Driving Our Way Out of the Fog: Building Organizational Clarity FOREVER! (Part 1)

Note: I served the City of SeaTac for nearly four years and helped guide the development of the clarity map in this success story. I have since left the organization but give two thumbs up to my former colleagues who are employing this approach today to keep the city out of the ditch!

Slamming on the brakes: The price of unclear direction in an organization

Communications Considerations:


What if my personal goals are different than my work goals?
Should the goals be prioritized so we know which one to follow if they conflict?
How will we actually use these values?
Are the goals meant to be what we already follow or are they aspirational?

Building Organizational ClarityDriving in thick fog is dangerous. You slow down and white knuckle your way through it. All you can do is hope it clears soon. Working for an organization in a directional fog with obscure goals is just as unnerving. It creates fear—and everyone slows down. But in this case, the driver can do something about it by creating a high-level clarity map.

SeaTac’s story: Teenaged city learns to drive

In late 2012, many of us at the City of SeaTac, Washington, were feeling the debilitating effects of operating in a virtual fog. The city of just under 30,000 residents incorporated in 1990. That’s arguably a teenager for a city. That level of municipal maturity brought with it the triple angst of community growth, shifting expectations and an uncertain future for our 11 departments. Commitment was weak because many felt that the direction would just shift randomly. It frustrated some and left others indifferent.

At this point in the City’s evolution, our Leadership Team began strategically focusing on the development of more clarity at every level. The goal? Improve both employee engagement and team performance. The Leadership Team created four key elements to help navigate its way out of the pea soup: 1) vision, 2) mission, 3) values and 4) goals.

Communications Considerations:


Isn’t this vision too far away to mean anything today?

What if you already have a department vision?

Why does it matter if everyone feels connected to a vision since it’s the work of management to set the vision?

Will the vision ever change?

#1 Values: The fog line that keeps you motoring down the road

As frightening as thick fog is, it doesn’t have to stop you from moving. Values are the organizational fog line, helping keep it on the road when no other directional information exists. Therefore, the City of SeaTac focused first on choosing our top organizational values.

The team used the Values Cards from The Leadership Challenge (provided by Integris Performance Advisors) to create a short list of values. Next, we helped lead conversations throughout the organization to revise our top four picks and create shared understanding.

The feedback on the exercise was very positive. Staff saw that they really could have an impact on the organization’s direction at the highest level. This level of engagement was unheard of in the past.

Next, managers brainstormed how to bake the values into decisions. In the meantime, staff began wrapping their heads around how to employ the values when they found themselves in one of those gray areas. They began looking to the values to keep the organization in the lane of travel.

#2 Vision: The tropical destination at the end of a long drive

The City of SeaTac team next began discussing its vision to answer that all-important question: Where are we headed?

The SeaTac City Council had recently refreshed its vision. The City of SeaTac administration opted to adopt that vision as a key element of our clarity map. However, no staff had participated in development of the vision. Although a wonderful “dream,” as some called it, the vision was just words on paper. A sense of connection was needed to create a stronger sense of commitment.

Our Leadership Team quickly designed a process to ask employees to come to informal workshops to post words, paste photos or draw on butcher paper showing how they felt they helped achieve that vision in their individual work. A sketch artist then melded those submissions into one shared image of the vision for posting around the organization.

The City of SeaTac brought the vision to life through employee words and pictures.

The City of SeaTac

In the end, although the City of SeaTac staff members did not create the vision, we had developed commitment to it. It was our new destination and we were all heading there together.

Please read part two of this story, in which the City of SeaTac picks a route and sets mile markers and we end up in a very small hotel bed with John Candy.

For each step, I’ve included questions we fielded at the City of SeaTac to aid as you plan your communications.


Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.