Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Being Strategic


I read a lot of business and leadership books. I'll admit it...I'm addicted. I appreciate the varieties of perspectives out there "in the arena" about what I call the business of leaders. Unfortunately, I rarely commend many of them to my friends. Frankly, I find most of them to be only marginally useful, rarely based in reality, and downright dull.

I have an exception. Erika Andersen is a consultant, advisor to CEOs, and author/blogger. I first saw some of her thoughts on her blog, The Simplest Thing That Works. And now that I've read her book, Being Strategic, I know she has broken the mold on business books. This one's a keeper. Read my interview with Erika below. If you are intrigued about her approach to strategic leadership or want a superb book for yourself or some aspiring leader, order a copy. I guarantee you will not be disappointed! Here's my interview with Erika:

First of all Erika, I thought you did a terrific book with Being Strategic. You found a way to connect with real people and real leaders using a framework I can really appreciate. Great job! I know that the readers and followers of Leader Business will not regret picking up a copy of your book and learning from a great writer and strategic thinker. Here are a few questions.

1. Erika, you frame your book around a "Castle on the Hill" and the leadership of Llewellyn Fawr, Prince of North Wales. Why him and what can we learn from his leadership?

Llewellyn Fawr was an unusually strategic leader. At a time when other Welsh leaders were simply arguing over bits and pieces of land, worrying about their relatives and counting their cattle, Llewellyn envisioned a united North Wales. He was able to look clearly at what and who he was dealing with – his current reality of strong-minded and independent Welshmen, and what motivated them and didn’t, what they had and hoped for – and to see the possibility of bringing them together. Then he was able to craft strategies and execute tactics for making it happen. He died in his bed, still Prince of North Wales and in his mid-sixties…a good long life by medieval standards. It was an astonishing accomplishment, and unique in the history of Wales.

2. I love your definition of "Being Strategic." You're right. I could not come up with a better definition. Tell us about being strategic!

I think the most important thing I’ve learned over the years about being strategic is that it is primarily a learnable skill. I’ve noticed that people tend to talk about being strategic as though it’s an inborn – and unchangeable – thing, like having blue eyes, or being tall! But I’ve found that almost anyone can improve his or her ability to think and act strategically, if they understand and practice the mental models and the skills involved. That’s really the core reason I wrote the book; I wanted to share these skills with as many people as possible, in a format that would make them accessible, engaging, and reasonably easy to learn.

And why, you might ask, would I want people to be able to improve their ability to think and act strategically? Well, it goes back to Llewellyn – if you have professional and personal dreams, things you truly want to accomplish, I believe that being strategic will make it much more likely that you’ll achieve them.

3. The first step to Being Strategic is to "Define the Challenge." You write, "people often propose solutions to problems before they're clear on what the problem is." This is huge. So many times we jump right into problem solving and getting to what you call the tactics before we have framed the issue. What are key elements of this first step?

As I’ve noted in the book, the first step is to take the time to clarify what isn’t working – that is, what’s the problem or challenge you’re trying to address. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with people who sail right past this step and get themselves into seemingly inextricable knots. For instance, let’s say there are two adolescent brothers who want to go to a concert. The first kid is convinced the only problem is that their parents won’t want them to go, though he hasn’t said that out loud. The second kid doesn’t think that will be a problem; he’s just worried about getting there (though he hasn’t really said that out loud, either); they’re not old enough to drive, and none of their friends are going.

So imagine the conversation: brother A just talks about how to sweet-talk their parents, while brother B focuses solely on ideas for arranging transportation. That’s going to be a frustrating conversation, where each person’s focus is going to seem weird and nonsensical to the other. I call it ‘dueling solutions,’ and a more complex but equally frustrating version of it happens in boardrooms all over the world every day!

But once you’ve clearly defined what the true problem is, then you’re ready to start solving it. In the brothers-going-to-the-concert situation, both things might actually be problematic. So their challenge might be “How can we get our parents to let us go, and find a safe way to get there?” And if solving the problems posed in their “How can we…” question would feel like success to both of them – then they’ve defined their challenge, and can now start to try to address it.

4. You talk about "clarifying what is" by "pulling back the camera." I love this concept and know you use this term throughout the book. I call it "seeing yourself." Why is this important for being strategic? And why do we need to do this before we start formulating strategies?

I love this concept too, and it works for almost everyone because most people watch TV or movies. We all know what happens when you don’t “pull back a camera”: when a camera is pulled in really close to a shot, you only see whatever it’s focused on. For example, there might be a really close-in shot of a piece of paper with the word “no” written on it. Because the camera’s in so close, you don’t really know what that’s about – it could be referring to anything. You can speculate all you want, but you don’t really have enough context to understand what you’re seeing.

