I can’t count the number of times a CEO has told us some variation of “I want our upcoming anniversary focused on our future!”

We’ve even heard metric directives such as “when you’re thinking about this anniversary, I want you thinking how we balance it 40 percent on the past and 60 percent on the future.”

If you read our thought leadership on company anniversary planning, you will see that we believe anniversaries should be forward-looking. But the truth is, talking confidently about the future is challenging. There is the old adage that nothing looks older faster than the future, and our clients are not ones to boldly predict or project exactly what the future looks like. Sometimes they even have legal, regulatory or proprietary guidelines preventing them from doing so. Or as the late Austrian-born management consultant Peter Drucker colorfully put it, “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”

Hugo Gernsback wearing his TV Glasses in 1963 Life magazine shoot.

Hugo Gernsback wearing his futuristic TV Glasses in a 1963 Life magazine shoot.

So, if you have the mandate that your anniversary needs to be “focused on the future,” what exactly do you do?

Those of you who work closely with CEOs know that when they say something, you have to decipher whether what they are saying is literal or directional. How many times have you seen that poor soul walking out of the CEO’s office befuddled because he or she did exactly what the CEO said only to discover that was not, in fact, what was envisioned?

My experience is that a CEO is not literally saying make this anniversary campaign focused X percent on the past, Y percent on the present and Z percent on the future. A CEO is actually saying: “Make sure that we use this milestone to not only look back, but also project forward. I’m a little worried about us sending the message that we’re beating our own chests and resting on our laurels.”

The trick to talking about the future is to be aspirational. That’s why we developed Start with the Future and Work Back.™ An anniversary becomes the platform to tell stories from your corporate heritage that demonstrate how you have continually been able to create the future.

Allow me to tell you about the time when I was that poor soul walking out of the CEO’s office because what I had heard was not, in fact, what the man meant. We were working for a technology organization that does all kinds of amazing stuff with nanotechnology. One of the elements of the project was an exhibit in Washington aimed at policymakers. I gave our team the directive to be focused on the future and sparing with the past. “This is a cutting-edge organization creating the future!” I emphasized. We put together our concept, made the initial presentation to the satisfaction of our day-to-day contact and then went in to amaze the CEO. However, he was not amazed. “Why aren’t there more stories and artifacts from our history of innovation?” he asked. “You guys are The History Factory. I expected you to nail that part.” I was befuddled — and getting glares from our creative team.

After the meeting, I apologized to the CEO for not correctly interpreting his vision. “You don’t get it,” he said. “When you see the evolution of these products over the last 50 years — and the rate of change in the last 10 years alone — you imagine what the future can look like.”

His words echoed the words of other CEOs I’ve spoken with over the years. They all want to capture and tell their organizations’ stories to instill pride in their corporate heritage and confidence in their future. No one can predict the future, but the impact of your company anniversary—and meeting your leader’s expectations—hinges on how well you connect this milestone to the future.

As Drucker wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Don’t tell people what the future is. Help them imagine what the future can be by showing them how far you have already come.