Borrow the Tactic the San Francisco 49ers Used to Go from Laughingstock to Super Bowl Contender

January 31, 2020

Photo of San Francisco 49er players celebrating a touchdown

The San Francisco 49ers, a laughingstock of the National Football League just three years ago, will take the field on Sunday for Super Bowl LIV (54, for those rusty on Roman numerals). The Niners clearly have a winning playbook, filled with wily offensive schemes and staunch defensive stratagems.

But they also have a broader strategic plan that has been pivotal to their success. When general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were brought on board in 2017 to right a severely listing ship, John employed a lesson he’d learned in a class at Stanford. It’s a lesson that can help any team, whether that team is playing football or scouring the world for talent:

A well-crafted vision statement can rally team members and help shape your most critical decisions.

John asked Burke Robinson, his Stanford instructor, to help him and Kyle formulate a vision statement for the 2017 NFL draft. That particular statement worked so well, it became the guiding vision for everything the team did.

Here’s the statement that the 49ers have used as their North Star for the last three years:

“Our nucleus of dedicated players will re-establish The 49er Way and lead our organization back to the top of the NFL. These players will represent our core values and beliefs in both their talent and spirit.”

The 49ers vision statement has become so important that the organization has posted it on its walls and John keeps a copy under a glass cover on his desk.

Having and sharing a clear organizational vision doesn’t just make U.S. football teams better, it will make your company and your talent acquisition team more successful. Your company’s well-articulated vision is a huge selling point for prospective employees. 

According to LinkedIn data, job candidates say that a company’s mission and vision is even more useful to hear from interviewers than salary and benefit information. And other research found that 64.7% of job seekers said that not knowing or disagreeing with a company’s mission, values, or purpose is a deal-breaker for them when looking for a future employer. 

A compelling vision statement crafted by your recruiting team will attract other talented recruiters and give you a leg up on the competition. (An early Nike vision statement was just two words: “Crush Adidas.”)

What a vision statement is and why it’s important

So, what is a vision statement and how is it different than a mission statement?

In broad strokes, a vision statement addresses the what of an organization, often alluding to a future state, while a mission statement addresses the how and deals with the present state. In practice, however, the two are often hard to tell apart, as each can be shaped by the organization’s view of its purpose and can blend present and future views.

LinkedIn’s vision — “create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce” — is our what. LinkedIn’s mission — “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful” — provides the how.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner believes having a vision statement — defining your what — is imperative to creating a successful business. Jeff has cited LinkedIn’s list of the Top Companies to back his point. “These are organizations that have very clearly defined what they are about,” Jeff says, which “unites people around a shared purpose.”

Let’s look at how the 49er’s vision statement helped them unite around a shared purpose and how any organization can craft an overarching vision that will both crystallize your purpose and inspire your colleagues.

1. A vision statement should bristle with ambition

The 49ers’ vision, at first glance, is surprisingly prosaic and lacks the compressed lyricism of statements for TED (“Spread ideas”) or Patagonia (“We’re in business to save our home planet”).

When John and Kyle wrote their vision statement, the 49ers were coming off a disastrous 2-14 season and their team was low on talent, confidence, and cohesion. So, getting “back to the top of the NFL” — reaching the Super Bowl, as they did two weeks ago with a punishing 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers — was truly audacious. So was the way they proposed doing it, by restoring “The 49er Way.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, San Francisco played in five Super Bowls and won each of them. Their West Coast offense reshaped offenses — and defenses — around the league. Their organization, at nearly every level, was considered the model for how a team should operate. That was The 49er Way.

What’s your team’s big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)? To build a workforce as diverse as your customer base? To corner the market on blockchain talent? First Recruitment Group, a staffing and recruiting firm in the United Kingdom, boldly aims to “change the perception of recruitment by devoting ourselves to the happiness of our clients, candidates, and staff.” Even more ambitiously, LinkedIn’s talent acquisition team aspires to “design, build, and share best-on-planet recruiting.”

Whatever your BHAG is, make sure it’s at the heart of your vision statement. 

2. A vision statement should serve as a compass with which you can navigate critical or difficult decisions

The second half of the 49ers vision statement proclaims that the team’s players “will represent our core values and beliefs in both their talent and spirit.” The last two words — “and spirit” — have been crucial. They wanted players, said The New York Times, “whose moral fiber and work ethic matched their talent.” And they have jettisoned players who did not fulfill that, no matter how high they had been drafted or how big their contract was.

Burke said that the pair developed a short list of bullet points that detail what they meant by spirit — “contagious competitiveness,” for example, and “mental toughness” and a willingness to “protect the team.”

That willingness to protect the team by putting it first has defined the 49ers this year. For example, in San Francisco’s 27-10 playoff win over Minnesota, starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was benched in the first quarter. Rather than sulk, he immediately sought out the special teams coach to volunteer for duty on the punt and kickoff return teams.

If your team’s vision statement, say, commits you to recruiting a workforce as diverse as your customer base, that has clear implications for everything from the makeup of your own department to how you interview candidates.

3. A vision statement should be clear and focused

Clarity starts with language. While your aspiration may be abstract, your word choices should be concrete and specific — “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (Facebook). Remember that the loftiest of ideas can be captured with the simplest of words: Shakespeare’s most memorable line —“To be or not to be” — is a string of two- and three-letter words. At the heart of the 49ers vision is the plainly stated ambition to get “back to the top of the NFL.”

But clarity will also arise with focus, by zeroing in on the single unifying purpose that can serve as a lodestar for everyone on your team. Don’t let your vision statement become a hash of potentially competing priorities.

The 49er vision statement has one goal: for the team to get back to the top. And, voilà, that’s right where they find themselves today.

The 49ers, of course, are a business as well as a sports franchise. But their vision statement doesn’t talk about revenue or profitability or merchandise sales. A good vision statement includes a what that is bigger than simply improving the bottom line.

So, Disney aims “to make people happy”; Ikea, “to create a better everyday life for the many people”; and Heinz, “to be the world’s premier food company, offering nutritious, superior tasting foods to people everywhere.”

The hardest part of writing is often facing a blank page. Your team can get started by capturing resonant words and phrases and your boldest aspirations. And then vigorously pare and prune until your fundamental purpose, clear and unmistakable, leaps off the page — and onto your organization’s walls.

Fifth quarter: Create a vision statement that will inspire your team and drive your decision-making

John Lynch took Burke Robinson’s course in the summer of 2014, more than two decades after leaving the Stanford campus to pursue a career as a safety in the NFL. With that enormously successful career having come to an end, John returned to school to finish his degree. The course he enrolled in was called “Introduction to Decision-Making.”

Writing a vision statement is not a poetry contest. It’s more of an exercise in building a compass and creating a tool that will, steadily and reliably, point to your true north, inspire your team, and frame all of your most important decision-making.

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*Photo by Thearon W. Henderson (Getty Images)