The Corner Diner in a Storm

Tales from Irene

Posted Aug 30, 2011

I frequently talk about the need to articulate a "vision." You need to have a clear vision (with 3 to 5 key priorities) to build a great business or non-profit. The vision is an aspiration - the impact you want to make on your customers and the world. It is the guide around which you align your organization. It informs all key decisions.

Among the examples of "vision" in my book is the diner around the corner from my apartment in NYC. It has dependable, affordable, friendly, quality food at a reasonable price. Yes, that's a vision. It makes a positive impact on me, its other customers and the neighborhood. I look forward to going there whenever I am in NYC. It is a calm, friendly, familiar place in a sometimes chaotic world.

I was in NYC during Hurricane Irene. Almost every commercial establishment in the neighborhood was closed - for good reason! I happened to go outside for a walk on Sunday morning. As I walked around the corner, to my amazement, I saw that the diner was open! I of course walked in and had breakfast.

I asked the staff why they were open. Wasn't it crazy to work in this storm? No, they said - they knew they were going to open a week ago. They stayed in a nearby hotel so they could open Sunday morning. Why? Because that is what they do - they stay open for their customers - no matter what. Dependable -- that's part of their vision. Wow.

I was loyal before. Now, I will be beyond loyal. I'm tapping this out as I sit at my table. This type of devotion deserves my loyalty. A clear vision - "we are reliable" - we are here to serve customers when they need us!

What else is there to say? Great businesses - large and small - are built around a vision and key priorities. Key organizational decisions are aligned with this aspiration. When the vision is clear, under stress, these businesses know exactly what they're supposed to do.

Have you articulated a clear vision? Do you articulate this vision before, after and during a "storm"? A vision with key priorities will help guide you and your employees regarding what you should do in - good times and bad - even if you're the corner diner.

Robert Steven Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm. He is the author of "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror", a book published by Harvard Business Press (August 2011).

About the Author

Robert Steven Kaplan is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, former vice chairman of The Goldman Sachs Group and co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation.

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