After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The "Strategy of the Month" Problem

Some years ago, my (delightful) business partner was an advertising copywriter for one of the most significant retailers in the world.  The buzz among the copywriters, who buzzed pretty constantly, was that today’s company-wide advertising plan would be tomorrow’s former advertising plan, which just might re-appear as next year’s advertising plan du jour.  In other words, don’t throw out your work – it might come in handy somewhere down the line.

Today that retailer still exits but is struggling to determine/identify/develop/come upon/trip over a strategy that will allow it to re-energize its business and generate a profit.   As demonstrated anecdotally in the above paragraph, this struggle is not a new problem.  The problem was well established years ago.  I will call it the “Strategy of the Month” problem.  One only need follow the business pages to witness the periodic make-overs of this once dominant retail giant.

A cursory review of successful companies will quickly expose the presence of a consistent strategy that has been executed well over time.  A strategy is a realistic path toward the future determined by a management group or individual based upon the available resources and unique strengths of the business.  For a strategy to have any chance of success, it is imperative that it be shared with all employees, zealously integrated into every decision, and measured against predetermined interim goals.

Strategy is not something that is limited to the very top of the ownership/management pyramid.  It should be part of every manager’s operating credo.  A department manager’s strategy will be based upon the expected contribution from his/her department to the entity as a whole.  Every direct report must know the overall goal of the department and how his or her efforts or lack thereof impact the outcome.

Think of a college basketball team.  The goal is to win games by playing a balanced game based upon the talents present in the individual players.  In all probability, if I as a coach envision my 7-foot center pulling down rebounds and blocking shots, I really don’t want to see him lining up 3-point shots on a regular basis. (Notre Dame fans of a few years ago will know what I mean.)  It is the coach’s responsibility to continually educate that center to stay close to the bucket.  And it is the center’s job to try to execute the coach’s plan.  If either the teaching or the executing is absent, the strategy goes down in flames and the team is relegated to a March without the madness.

Success is guaranteed no company, but you will scarcely beat lottery ticket odds if you are a company operating without a strategy.  There are many books that detail the various permutations of the strategy concept.  Since this is not a book, I suggest the following steps as a frugal man’s start point.

1.     Develop a strategy for your area of responsibility whether it is a Fortune 500 company or the maintenance department for a manufacturing facility.

2.     Develop operational plans in detail as to how you are going to execute the strategy.

3.     Share the strategy with all employees.  Listen with big ears to the feedback from the employees as they will either execute your plans or your business.  Change the plan or the employees as necessary.

4.     Once the strategy is adopted and implemented, adjust the plan for reality.  No strategy can account for everything that will happen in your marketplace.  Adjustments for new data are very acceptable.  All such adjustments must be transmitted immediately to all the employees so they can make changes and more importantly, know that they are still on a defined course. 

5.     Manage to the plan every minute of every day.  Wide divergences from the plan will be noticed and will cause employees to lose direction very shortly.

6.     Measure everything that is important plus some items that may not be critical.  Without measurement, there is no accountability. 

While you can and should make adjustments to your strategic plan, be sure to give the strategy time to work.  A strategic plan with monthly re-writes is not a plan at all, but a worthless sheet of paper blowing in a windstorm.  Such a “Strategy of the Month” will result in disappointed investors and/or disengaged or confused employees. Neither of these bodes well for management.

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