This colorful phrase came from a CEO. I don’t know if he invented it or borrowed it from someone else. I worked with this new CEO to create new strategies for several of the large businesses in his portfolio. This CEO had been promoted up from one of the business units and had little experience with the other larger business units. These businesses were in the down part of the cycle, which created a challenging period for his company. Our challenge was to learn as much as we could, as quickly as possible to support the business unit executives in dramatically improving their businesses. We spent endless hours in strategic review sessions as well as a lot of time on the airplane moving between locations. Often at the end of a grueling day of leadership team development and business review, we would pile onto the plane to reflect on the day. It was at this time the assessment “not a strategic bone in the body” could be used when describing the management team.
It’s wasn’t that these executives were not intelligent – they were. Nor was it that they didn’t know their businesses – they did. Unfortunately though, all they knew was the operational side of the business. For quite some time there had been a lack of organizational accountability for strategic thinking. Consequently, these executives did not recognize that operations and strategy were different. They were “out of balance”, in that they were strong on operations and weak on strategy. The lack of balance between operations and strategy was an issue for the previous CEO, which was part of the reason my client was hired to replace him. This body was in definite need of leadership team development, particularly in the area of strategic thinking.
These executives could go into great detail with operational data. They knew their “facts and figures”. What they were missing was strategic thinking about what the data indicated, as well as the strategic factors that were influencing the data. They knew that the level of housing starts in the US was lower and that was affecting their business. Little thought had been given, however, to what was causing the slowdown in housing starts and how these reasons might affect future market levels. Instead, there was the assumption that the market for their products would come back and they would be ready when it did. In fact, they had invented a term to describe their positioning: “Profit Ready”. Unfortunately, “Profit Ready” was based on assumptions that the market would come back just as it was before the downturn. It also provided excuses for not thinking strategically about changes that could be made, as well as risks that could be mitigated.
As a consultant working with this executive team, one of the challenges I faced was assuring we did not fall into scapegoating these various executives. While it was frustrating to sit in sessions with these highly-compensated executives and observe their limitation as strategic thinkers, I kept reminding myself and our team that these executives were the product of the organizational culture.
Our task was to create a breakthrough design for rapidly developing executives into business strategists. We began by communicating the need for strategic thinking and assisting the executives who were willing to develop as quickly as possible. Learning to becoming a strategist while in an executive role is a major challenge, akin to learning to downhill ski or play golf as an adult. While observing children learning those sports is thrilling, the same cannot be said of watching adults do the same.
Teaching an executive to be a strategist requires the following actions:
- Stop the charade. At first some of the executives were in denial and would push back. This pushback was usually in hopes that the new CEO would back off. The CEO, however, was direct and forceful about ending the pretense. For some of the executives, the road ended here. They were unable or unwilling to acknowledge the situation, and made no further development.
- Acknowledge difference between operations and strategies. Both are important, just different. The executives could delegate most of the operational focus to others in the organization, and focus on strategic thinking. The pivotal first step was recognizing the distinction between the two.
- Acknowledge difference between leaders and managers. Again, both are important, just different. The executives were highly trained as managers, and were good at it. While the term leadership was used widely in these businesses, there was little understanding of what it is. These businesses were classic examples of what John Kotter calls “Over-managed and Under-led.”
- Value the attributes and behaviors of strategic thinking. The culture needed to be transformed. The important strategic behaviors of inquiry, continuing to question rather than moving to a conclusion, and allowing ambiguity to persist are the opposite of desired behaviors in an operational context. Attitudes and behaviors which are rewarded in the strategic arena are likely punished in operational areas.
- Encourage thinking about the future rather than the past. Effective strategies deal with the future and do not assume the future is a continuation of the past. These executives had assumed their forecasting based on past performance was strategic thinking. That is flawed thinking.
- Stop relying on ‘knowing’ as the future is not known. Since the future has not happened, it cannot be known. This is quite frustrating to managers with engineering and technical backgrounds. Their training and skill set comes from facts and knowing. Yet facts and knowing are rooted in the past. Overuse of facts and knowing inadvertently pulls the mind back into the past, and seriously limits the capacity to think strategically.
- Enable freedom to fail. Thinking strategically involves creativity, innovation, and experimentation. Excessive concern about “looking good” and getting the right answer is very constraining. Failure is a valuable source of learning and knowledge. Attempting to avoid failure or hiding it when it happens is detrimental to thinking strategically.
- Instill courage to step out and try something new. Like dancing and singing, thinking strategically can be exhilarating once the person gets over the initial concerns and timidity. In dancing, sometimes the best thing to do is get out on the floor and let go of being self-conscious.
Most of us were born without strategic bones in our bodies. We learn through great effort and over time through trial and effort. Strategic thinking is a must for organizations today who are dealing with ever increasing complexity and challenges. Organizations must also attend to developing capability for thinking strategically, and not confuse excellence in management with leadership and strategic thinking.
How is the level of strategic thinking in your organization? What are you doing to increase it? Where have you inadvertently delegated it to someone else with hope they would do it for you? What actions can you take right away to change that. Answers to these questions and more can be found in our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.
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