I spent yesterday afternoon coaching the CEO of a medical research institute in Boston. Tom is an affable, good-natured man. The institute he heads is a worldwide leader in brain research.
I had recently worked with the institute’s Board of Directors. They complained that the vision of the institute was “muddy.” They wanted more prominence given to clinical treatment rather than basic science. The board’s role was to raise money. “We can’t raise money if we don’t know the vision,” they told me.
Tom had heard the Board’s complaints. “I always seem to have the same argument with the Board,” he confided. “I don’t know if I’m not communicating well or what.”
I asked him if his leadership team was aligned around a shared vision for the institute. “Probably not,” he said. “They are each leaders in their scientific fields, and they collaborate on specific projects. But we don’t meet regularly as a group.”
I asked him to describe his vision. “We’ve assembled the most talented group of scientists and clinicians in our field in the world. We have the leading people, we have the right processes and scientific approaches, and we have the leading facility. Any breakthroughs in our field are going to occur here. But we have to keep growing if we’re going to maintain our leadership.”
I looked at him. “That’s a powerful vision,” I said. “Yet I’ve never heard you articulate it to the Board.”
“I feel I need to listen to the Board,” Tom said.
I reminded him of the derivation of the word “leader.” It comes from an Old English root word which means “to be out in front.”
“Like a scout,” Tom said.
“Yes,” I said. “The same root word also means to die.”
“That makes sense,” he smiled. “The scout would be the first to get shot.”
Leaders can’t wait for others to articulate the vision, I told him. The leader has to ante up first. You’ve got to tell your leadership team and your Board your vision, and then let them respond. Some will take shots at it. But that will help you sharpen the vision and make it stronger.
“What if someone else has a stronger vision?” he asked. “I fear that another leader could emerge.”
“That’s a small risk,” I said. “The greater danger is that the institute will lose its focus if you don’t galvanize it with vision.”
He looked at me. “Okay,” he said. “Where do we begin?”
I sketched out a process. “Start with three facilitated meetings with your leadership team to hone the vision and related priorities. That would give you a plan to take back to the Board.”
“That sounds good,” Tom said. “Thanks for coaching me on this!”
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