I’d have to call it the case of the accidental vision statement.
I was writing a speech for the CEO. He had already announced and undertaken a series of environmental initiatives for the company, but he was still dissatisfied. He had a restless, always-turned-on kind of mind, and he was reaching for something, even if he wasn’t quite sure what it might be. He also had CEOs in competitive companies, looking to do what he was thinking about doing.
He accepted a speech to be given in Washington. The audience would be environmental group leaders, corporate CEOs, government people, and reporters who covered environmental issues. He would be the luncheon speaker. The CEO of the biggest company in the industry was the dinner speaker. The dinner speech was more prestigious. How could we change all of that?
Speechwriters are often paid well, but they are never paid enough.
I worked for two months on that speech. It became almost an obsession – his and mine. A way to frame the discussion gradually emerged. I was finding examples of employees doing some really interesting things, across all the major business lines. A manufacturing plant was helping to restore a wildlife habitat. An employee in Texas singlehandedly undertook prairie restoration of 50 acres of unused land owned by the company. Some cool things were happening in research.
As I looked at the examples of employee activities, a thought occurred. What if these weren’t just one-off projects? What if they were examples or harbingers or prototypes of what could happen more broadly?
The speech was taking shape. It almost seemed like it was writing itself.
Except for the ending. I was having a lot of trouble with the ending. It needed to be solid, but it needed to be rhetorically lifting and inspiring. It needed to have a memorable idea or theme of something to make every member in the audience remember it. Or at least to keep it in mind so that it compared favorably to whatever speech would be given at dinner.
I look at the seven examples of employee effort, and I realized that each stood for a kind of action based on taking responsibility. And the word that came to mind was “pledge.” I used poetic language in the speech’s conclusion, all framed with the word “pledge.”
A pledge. The CEO would be explaining the company’s pledge, not as something that would happen in the future, but something that had already started to happen.
The CEO changed a bit of the speech, but he left the conclusion alone, as I originally wrote it.
I sat in the audience that day. And I listened and I watched. And when the CEO finished speaking, people stood and actually cheered.
The reaction inside the company was even more remarkable. Employees sent letters. People stopped the CEO in the cafeteria. Everyone wanted a copy of the speech. Almost overnight, that rhetorical conclusion to the speech became official company environmental policy.
It was an accidental vision statement, but it was a golden moment.
From Poetry at Work: “A vision statement, whether personal or organizational, is aspirational. It doesn’t have to be true at this moment, or completely true. But it must contain at least the germ of truth so as to be believable and credible, especially to the individual or organization creating it. And, like poetry, the reader or listener nods and says, ‘Yes, this is who we are…this is who we should be.’”