The alarm clock goes off and, like most adults, your first thought is “coffee.” Unlike most adults, you’re not just thinking of the beverage you hope to be consuming in a few minutes. You’re also thinking about green coffee. You’re thinking about the green coffee in your roastery and how it will all puzzle together into filling that day’s orders for roasted coffee. You’re thinking about the green coffee that is on its way to your roastery. Is it on the road, in the warehouse, or on the water, and when … when will it arrive? You’re thinking about the green coffee you haven’t yet purchased and how much it will cost today, next week, next month.
If you’re in the business of roasting coffee, no matter how big your company is, whether you play many roles or (theoretically) just a few roles, your day begins and ends thinking about coffee and the in-between is filled with verbs. Call. Decide. Answer. Order. Roast. Pack. Deliver. Supervise. Pay. Fix. Lift. Stack. Ship. Taste. From the moment you wake, you can feel all the verbs in your day, like gravity, pulling you toward them. Even on the rare occasion you have a few quiet moments with your morning coffee, they are moments spent quietly resisting the pull of all the things you have to do today.
Among all the critical verbs in your day, the most important are those we often give the least thought. Lead. Plan. Also, those two words are actually just one word.
If you’re reading this, there is a very good chance you have a leadership role in your company, whether you like it or not. And if you don’t like that idea, it probably means your business leadership is improvised. You might prefer the word “instinctual,” which is fine when it’s just you, the coffee, a roaster, and some craft bags. But as soon as there is another person involved in your business and you are no longer the only one to experience the impact of your “verbs,” you owe it to them and to yourself to be more purposeful in your leadership and planning.
One simple way to experience the feeling of being overwhelmed is to go to a large books store, mosey on over to the business section, and look for books on leadership. If the book store is large enough, leadership books might even have their own set of shelves. Thousands of books have been written about business leadership containing almost as many theories. There is a whole genre of books that claim to teach you how to lead like someone else, from historical characters (Sun Tzu) to fictional talking stuffed bears (Winnie The Pooh). Depending on who you ask, there are 10 principles, seven principles, five principles of leadership, some apparently immutable and others, one assumes then, mercurial. If you like, there are books that can help you determine your leadership “style.”
There are so many authors and speakers and consultants and coaches willing to help you when it comes to leadership, it seems unhelpful.
As your business and the number of people depending on you grows, you should seek out whatever resources make sense for you in terms of growing as a leader. But until the day comes when you decide to visit that book store shelf, there are some very fundamental ideas that can help you now, not matter what size your business. And generally speaking, all those thousands of business leadership books (with a few eccentric exceptions), can be distilled down to some basic principles. In the realm of planning and execution, it is critical to understand vision, strategy, and tactics.
Vision, strategy, and tactics are basic elements of business leadership and planning that, in and of themselves, have been written about ad nauseam (along with hundreds of potential component parts, some of which we are going to sneak in on you later), but even a basic understanding can have a significant impact on your ability to execute more effectively and get everyone’s verbs moving in the same direction more often than not.
A note on nomenclature. There is an endless supply of opinions about what words to use for these things, either in place of vision, strategy and tactics, or usually, in addition to them, such as mission, goals, milestones, objectives, actions, projects. Ultimately, the words you use (and the number of component parts) are not as important as everyone in your operation agreeing on what the words you use mean.
Even if your company has not written down a vision, or strategies, or tactics (or their synonyms), these things already exist in some organic, if incomplete and incoherent, fashion inside the culture of your company (a.k.a. vibe or principles or philosophy or way of doing things), where you or someone installed them, perhaps without knowing it. Often, they need only be extracted from the area of your brain that could be called “the fog of doing business,” refined and formalized to live in the real world where others can view them too, and measure their own contribution against them.
Vision (with some Mission on the side)
Without it, the people may not actually parish but they will eventually fail to make enough profit to grow a business. In the beginning, your vision is exactly that. When you imagined what it would be like to have a roasting business, what did you imagine? As the business gets started you will continually make course corrections because things are veering away from what you wanted or intended. On some level, you have a vision for what you want your business to be and it informs decisions you make every day.
