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American Public Human Services Association
American Public Human Services Association
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Management of Focus


Creating a vision is the most fundamental piece of leadership work. A vision serves to fix the attention and focus of the organization and is a public statement about what the agency is committed to do and for what it should be held accountable. It should be unequivocal and worthy of the significant energy, time and creativity required. It can be thought of as a touchstone that the organization can return to again and again to focus its work, set its expectations and priorities, design its programs and practices and engage its stakeholders and partners. It is seen as authentic and dynamic and staff can explain it and how their work supports it.


Assessing the Current Vision

Leaders should assess the extent to which the organization is currently guided by a strong vision. A number of key processes and practices can provide a basic “read” on the focus of the organization. How are budget priorities aligned, if at all, with the current vision? Does staff, particularly senior staff, refer to the vision in its deliberations and decision-making? Are negotiations, contracts and agreements based on a commonly shared vision? Are there multiple and/or competing visions operating in different situations and programs? Does the communication plan specifically address and reinforce the vision in various venues, situations and materials? Is the agency’s vision for public child welfare in sync with the visions of other critical stakeholders such as the legislature, governor or the umbrella agency CEO? Is the focus more on system issues (e.g., rules, working conditions) than children, youth and family outcomes? Are staff feeling overwhelmed with no sense they are making headway?


Creating a Vision

Current Visions
Leaders who create a powerful agency vision do so mindful of previous or current visions operating in their agencies. Staff have strong beliefs and assumptions, often subconscious, which guide how they perform; that is, they are working from their own vision or sense of purpose. There may be a vision for the umbrella organization that public child welfare must “nest under.” Key stakeholders and partners may have visions, explicit and implicit. Legislative intent behind authorizing legislation often provides a rationale that includes critical context not to be ignored. Governors often state their visions through policies, priorities or directives on watershed events. Visions or expectations may be stated through audits, oversight committees or legislative panels and in Consent Decrees.

Powerful Vision
If the public child welfare agency does not already have a compelling vision that is driving strategy and decision-making, the director must create or weave or reframe other visions into a compelling statement. The following markers provide a basis to test a vision for strength and resiliency.

A compelling vision:
  • Has a story behind it. It answers why the vision matters and what it means for the organization. Leaders must be able to draw examples from their background and experience to put the vision in day-to-day terms.
  • Must be stated directly and simply; it should not take paragraphs to get the idea across.
  • Is future oriented: it represents a stretch for the organization that may be worked in phases and over time.
  • Recognizes the realities of the operating environment; it is seen as in the realm of the possible.
  • Speaks to the heart and head; not a catchy phrase, but a statement staff are proud to be associated with. 
  • Evokes action, energy and robustness.
  • Unifies the agency; all programs, functions, systems can bridge from it or “nest under it” and link how their work supports the vision.
  • Holds up through crisis, iterations and changing priorities

Vignette: A director of a local human services agency found little sympathy for the struggles of vulnerable children and families within his jurisdiction. The general attitude of the county commissioners was “out of sight, out of mind.” They did not want to recognize or discuss the issue of poverty. They did, however, have a strong commitment to economic development in their community and knew that a community with homeless people did not show well to prospective businesses. The director was successful in getting their attention and an increasing share of the budget when he stopped talking about poverty and instead talked about a vision of “building strong communities”.

Examples of strong visions:
  • Every Child Deserves a Home
  • Children and Families: Safe and Sound
  • Strong Families: Strong Communities

Embedding the Vision

Complex organizations have many and varied opportunities to become unfocused and lose sight of the vision. The reasons range from having too many priorities, to staff unwillingness or inability to change directions, lack of alignment of critical systems and strategies, to pressing day-to-day demands of children, youth and families and staff. Listed below are common tools for embedding the vision that can prevent loss of focus or mitigate its effects. Guidance for a number of these tools is provided in other domains.

  • A strong, executable strategic plan starts with the vision and makes it “actionable” through goals, outcomes, initiatives and work plans.
  • Consistent and frequent communication, in all venues, reinforces the vision and its importance.
  • Performance management systems link performance to the vision and reward investment in the vision and challenge decisions and behaviors which do not.
  • Budget reflects a clear link between the vision and where money and other resources are allocated.
  • Rigorous monitoring and quality improvement systems identify whether and to what extent programs intended to support the vision are, in fact, doing so and doing so to maximum effectiveness.
  • Administrative functions (e.g., HR) support internal customers who in turn support children, youth and families in line with the vision.

Vignette: A new director established a vision that “Every Child Deserves a Home.” The state had 28% of children in custody in residential placements at that time. The views of youth and birth families had been routinely ignored, but as part of a systemic change, their views were taken into account in family team meetings. The resulting change was an 80% reduction in the use of residential care in five years along with a doubling of the use of kinship providers. The director ensured that every county in the state had data showing the outcomes for the children in their jurisdiction. The vision was so clear and compelling that residential care providers could not convince the legislature, judiciary, or the governor to change the approach and again use residential care for a substantial number of children.


James Beougher, Director of the Office of Child and Family Services at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, shares his experience with crafting the right vision and how it was instrumental in policy change that supported positive outcomes.