How New CEOs Move Organizations Forward: Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs)

Every new CEO has a Mount Everest in front of them. Whether brought in to overcome some crisis, or to help transition the company into a new era, there is a strong need for goals and guidance to keep the organization moving forward with positive momentum. It’s rare, if ever easy, and comes with hidden challenges, setbacks and slow progress. And sometimes, organizations need something more than a vision; they need a bold, unifying goal. They need a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG.

If you really want to put a stake in the ground and stimulate progress, consider developing a BHAG. This strategic business statement was developed in the late 90’s by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies). A BHAG looks a lot like a vision statement but is intended to narrow the focus down to one single idea. It’s a mid to long-term goal (think 10-20 years) that should be simple, yet unnerving.

The Ingredients for a Good BHAG

One of the most classic examples Collins and Porras use to demonstrate BHAGs is NASA and the Kennedy administration in the 1960s. The goal: to put man on the moon, and return him home safely. The goal could have been to improve the space program but instead, it set the bar so high that it made people uncomfortable and many believed it was just too outrageous. Why does this example fit the definition of a BHAG? Let’s take a look:

BIG: When President Kennedy stated that within 10 years, the United States of America would land a man on the moon, people reacted with shock and disbelief. Reactions like surprise and doubt are signs that your vision is big enough.

Hairy: President Kennedy did not come from the space program. He could not achieve this goal alone; it would take time and many people with many talents to achieve the goal. Needing help and support from others is sure sign for aligning teams and organizations.

Audacious: When the goal was verbalized, the solution didn’t exist. The challenge loomed ahead without a straight path to success. Your vision is only audacious enough when you have no idea how you’re going to get there.

Goal: Like a vision, your BHAG should fit within the 10-15 year range for achievement. If it can be met any sooner than that, you probably need to go revisit the first three checkpoints in this exercise.

Stepping in as a new CEO, setting a BHAG as a way to hit the reset button for an organization could very well be the wisest choice. A BHAG can allow leaders to put energy behind an organization’s internal culture, which leads to better performance at the day-to-day level. A more easily attainable goal could seem like an easier path to take but it’s also more likely to make reaching the finish line incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

New CEOs Must Be Passionate About, But Careful With Their BHAG

Before shouting your shiny new BHAG from the rooftops, take a step back and consider the environment. The truth is one of the core challenges facing a new CEO and vision depends on what happened in the past. A new CEO might be walking into an environment where leadership hasn’t changed much over time and the company has been on the same path for years, if not decades. Adding to the complication is their history with the company. Are they brought in from the outside or have they been molded over time to assume the position? On the flip side, a new CEO could be coming into an environment filled with turmoil. A lost vision and direction. A crashing internal culture needing to be reimagined and brought back to life? The reasons and background matters. But it all comes back to vision.

The best next step is to introduce your BHAG to other members of leadership. Explain it to them. Show passion and energy toward how it will make the organization better, from people to profits. Gauge reactions, invite discussion, and create momentum for moving your vision forward. The best BHAGs are questionable, but not impossible.

Keep It Simple, Compelling, and Focused

There’s a fine line between vision and BHAG. Often a vision statement includes two or even three full, detailed sentences about what it is the organization is trying to achieve. However, a BHAG is often edited down to just a few words. A few very intentional words. Narrowing the focus is vital in that it is more memorable, more impactful, and easier to measure.

Collins and Porras outlined four categories of BHAGs, including: Target-Oriented, Competitive or “common enemy”, Role Model, and Internal Transformation. Ultimately, your BHAG could range from financially driven to transforming the industry you’re in. Here’s a closer look at some former and current BHAGs:

Become the most profitable five-and-dime in Arkansas (set in the early 1960s)
Become a $125 billion company by 2000. (set in 1990)

Boeing Corporation:
Become the dominant player in commercial aircraft. (set in 1950)
Triple it’s service revenue to $50 billion within 10 years (set in 2017)

Ford Motor Co:
Democratizing the automobile (created in 1909)

A computer on every desk and in every home (created in late 1970s)

Although each of the examples range in the time period they were created, each is easy to understand and is measurable. Most of all, it should be worded in a way that resonates with those inside the company who will be tasked with helping you achieve this outrageous goal.

Gut Check Your BHAG Against Your Company’s Values and Purpose

There’s dreaming big and then there’s transporting yourself to another planet. When Daake guides organizations through a rebrand, we spend a fair amount of time talking about and through their values and purpose. These are what drive decisions and behaviors. They should not be taken lightly, and they must always be reflected on when crafting a vision, mission or BHAG. Failing to do so can kill any opportunity you have to reach your goals. Think about it: you implement a BHAG and expect your entire team to get excited and feel motivated to help the company get there… but the actions and attitudes they need to bring to the table don’t align with the overall purpose of the organization. Not only does this cause confusion. It can make it impossible for people to believe in, and follow, their new CEO.

Collins and Porras encourage companies to develop BHAGs that have a 50-70 percent chance at succeeding. Choosing a BHAG with a 100 percent chance at success is likely not audacious enough and one that has only a 10 percent chance might be too outlandish. How do you gauge percentages? Consider what could happen if all levels of the organization were engaged, challenged to make improvements geared toward that goal. Consider what training is needed, what creative thinking is needed, and what tools might be needed. The ease or difficulty in attaining these elements can help leaders determine their level of risk. Perhaps the biggest factor is how close or far away your BHAG is from your core purpose. If you cannot find a way to draw a line from purpose to goal, then you’ve likely gone too far.

Over-Communication Leads to BHAG Success

It’s not uncommon for leaders to express at some point during a rebrand that ideas are welcomed from every member of their team. Phrases like, “they know my door is always open” or “everyone brings ideas to the table here” are frequent and always followed by our team asking them how do employees know? Better yet, how do you make them believe it?

The reality is that most CEOs have great intentions for building strong communications with their internal teams. Yet, their internal teams don’t necessarily feel the same way. Like any other piece of information, a CEO needs to make a conscious effort to express the company’s BHAG often. They need to live it and demonstrate excitement for it. Consider signage, unique training, small celebrations, or other tactics designed to remind, engage, and hold team member accountable.

Before launching your BHAG into the universe, take the time to fill in the blanks, defining why your idea is BIG, HAIRY, AUDACIOUS and in the form of a GOAL. This should clarify whether or not you have the makings for true transformation. Ultimately, truly visionary organizations continue to evolve and develop bold, forward-focused goals. This is the only sure way to maintain internal team spirit and meaningful growth.

About Daake

We are brand design experts who deliver transformative ideas to the nation’s marketing professionals and CEOs as they seek guidance, clarity and excitement for their brand.

We would love to hear more about what you have in mind for your next project. Call Greg Daake at 402.933.1094.

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