When it comes time to share your vision with others in your company so that they can use it in the same way, you need to put words to what may have been only images in your head up to that point. For some people, the words may come easy, others may struggle. Some small company owners like to articulate vision on their own, other like to collect their team and work on it together, or even have an objective outsider help facilitate. There is no right or wrong for how the vision is put on paper, but there are some things to keep in mind, however you choose to get there.
While the length of a vision statement is somewhat arbitrary, it is best to keep it to a paragraph and a few sentences, at most, something close to the realm of remembering if not memorizing. Leaders who go away on a retreat and come back with a three page vision have invariably produced a document that includes outcomes, measures, strategic and tactical details, things more people should be involved in developing.
It is helpful to write your vision in present tense (“we are” vs. “we will”). Remember, vision is meant to inspire and challenge, to paint in just a few sentences a picture of what success will look like for your company. There are many ideas on the difference between vision and mission, some of them contradictory, but perhaps the easiest is, mission is marching orders and vision is why we march.
An example of a short coffee roaster’s vision could be:
“People come for the coffee but stay for the relationships. We are known throughout the quad-state region for the quality of our service just as much as the quality of our coffee.”
The accompanying mission might then be:
“We hire the very best people to buy, roast, and sell the very best coffee in the world to the businesses and people of the quad-state region.”
(Note, there is no rule that says your vision and/or mission should include geography or some other “playing field;” however, there is a lot to be said for focus, achieve, refocus.)
Strategy (with some Goals on the side)
It’s just as easy to confuse strategy and tactics as it is vision and mission. Strategies are the indicators that you are achieving, or on your way to achieving, your vision. They should be outcome focused and measurable. Using our vision and mission statement above, if 90% of your wholesale accounts are inside city limits, one of your strategies could be to expand the number of wholesale accounts you have north of the city by 10% before the end of the year. You know what the outcome is, how to measure success, and if the strategy works as an indicator you remain true to your vision.
If you like the idea of adding components to your planning as a leader, your strategy can break down further into goals. In this example, opening more accounts outside city limits would be the strategy, and the percentage increase by a certain date would be the goal. You might have different goals for different geographical regions outside city limits based on demographics, but they all serve the same strategy. Your goal might be only a 10% increase north of the city, but 20% south of the city where there are more retail businesses.
Tactics (with some Actions on the side)
With tactics we are getting into the nuts and bolts. Unlike everything you’ve done in your leadership planning above, tactics include things you actually do in real life and not just things you want to achieve. For our strategy of increasing the number of accounts outside the city limits, and our goal of a 10% increase north of the city, an obvious tactic might be to make more sales calls. And again, if you want to take it further, an action associated with that tactic might be to create/obtain a current list of businesses that serve coffee north of the city limits. Another action would be to attend the next chamber of commerce meeting for the city just to the north. Another action might be to review new business licenses issued for just north of the city. These are all actions that will help you execute the tactic of making more sales calls north of the city as part of your strategy to increase the number of accounts outside city limits and grow close to becoming the company you envision.
If you want to get really crazy, you can call the actions projects and then break each project down into several actions and actions into tasks. Look up enough synonyms and you can break down your leadership planning into tiny pieces that are part of a giant planning tree, and some people do. They have a detailed understanding of how all the pieces must fall into place for the plan to be perfectly executed. Unfortunately, they spend so much time planning, they don’t have time to execute.
All plans fall apart on the battlefield, as they say, so for most leaders and most businesses it is best to paint in broad strokes, like vision, strategy, and tactics. As you grow, if you want to add additional components to your planning, a little mission here, a few goals there, and a dash of action, that’s okay. When the people in your business can remember most of the big ideas without having to look them up, your leadership planning will remain alive for them and relevant to their everyday tasks.
Remember, even the most amazing business leaders are rarely killing it at all three (or six) things at once, and when they do, it only happens in short bursts. As a leader, your business planning should be a living thing. Be reluctant to revise your vision too readily, but never write your strategies and tactics in stone. Sometimes it is your verbs that need to change to adapt to everyone else. And when some plans fail when face-to-face with reality, remember that General Eisenhower always believed the real value of a plan was in the planning.