Michael Pain; Extract from edition 2 of ‘Being The CEO’

The difference between mission, vision and strategy

Having worked with boards and CEOs of hundreds of organisations, I am often struck by the challenges of making the distinction between mission, vision and strategy. This is a very crucial distinction, not least as retaining a clear focus on all three, at the right time, is so important to ensuring an organisation thrives and does not get ‘lost at sea’!

An organisation that loses sight of its overarching purpose, and fails to create and reinforce a compelling vision, can become much less strategic over time. This tends to happen in declining organisations that are fighting to survive or have become complacent. CEOs of these organisations tend to readily become distracted (enticed!) by a whole host of tactical opportunities. These are organisations that slowly and steadily become overly reactive to the currents, storms and endearing ports along their voyage.

In the academy trust sector, I see too many trusts who let short-term tactics redefine their goals. For example, this can happen in response to the new Ofsted framework, performance measures, short-term financial metrics, or nice grants to do all manner of things. Taken together and to an extreme, influences such as these can slowly but surely define the organisation’s direction over time. This can be understandable in some cases – many of these influences come with some big inducements or are heavily mandated or encouraged by government; but too much tactical leadership is bad news in the long run. In a short-termist education system, thoughtful and values-driven boards and CEOs are constantly having to rise above this –keeping the mission and vision at the forefront of their decision making. Others become consumed by it, and in the worst cases see their mission, vision and values heavily compromised.

Take for example those trusts that have seen large numbers of vulnerable pupils leave or ‘off-rolled’. Or consider those trusts who grow so quickly because they need to balance the books, and lose sight of the importance of sustainable school improvement (leading to their ultimate downfall anyway!). On the other hand, there are those boards and CEOs who have the confidence to say ‘yes’ to some things, and a clear ‘no’ to others, all the time going back to their mission and vision and asking – ‘is this course consistent with our purpose and overall vision?’ That’s not always the easiest option.

This is a particular issue for new organisations or businesses that need to achieve viability quickly. There is a big temptation for entrepreneurs and new business owners to take any work they can get, in the same way that a new and growing academy trust may be tempted to take on any school or funding opportunity. When growing Forum Strategy, I had to ensure a very disciplined approach here, often turning down (very lucrative) work that wasn’t consistent with my mission and vision for the organisation. Sometimes that work wasn’t consistent with our values either. That was hard early on, but the risk of responding tactically to such opportunities far outweighed that of not doing so. That’s because it stood us in good stead in the long run, as our clients and partners became to know us for our core business and to trust us on the area where our biggest passion, motivation and expertise lies. We stayed true to what we believed in and enjoyed doing so, so the best people wanted to work for us and our clients knew we could and would deliver to the highest standards.

So, in making the distinction with CEOs and board, I like to use the analogy of ‘the voyage’:

The mission (or ‘the business we are in’) is essentially the purpose for setting out. Why are we going on this voyage in the first place? To find treasure perhaps or to discover a new land of opportunity. It is short, and to the point, articulated in just a few words. Usually defined by the founders of an organisation and remains unchanged.

The vision is essentially what we believe and hope, in our minds, the destination will look like. It is our aspirations and our ideals, defined with clear reference to broader opportunities and challenges of our current context. It should be compelling and relevant enough to people’s lives to enthuse and inspire them to come with us on the journey – providing enough detail to do so; like a postcard. Usually set by the board with input from a range of stakeholders, including the CEO and wider staff. Must be reinforced by tangible and publicly stated goals and measures of success.

The strategy is essentially the course on which our ship will sail towards the destination. That course will, in all likelihood, need to adapt as we encounter storms, currents and even pirates(!), but it will be charted in full and it will always be focused on the same destination that we aspire to reach. This is proposed by the CEO, and reviewed and, if they’re content with it, endorsed by the board. A strategic plan should be reviewed every year, and set out a plan for five years ahead. Again, reinforced by specific goals and measures that reinforce the vision.

A word on tactics: Tactics have their place. Sometimes opportunity knocks or necessity demands a quick step change. Those that use tactics well are nimble footed, but also very thoughtful and discerning in how they deploy them. A board and its CEO must always be able to justify – on balance – that using particular tactics is a way to reinforce and further the mission, vision, and values of an organisation. Very often, tactics – although appealing in the short-term – can have consequences that are to the detriment of the longer term vision and strategy.

In those organisations that lose sight of the business they are in (their purpose or why), there are too many distractions along that course; and they fail to keep an eye on the horizon. The shipmates who set out on the voyage with you – with purpose – will begin to mutiny if you become stuck in a harbour or port that offers short term shelter or opportunity, but nothing of the vision you initially believed in. You can end up spending too much money or time in harbours or channels that may offer you the world, but look very little like the place you had hoped to reach.

Those trusts and leaders that keep their eyes on the horizon, with clear mission and vision, will succeed in the long run and create a legacy to be proud of.

Reflective questions:

• How does your vision define the agenda of board and executive leadership meetings? Can agenda items and decisions each be justified against the mission and vision of the organisation?

• How often do you revisit your strategic plan with the board? Are you able to justify new initiatives based on the strategic plan?

• Do you ensure stability in your organisational goals and success criteria over time? Are these overly dominated by changing government KPIs, or do you seek to ensure these ‘top down’ KPIs fall within broader and bolder goals?

Find out more: Strategic Advice to Boards

Forum Strategy provides an ‘advisory and development’ service to trust boards. This involves attendance at up to three board meetings a year to provide a full briefing and facilitated discussion on key social, economic, political and educational trends facing our organisations. This enables boards to reflect upon and discuss the direction of their trusts – and contemplate opportunities and challenges that may await the organisation. This is delivered by our CEO, Michael Pain. Boards that engage this service will also receive an individual twelve months’ subscription to our briefing services for each of their trustees. This service is very limited due to high demand and time commitments.