation that affected a large part of the corporation and, up to that point, was the largest transformation project in my career.

What are the challenges in your organization that would have the greatest positive impact if things were changed? Do you have ideas on what those changes should be? Will people see the urgency in making those needed changes?

  • Mid-Size Electronics Manufacturing Services Company. As a new CFO in this company, I led a financial turnaround of an unprofitable $25M company to a $15M profitable one. Three years of significant revenue growth later, we had become a $75M company. However, we were making about the same profits as we did at $15M! I was then promoted to my first CEO job to “fix” it. I immediately jumped into talking with people across the company to get a sense of the challenges we were facing. We were still trying to run a $75M company like we ran the $15M company. Overall people liked the company, but they were lacking general direction, goals, motivation, processes—and more than a little structure. There was a lot of work to be done, but toward what? …and where should we start?

Having never been a CEO, I employed a leadership development coach who made me go deep into myself and define my personal purpose in life, as well as my own personal vision, that I could very closely link to a vision for the company. After much soul-searching, I also wrote draft missions and general operating philosophies for the whole leadership team to help me refine so that all could buy in. Knowing what we were doing was not working, and, with a downturn looming, we could be in serious trouble again, a very high sense of urgency drove us to a vision that was essentially “to be the best in the world at what we do.” As vague as that vision was, being the best in the world (not the biggest) mostly meant we needed to be a vastly different company than we were, in everything from leadership to strategy to execution. It opened people’s minds to substantial change.

The vision was a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) and it drew people in. Do you have a BHAG that could energize your organization?

  • Global Internet Payments Company. As a management consultant in this business, I could see that the company was vastly underperforming despite having some great talent and a significant global business opportunity. The business had grown to processing over $200M in payment transactions per year in 200+ countries and was still operating as startup with the same culture it started with for most of its ten years in existence. The organization was operating in silos and simply just tossing their problems over the wall for other departments to fix, which never seemed to happen. People were no longer as happy working there as they once were. A significant cultural transformation was needed to get the company back to higher levels of profitability and prepare it for a possible sale. But what would that look like? And where should we start?

After a few months, I was hired as COO. I immediately drafted missions, visions, and operating guidelines for the executive team to further develop and adopt. We eventually dropped the idea of a stated vision and adopted a mission of “We help our Sellers sell more!” That mission really helped the leadership team focus every day, week, and month. But frankly, it was the combination of the mission, improvement in leadership (we brought in a leadership development coach for the entire leadership team) and the operating guidelines that drove the entire organizational transformation. While not stated, the vision was of a company providing the highest value to its clients (the sellers using its payment services), growing in its financial value, with everyone working in harmony toward those reaching the first two goals. We talked about these three things all the time.

If your vision is not stated, what might be the “behind the scenes” vision for the company? Could it be stated to rally the troops and reach it faster together? Do you talk about your mission and goals on a regular basis?

Key takeaways from these transformations

The larger, more complex and/or faster-evolving an organization’s environment is, the higher the need for a stated vision that everyone can rally around and work toward in transforming the organization to get it to the next level. Does your organization need a stated vision?

To develop a great vision, you must know yourself, your organization, and what will stir deep passion and a sense of urgency within you, as well as the people you will be leading on this journey. Involve the leadership team in the process and get out and talk to others in the organization who have been, or will be, key to the success of the business. If you don’t know where you are going, what path do you follow? How will you know when you’ve arrived?

You don’t have to be a top leader of a large organization to start a transformation. If you can create a vision that…

  • you and others are passionate about,
  • is well thought out,
  • leverages your area(s) of expertise,
  • is widely recognized in the organization,
  • is supported by your leaders, and
  • is believed to be an urgent need with a real return on investment (in other words, a priority),

…and you have the confidence to step up, then you will have the opportunity to lead it. Is there a transformation in your organization waiting for someone to step forward and lead?

And lastly, if there is no sense of urgency, progress will be slow, at best. There is urgency as in a challenge that must be overcome, and urgency as in a destination everyone can’t wait to get too. What drives the urgency of your organization’s progress today? Can you combine the urgency of the challenges you face along the way with the urgency of getting to your destination to speed that progress up?

In “At C-Level #12: Building Transformation Teams,” we’ll look at how the teams were built in these same three organizations and what the key takeaways are that you may need to think about in building your transformation leadership team.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

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