Think about the task facing new Uber Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dara Khosrowshahi. He is working to overhaul a toxic corporate culture, while dealing with regulators literally across the globe. His public statement seems to indicate he has the right vision for changing the company’s culture but the work has only begun. I thought about his struggle in the context a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) who might be trying to make a slightly less dramatic cultural change in their organization when I read “What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision and How to Get it Rightby Dan Ciampa in the Fall 2017 Issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Ciampa’s primary thesis is that “Many executives don’t understand how to craft a compelling vision for change that will gain widespread commitment within their organizations. Leaders should start by asking themselves: What will people see, hear, and feel once the changes have been achieved?” The reason is that success in such an endeavor requires more than simply the right set of capital and technology, it also requires a company to “adopt new behaviors and ways of thinking.” You need to paint a mental picture of what success in this new vision will look like going forward.

One of the key starting points is that many leaders confuse vision with a corporate mission. If your corporate vision merely repeats what is already in the strategy, it will do nothing “to emotionally engage the people who are being asked to implement it.” Your visions should begin with “a vivid, credible image of an ideal future state. The clearer a CEO is about what people should do differently to achieve new, challenging objectives, the greater his or her chances of achieving the changes necessary for success. New behavior doesn’t come from missions, however aspirational, but from deep, emotional commitment to doing things differently.”

As a CCO, there are generally two accepted techniques for persuading employees to do business ethically and in compliance with anti-corruption laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The first is to explain the situation logically and move forward on that path. The second is to explain the “burning platform” of what will happen to the company without changing. The former expects all employees to respond like lawyers and the latter only works as long as the risk is imminent. Neither approach engages employees, further the “most influential managers must agree on a shared, common picture of behaviors, systems, and processes needed to make the new strategy successful — in other words, a picture of the way the organization will operate when at its best.” The question is how to do so and the author posits five principles to clarifying your vision. 

Find your own unique way

What is your vision, tailored to your company, reflecting your own words, deeds and personality? There is a reason any compliance program begins with a risk assessment; it is because you must assess your organization’s risk and tailor a compliance program to manage those risks. The same is true when implementing a new way of doing business at an organization. Ciampa cited to one journalist who wrote his vision was how he communicated best. Another CEO drew out a skit and hired actors to portray the roles. Both worked as they were authentic to the leaders. He ended with the admonition, “For this reason, when the task of communicating a vision is delegated to a marketing department or PR organization, the only outcomes are a sterile statement and lost credibility for the leader.”

Appeal to emotions often and vividly

Your vision must be not only clear but appeal to employees’ emotions with something more than simply an appeal to the bottom line. That can motivate but it cannot emotionally do so to the extent you need to make a fundamental change. Ciampa noted “The best vision is vivid enough that people understand how the organization would operate and how problems that currently frustrate them would be solved. As the vision is put forward often and in various forums, a picture takes shape in the minds of followers of a place in which they can envision themselves being more satisfied. The result is that they personalize the vision, tailor it to their own needs, and, as they experiment with new behavior, become more comfortable with it.” 

Describe changes that can be imagined

Here Ciampa cautions that a leader must walk a fine line because “While the vision must honestly communicate a different reality, its descriptions should not be so radically different from employees’ current concept of the organization that they are not able to imagine what the organization will look and feel like once the vision is achieved.” It is often hard to get employees to give up old ways and you may have to make your vision into incremental steps.

Describe valued behavior, not values

If the change in values seems too daunting, considering a vision which changes valued behavior, as such a change can lead to the desired results. You may have some current practices which meet this goal so you can point to them going forward. This can lead to other articulated visions for employees which they can not only grasp but embrace. Your vision should “describe the behavior that in the optimal culture will be valued because it will lead to the right results.”

Be firm and flexible

While the leader’s vision should be followed, if he or she is not clear on certain aspects, senior management can provide input if requested. The “best vision will come from a disciplined, iterative approach that enables the leader to control how the picture is crafted, while also ensuring that others who need to be aligned feel some ownership.” Yet as discussions progress, every “refined version of the vision will sit atop the one that precedes it, like tiles on a well-built roof that overlap for strength.” This leads to a common vision and one the rest of the organization will see as describing the same sort of future state. This in turn will make it more straight-forward to get the critical mass of employees to commit to the hard work of change.

Following these steps as a leader, whether a CEO or CCO, you can not only put forward your vision but garner greater acceptance and buy-in from the troops. By doing so, all are invested in achieving the goal going forward and consider what they must do differently.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017