Success Begins with Metaphor.

Metaphor Helps Build Your Business and Career.

Posted Jan 01, 2015

The dictionary definition of vision is anticipating that which may come to be.  How important is vision to success?

Thomas Ng and his colleagues at the University of Georgia conducted a meta analysis of 140 research papers that examined the relationship between having career plans against objective measures of career success (total compensation and promotion) as well as subjective measures of expressed satisfaction with one’s career.  There was a significant positive correlation. (2005).

Plans begin with vision.  In this article we are provide a structure to help you articulate vision.  And that vision can be used to help you start/grow a business or achieve career success.

Vague/Meaningless versus Specific/Meaningless.

When our clients start careers, we sometimes hear visions like “I want to start a business and be rich” or “I want to make a meaningful impact to improve lives.”  At mid career, we sometimes hear, “I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing now,” “I want to work for people I respect,” or “I want to build something great in the clouds.”  Towards the end of full time career, we might hear, “I want to have fun, and do something meaningful.” 

Such visions are vague and meaningless since they can’t be measured.

Individuals are not the only ones attracted to vague and meaningless visions.  For example, here is the stated vision of Coca-Cola, Inc: “To refresh the world... To inspire moments of optimism and happiness...To create value and make a difference."   In the world of social entrepreneurship, one sees vague/meaningless visions: “End Hunger,” “Stop Global Warming,”etc.

Another approach is to be specific and meaningless.  For example, we spoke with an executive who is a Controller of a large company in New York City.  His vision is to move to Paris and become a CFO.  He will then return to New York City to become a CFO or a CEO.”  The aspiration is specific.  How realistic is it? 

We often hear CFOs and General Counsels tell us that they plan to serve on a number of public company boards.  Again, the aspiration is clear.  How realistic is it?

Company missions can also be specific and meaningless.  For example, Stryker Corporation is a public company with 25,000 employees.  Its vision statement is “to be the world’s most admired, fastest growing medical technology company.”  

Is your vision vague/meaningless or specific/meaningless?  Get feedback from 2-3 people whose opinions you trust. 

Find a Role Model and Re-Engineer.

A third way to create a vision was suggested to us by our colleague Dr. Curtis L. Odom: re-engineer your plans using a specific role model as a vision.  For example, one of our clients is three years away from mandatory retirement as managing partner of a large strategy consulting firm.   He hasn’t any idea what he would do after he leaves the firm but he does think it would be good for the firm if he was physically away from the building.  We urged him to stop using the word “retirement” because of that word had a negative association for him with endless golf and irrelevancy.  We suggested he structure conversations around developing a strategy for the next stage of his life.  And the best way to do this would be to find someone 0-5 years older who is living the life he would like to live in 1-3 years.  This involved a networking for information.  That was easy for him, given his business contacts.  And substituting “next stage” for “retirement” made the conversations easier for him.  Our client found two people who had lives that seemed to provide for him an ideal combination of fun/meaning.  And his vision came to be to teach one strategy course at a business school each semester as an Adjunct Professor plus get on the Boards of two small-cap public companies. Now he has Specific and Meaningful goals that can be measured.  And he has role models to follow since he knows colleagues who have achieved the vision.

Another example of re-engineering might be Nadine, a college junior.  She thinks she might enjoy being an attorney based on a course she took and the articles she reads in the newspapers about the Supreme Court.  But Nadine lacks real role models.  The junior year of college is a great time for Nadine to engage in networking for information with attorneys.  Find people 8-15 years older than she is today.  Ask them questions about their lives and their work.  If she finds one or two people whose professional lives might serve as role models, she has a specific and meaningful map for what steps need be done.

Where can Nadine find such role models?  Nadine can join and then join her college Alumni Group.  Go to the Members tab and do a search for attorneys within a reasonable commute of her dorm or her home. If Nadine cannot find one or two people who have a life today she might like to live in 5-8 years,  perhaps she ought to question her decision to go to law school.

Find Metaphors:

 In working with individuals we seek to help them begin a journey to find appropriate professional role models.  These role models become a metaphor for the type of professional the individual wishes to become in the future.   The dictionary definition of metaphor is resemblance or symbol. 

 Finding people or problems to represent metaphors is also a way we work with companies to help companies discover vision.  Using Curtis Odom’s framework, start with a person with a specific need.  This time work forwards.  What needs to be done to address that person’s problem or to address that specific need.  That person or that situation becomes a concrete metaphor for a larger, addressable market segment that can bring future revenue.

 For example, Monster, Inc. founder Jeff Taylor started with an unmet need.  Every Sunday the BOSTON GLOBE came out with its classified ad section.  People could examine job opportunities only once a week.  And companies wanted to find talent quicker than the once-a-week.  The Boston situation was only a metaphor for a problem that existed in every major market for talent in the United States.  Using the specific situation as a framework, he worked forward to ask, “What technology do we have to create/adapt to make an impact?”  Notice that technology was not the center of the vision.  The vision was rapidly and constantly connecting individual job seekers with employers.

