x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Tommy Weir: effective leaders need to grasp what strategy means

For some reason, whenever the word strategy is used, it is coupled with the word “plan”. There is a misconceived view that strategy is about planning.

Having the privilege of working with several different companies – last year there were 37 across several sectors – and with thousands of leaders, I am repeatedly asked: “Do you see any common themes in your work?”

Well, I do and the first is that everyone thinks they are unique. Even though there are recurring themes and businesses are more similar than dissimilar, each wants to believe they are really unique from everyone else and that their challenges are exclusive to them. But they are not.

Here is one of, if not, the most common request that I hear – how can you help my leaders be more strategic?

This is a great question and before we dive into the answer, let’s examine what created the need for this recurring request.

Many companies have grown very rapidly and the people who occupied the leadership roles when the company was smaller still hold that role today. The difference is the scope is bigger, the complexity is greater and the strategic need is heightened. What is required of the leader has changed, but the leader has not. As an example, consider the director of operations and member of the executive committee who was with his company when it had a turnover of US$135 million. He still occupies this role even though the company is 10 times as big with a turnover of $1.3 billion.

The other common scenario is to hire executive leaders for their technical ability or industry experience, but not necessarily for their leadership prowess. An owner of one of the largest family businesses recently admitted to this when he shared: “I hire for their industry experience, but have to let them go because they cannot lead.”

In each of these examples, the core issue is being prepared to lead at a senior level, which means to have a strategic orientation.

This often overused and misunderstood term is the starting point of helping your leaders to be strategic. They have to know what is meant by “be less operational and more strategic”. This also raises another commonality – understanding what strategic leaders do.

Before we do that, let’s take a big step back and address what strategy actually means.

For some reason, whenever the word strategy is used, it is coupled with the word “plan”. There is a misconceived view that strategy is about planning. When leaders go off on the annual strategy workshop, the desire is to create a plan. But this misses the essence of strategy.

Strategy is not about the planning, albeit a plan will be necessary to deliver on the strategy. But before leaders dive into the planning, they actually need to have a strategy – they need to choose where to “play” and how to “win”. That is the essence of strategy, making a choice about what you will be doing in the future and by default making choices about what you will not be doing. Strategy is what you will focus on.

Then you come to the planning. The slippery slope, or shall we say subtle shift, from strategy to planning often comes because of a leaders’ comfort at the operational level, which is heavily embedded in planning and coming up with a list of initiatives they will carry out in pursuit of the goal.

Whereas the strategic level is placing bets on what the future will be like, deciding what to do then shortening the odds.

Ideally, we would like every leader to be able to parse financial statements, have knowledge of basic psychology and even international economics. But then we would be describing the “Superman” of leaders.

Instead, let’s get to the crux of strategic leadership, which is understanding the conceptual side of the business. Leaders need to be able to synthesise knowledge, be capable of abstract thought, able to determine what does and does not constitute evidence, able to collect evidence and rigorously analyse it, and be able to select a course of action based on evidence. That is what strategic leaders do.

The commonality is clear: senior leaders need to shift from an operational focus to be able to lead the business strategically.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings, and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center