6 Ways to Nurture CEOs’ Visionary Thinking

Every CEO wants to be a visionary; it’s practically in the job description, and it’s one of the most reliable indicators of effective business leadership. But they don’t have to rely only on visions, dreams and flashes of insight to provide a picture of the future they can use to forge missions and cast strategies.

There are practical ways to become that “anticipatory leader” who can “see sooner and scan wider” and create visions of where his or her company might go and what it should become. Some of them are outlined in research by Paul Schoemaker and Steven Krupp as described in Rotman School of Management’s magazine.

“Some companies are good at reinvesting in employees, but it’s about helping them become better employees.”

Citing proven visionaries, including Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, Schoemaker and Krupp assert that “the best strategic leaders anticipate where their business is headed and see change before others do.” But they aren’t using Jedi mind tricks to do so. “These leaders excel at ‘outside-in’ thinking that hones their ability to anticipate well. They know customers intimately, foresee competitors’ moves, and understand changing market dynamics.”

Want to be that kind of visionary leader? Krupp, a senior managing partner at Decision Strategies International, and Schoemaker, founder and executive chairman of the firm and research director at the Mack Institute of Innovation Management at the Wharton School, suggest a handful of ways to take a practical approach to this challenge.

  1. Stand in your customer’s shoes. Understanding where your customers are headed is key for being a visionary business leader. Look beyond your core business to understand your customer’s full range of choices, as well as the ecosystem of suppliers, partners and end users. Understand why they chose you over a competitor so you can continually exceed their expectations.
  1. Be your own customer. Put yourself in the role of the customer and walk through every touch point, to see what they see. Are there gaps in the relationship? Can some touch points be shortened or made easier? In addition, have mystery shoppers do this on a regular basis to continually monitor the path to conversion and report back to you and your team, to see how it can be improved for both the company and customer.
  1.  Ask their opinion. Meeting regularly with a customer advisory group, or even participating in customer focus groups can promote innovation, trust, co-creation of mutually beneficial solutions, and opportunities to understand and anticipate future needs. General Electric, for example, invites its top customers to growth markets such as China and to seminars on leadership and innovation.
  1. Spot weak signals at the periphery. Attempt to gain early detection of developments that could potentially interrupt or disrupt your business so you can take them into account as early as possible. Introducing “randomness” into your life can be one way to do this. Iconic and visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, for instance, used to pick up a magazine at random from a kiosk when he traveled and force himself to read the entire publication during his trip so that he kept in touch with parts of the world he otherwise knew nothing about, the authors said.
  1. Leverage social networks for a wide-angle view. Tap your organization’s networks more fully, ranging from industry and business associates even to small groups of non-competing companies. Be more deliberate about mining strategic networks such as LinkedIn.
  1. Use scenarios to widen your aperture. Use scenario planning to “better determine whether you have sufficient flexibility to succeed in each possible future,” the authors wrote. This also will help CEOs “scan wider and detect signals that foreshadow change or disruption.” Also use this process to understand “not just the deeper trends at work, but the key uncertainties whose outcomes can materially affect your industry in the years ahead.”

Of course, some business visionaries are simply born, not bred. But as the authors point out, CEOs and company leaders also can acquire a huge quotient of far-sighted thinking by following a deliberate strategy to do so.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events