 In their book THE LEAN ENTREPRENEUR, Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits (2013) discuss entrepreneur Scott Summit’s decision to create Bespoke Innovations, Inc.  Scott also began with a situation where he identified an unmet need:

 “I was always interested in prosthetic limbs.  For the past 20 years I was able to look at people with amputations and think, ‘I would love to do something about creating a better prosthetic leg.’ Don’t think of them just as a technology solution but think of the problem as a way to incorporate design and the arts and human emotion into the solution.  Regular prosthetics are an engineering solution and not a design solution.”

 Bespoke Innovations took this vision to use 3D printing to manufacture devices with an assortment of design options and fabrics.  In other words, the company began with a situational issue where there was a potential opportunity: create artificial limbs that might be attractive.  It then worked forwards to identify technology to accomplish this goal.  Notice that technology was not the center of the vision.  A  human problem was at the center of the vision. 

 The Story of Polaroid Corporation:

 The same story can be found in the creation of the Polaroid Camera, the first photographic equipment to take instant pictures.  Edwin H. Land was a brilliant inventor who was focused on using his product to reduce night time automobile accidents.  Automobile companies were not interested.  One day he and his little daughter were on vacation.  He took a photograph of her and she demanded to see the photograph.  Land patiently explained that it was impossible to see the image immediately.  He had to take the film it to a photo store for development.  But his daughter’s question haunted him.  Why could his daughter not see a photographic image instantly?  How many other customers might also want instant gratification from seeing their photographic images immediately?  Notice that the vision did not begin with technology.  It began with a little girl’s question.  His daughter then became a metaphor for consumers who might wish to see their photos instantly.

 Polaroid’s success began with a powerful metaphor.

 Polaroid’s undoing as a company began as Land and other Polaroid leaders forgot the metaphor of the little girl.  It had created a world class corporate culture focusing around hiring brilliant scientists who could develop remarkable photographic products using chemistry.  Over time, the metaphor of the little girl was replaced by a bureaucratic culture based on the importance of image R&D based on chemistry. Polaroid initially did not regard electronic imaging as having sufficient quality to be a competitive threat.   But that little girl didn’t care about chemistry.  And she didn’t care about quality.  She cared about immediate gratification.  Polaroid defined its vision as chemical research versus instant image gratification. 

 The result: a great company went bankrupt.   

 This is a different industry but the vision issue is the same.  Sharon has talent for French cooking.  She opens a restaurant in a blue collar community because she can afford the monthly rent.   She organizes her corporate vision around her technology: French cooking.  Her vision is to bring great French cooking to the community.  Notice that the center of her vision is the art and science of French cooking. 

 She does not have a concrete model that suggests this community is hungry for French food.  She assumes they will develop a passion once her restaurant opens and they try her cooking.

 Of course her business failed.  Sharon’s vision was specific and meaningful to her but meaningless to her addressable market.  It did not begin with solving community unmet needs.  She did not find a metaphor.  It began and ended with her passion and her expertise. 

 Technology is But a Servant:

 For individuals, the lesson is to find role models living the life you would aspire to have in 5-10 years.  Once you have found them, work backwards.  What needs to be done to achieve that life? 

 We recommend doing this exercise three times in a career:  prior to career launch, preferably in the junior year of college, at age 35-40, and five years before ending a full-time career.

 Your vision of your future self will change. 

 For those seeking to be entrepreneurs, including social entrepreneurs, avoid vague and meaningless visions.  Avoid focusing on visions that begin with technology as the center of that vision.  Be technologically neutral since technology changes so rapidly. 

 Like Polaroid, Monster, and Bespoke Innovations, focus on stuations or people where there is an opportunity to improve the existing way things are done.  People and situations should be a metaphor of a larger, addressable market.  Technology is but a servant of the vision.

 Always keep the metaphor front and center of your actions.

 In the prologue to his novel SLAPSTICK, author Kurt Vonnegut (2010) spoke about the importance of producing work focusing on one person as a metaphor for the market: “(My sister) was the person I had always written for.  She was the secret of whatever artistic unity I had ever achieved.  She was the secret of my technique.  Any creation which has any wholeness and harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind.”


Cooper, B., & Vlaskovits, P. (2013). The Lean Entrepreneur: How Visionaries Create Products, Innovate with New Ventures, and Disrupt Markets. John Wiley & Sons. P. 21.

Ng, T. W., Eby, L. T., Sorensen, K. L., & Feldman, D. C. (2005). Predictors of objective and subjective career success: A meta‐analysis. Personnel Psychology, 58(2), 367-408.

Vonnegut, K. (2010). Slapstick or Lonesome no more: a novel. Random House, LLC. p. 15.