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CEOs, do you have a vision?

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By Anh Nguyen, Frederic Arnoux

· 6 min read

Being a good business leader can mean a lot of different things. If we search for a definition of a “good business leader” on Google, there are more than 740 million search results. Among all the noises of latest studies and surveys, we believe there is only one quality that sets apart a great business leader and executive from the good ones: do they have a vision or not?

Let us not confuse vision with business strategies and strategic planning. All Chief Executives have a business strategy and roadmaps to help realise them. But strategies and roadmaps are not visions. They are short and mid-term plans (from 5 to 15 years) to reach a specific goal.

For example, Estée Lauder designs new product lines that align with their stated commitments of reducing plastic packaging, celebrating different skin colours and complexions, or sourcing from more inclusive purchasing programs. These strategies look promising to their clients and investors. Yet, one cannot deny that they are born out of necessity to answer to upcoming regulations and laws and the emerging demands from clients and potential clients. One way or another, a company like Estée Lauder or any other cosmetic company will have to prepare themselves for these roadmaps. As necessary as they are, these strategies are not business visions.

A proper business vision, on the other hand, surpasses current constraints and conditions. It aims at creating a lasting organisation whose presence contributes to the betterment of societies and the environment in which it operates. To examine whether you have a business vision, here’s a set of simple questions:

  1. How will your business be perceived in the next 25 years? 50 years? 100 years?
  1. What cause and legacy will your company and you help contribute in the next 100 years?
  1. If your company disappears tomorrow, how could that affect humanity in the next 100 years?

If you don’t have an answer to any of these questions, you don’t have a vision yet, and it might be time to build one.

What is a vision?

As you can guess from the questions above, two essential elements make up a business vision that can create a long-lasting company. First, it is a set of things, causes and legacies that inspire you as a business leader. These are your aspirations, things that drive you and make you wake up in the morning. Second, they are also a part of a cause and a collective endeavour for the greater good. This way, your vision can inspire others to onboard with you - your clients, your employees and talents, your investors etc.

Figure 1: A Ven Diagram showing the intersection to build a business vision for a long-lasting company: personal aspirations and a cause for the greater good.

The second element is frequently underestimated, yet it is precisely the aspect that ensures that your vision and your company will last in the next generations of employees, clients and investors, even if it is no longer you who leads the way. Patagonia and its purpose of having Earth as its only shareholder have been praised worldwide in September 2022. Debates on the retail nature of the business and its environmental impacts aside, this vision will inspire many clients, talents and investors and help secure the company’s position as one of the industry’s leaders for many years to come.

The original vision of Steve Jobs for Apple was “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind", which has inspired generations of designers, engineers and developers, as it involves a legacy that is larger than the life of the company itself. Since Jobs passed away in 2011, the vision has turned towards “To bring the best user experience to its customers through its innovative hardware, software, and services”. This new vision is no longer attached to a greater good but focuses solely on its customers and offers. Only time can answer the effect of this change, yet one thing is for sure, the new vision is much more short-term, matter-of-factly, and hence, less desirable.

How to build a vision?

The building process of a vision can happen differently from person to person, yet can be jotted down into two main steps:

Step 1 - Expansion: search for new horizons

To design a long-term and inspiring vision, you must search for inspiration from areas far from your current scope of operation. Staying within the studies and analysis of your industry will limit your imagination and hence only give you short-term, matter-of-factly ideas. Instead, the question at this stage is, “what are the topics and subjects that drive me, and are parts of the most existential questions of our society?”. To get inspired, you are encouraged to search for different materials such as philosophy, science fiction, and essays on virtually no limitation of topics.

Once you judge that the exploration’s results are satisfactory, the next step is to distil what you have learnt into two areas - your aspirations and the cause for the greater good and find the junction between these two elements to draw up your vision.

This exploration might continuously last for several months or days in a focused and intentional manner, depending on your personal preferences. For those who have zero time to search for inspiration due to their hectic schedule, it is compulsory to decide to “stop” the time and create a time-space of a few hours or days in which you can entirely focus on finding inspiration.

Step 2 - Execution: prepare the foundations for your vision

Once the vision has been defined, the next step is to prepare the foundations to make it a reality. The question to ask now is, “what are the capabilities of my company and myself that can help make this vision a reality?”. As the question suggested, you are expected to define a) the strategic and differentiating capabilities of you and your company to execute this vision - what “superpowers” do you and your company have, compared to the rest of the industry, that are instrumental in concretising this vision? and b) the strategic and vital resources needed, such as talents, investments, a different skillset etc., that would help accelerate the execution of your vision.

For example, the purpose of LEGO is “'to inspire and to develop the builders of tomorrow”. Despite a world in which most kids are now playing video games, the 90-year-old Danish continues the simplicity of their products’ components as plastic building bricks while hiring the best designers to create curious and daring themes and imaginaries and launching new collections every year. This way, the “small giant” continues to enjoy extreme loyalty from generations of customers and increasing revenues (27% annual growth in 2021). They have earned a place in shaping the minds of future builders.


A recent study by McKinsey showed that the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies dropped to less than 18 years in 2016, compared to 61 years in 1958. It is forecasted that “75% of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 will have disappeared” in 2027, either because of buy-outs, M&A or bankruptcy.

Businesses of our times are undoubtedly designed to be short-lived, answering demands constrained by current conditions and then disappearing. As a business leader, one can continue down this path and be contented with this setup. Or, they can decide to change the course: becoming an organisation, an entity, an enterprise that lasts and helps solve the most crucial puzzles of our societies. This decision to change identity - from a fleeing entity to a long-lasting, responsible and desirable one, would be the first step in creating a legacy worth praising and remembering for generations to come.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Anh Nguyen is co-founder of StimShift (Stim). Having a background in innovation management studies, she writes and consults on breakthrough innovations and the environmental shift. Her personal research focuses on less-waste alternatives for production and consumption. 

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Frederic Arnoux is a co-founder of Stim, a spin-off of Mines ParisTech, which supports companies in terms of innovation strategy. He holds a Ph.D. in management science from the Ecole des Mines ParisTech and is the author of several books and scientific articles on disruptive innovation.

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