Vision quest

In order to set a vision, Mike Porter has to understand the business and the people he is leading.

“Not only from a historical perspective and what they’ve gone through but also where is this business trying to go and where’s the company trying to go,” says Porter, who oversees more than 500 employees as a regional general manager of Microsoft Corp.’s central region. “Then, you have to take into account the culture, the people — the appetite for change if you will.”

Smart Business spoke with Porter about how to create a vision and get buy-in for it.

Q. What’s the most important step in business?

Being able to set that vision, I’ve found, is the most important thing. It allows you to, stealing a (Steven) Covey term, ‘begin with the end in mind.’ Then you have to have that courage, conviction, that confidence piece. … In my experience, that’s what allows you to put that vision, that stake in the ground out there because visions aren’t necessarily contracts that say you are assured that all are going to come true.

So you have to have some darn confidence as a leader in what you are doing so you can set the vision and get all the people, the entire organization to go with you in that direction. Because you are really only as good as your people and their ability to understand what you are trying to do. That’s a tough, tough set of different things to go through as a leader in this day and age given the disbursement of people and how many different moving parts there are.

Q. How do you get people to buy in to the vision?

Researching, getting insights, testing ideas, sharing my theories, and openly and honestly asking for feedback. Let’s say it’s a turnaround, versus a sustained success type of business. The difference is in a turnaround, I’m probably going to take a move to start making those changes much quicker than if it is a sustained success. In a sustained success, I’m going to spend a little more time getting more and more people’s input and sharing out my ideas and pieces ahead of time before formally saying this is a vision. Because in a sustained success, I’m going to make sure that by the time I set the vision most people can regurgitate it, if you will, as it comes out. They’re already in. They feel like they are part of it.

In a turnaround, I just need the top performers to confirm what I think I see because the appetite for change is usually so high in a turnaround anyway, that the key is getting the communication, the vision out there quickly because people want to follow something. If it’s a turnaround, they typically feel like they’ve been following a dead end if you will.

Q. What are the keys to getting honest feedback?

When you come in or when you are running a business already and whether it’s starting a business or being there already, the key is just to inspect the business. It goes back to creating a vision. As you inspect, you likely are going to find information, whether it’s looking though the numbers or business intelligence. (That) is something that our customers at Microsoft are asking us for and that’s what we use a lot. Show me the numbers, show me the scorecard, show me the things that are going on, and then, in turn, what that should show you is it should show you some trend data that says, ‘OK, I see some trends that I need to go and investigate more,’ and maybe that leads to the communication … and then test that with the people you know that you can trust. They’re the honesty, they’re the historian-type folks that have been there for a long time.

They are going to give it to you straight and then you test that in a small group. Then after you are able to get close to confirming that your suspicions or your assumptions were correct in certain areas, then what I do is I go out and ask for feedback. But you have to ask for something specific, and you have to give them a safety place to go with their feedback.

For instance, you could, as a leader, say, ‘Do you think we need to be better at selling?’ And, of course, everyone would probably say, ‘Oh yeah.’ But they wouldn’t give you much to go on. But if you were to say, ‘Do you think we need to be selling to customers that we’ve had as customers for a long time that maybe have plateaued or they look like they’ve plateaued with us, and do you have any examples where you’ve seen that work or not work?’

Because then that is a safety net. You’ve given them enough where they know whatever they tell you, it’s going to be in line with what you are thinking about. Then based on the way that you react to their feedback, they’ll give you more is what I’ve found. You have to be open to feedback and to ideas and to sharing that out again. When I have those conversations and I get good feedback, I’m very quick to pull them in and show them how I took the notes or send that back out or give them access to where I’m storing all my thinking and data and try to be transparent with it.