Then let’s say you pan the camera back a little, and you see there’s another piece of paper next to it that says “yes,” and that both are taped to pieces of wood. Hmmm, that’s a little more context, but still not enough to really make sense of what you’re seeing. So you pull the camera back even more, and now you can see that both papers are taped to piles of 2x4s; those in the “no” pile are warped; those in the “yes” pile are all straight. Ah-ha! Now it makes sense!

In the same way, when you’re trying to look at your current state relative to your challenge, and you really want to see it clearly, it’s essential to “pull the camera back” far enough to allow you to understand the critical elements IN CONTEXT. For example, let’s say your challenge is “How can I build a productive motivated team of employees?” You might think that someone on your team is a poor employee because she’s not fulfilling a part of her job responsibility. But then, when you ‘pull the camera back,’ you find that her previous boss never held her accountable for doing it and she doesn’t actually know it’s supposed to be part of her job! And when you pull the camera back a bit more, maybe you find out that the old boss was actually pretty unclear with everyone about what their jobs were. That new view would certainly lead you to deal differently with the situation: your strategies and tactics would change significantly!

5. Talk about "envisioning the hoped for future" as I know this is truly key to being a visionary, strategic leader. Can anyone get there or is this something we either have from birth or...don't have?

I think everyone can envision the future if it’s important to them. We do it all the time: lovers talk about what it will be like to be married; kids think about what it will be like when they get that new bike for Christmas; junior employees imagine how life would be different if they got a promotion.

The approach I outline takes that basic human capability to envision a different future and helps you to exercise it, strengthen it, and learn to direct it consciously. And, by employing that capacity to envision within the context of the whole process I recommend, you can make it really work for you.
That is, by grounding your “envisioning” in an accurate sense of the current state, you can ensure your hoped-for future is a “reasonable aspiration.” And by then considering the obstacles to your vision, and creating the strategic and tactical path to get there, you’re making it practically achievable.

Not everybody can be world-class at this – there are only a handful of truly great Nadal-and-Federer-level tennis players, for example…but almost everyone can learn to play fairly well if they practice. And many people can get really good!

6. Strategy, then tactics. What's the difference and can you talk about the concept of "FIT" to help ensure both are appropriate?

Strategies are “core directional efforts.” They’re the big paths you’re going to walk down to get to your vision. When I’m working with groups, I often say, “a strategy isn’t ‘I’m going to do this particular thing,’ it’s ‘I’m going to move in this direction.’ Tactics are then the specific things you do to move in that direction.

For instance, when my own company, Proteus, did our last vision and strategy session, one of our strategies was “Establish and sustain ways of operating that support our growth.” That’s not a particular thing you can run right out and do; it’s a statement of intention, of direction. It was us saying that we were going to focus time, energy and resources on improving our systems and processes…a necessary strategy for many growing businesses that have outpaced their infrastructure! Some tactics under that strategy were to document our current client processes; to identify gaps and ‘pinch points’; to find a resource for helping us upgrade our technology, etc. Specific, measurable things we could do to implement the strategy.

And FIT is just a great, simple screen for choosing both strategies and tactics: it stands for “feasible, impactful and timely.” And you use it by asking yourself, when you’re thinking about whether or not a strategy or tactic is right for you:
- “Can we actually do this? Do we have the skills, resources, bandwidth?” (feasibility) “
- “Will this move us farthest toward our objective with the least amount of effort? That is, does this give us the biggest ‘bang for the buck’? (impact)
- “Do we need to do this first? And is there a window of opportunity – that is, if we don’t do this now, might we be unable to do it later? (timeliness)

7. Finally, I would ask if this approach to being strategic is for individuals or for groups? Is it the same approach for both?
It is for both, and the core skills and mindset are exactly the same. The differences are all in application. That’s why I wrote the book the way I did, with the first half focusing on clarifying and teaching the approach itself, and the second half layering on the skills and understanding necessary to use the approach with a group.

And we teach and use it with both: we’ve taught hundreds of folks to use this skill in their own careers and lives, and we’ve worked with dozens of companies and teams to support them in working through this process to envision and achieve the future they want for their organization or their department.

And I hope the book enables many, many more people to do the same! Thanks for these great and thought-provoking questions, Tom.

Thank you, Erika. Your book is great. I know that "Being Strategic" will help anyone on the way to their "castle." I trust that you are on your way to yours! Being strategic is a key component of the growth of every leader. That makes it...Leader Business.


Erika Andersen said...


Thank you so much for all your kind words! I'm so happy you found the book valuable, and I'm honored that you've recommended it to your readers.

Very warmly,

Anonymous said...

OK Tom, I'm ordering this book. Great interview and great blog. I know it takes a lot of time on your part to prepare it, but whenever I have the chance I try to catch up on my reading of your blog and there is always a great nugget in each. Thanks for sharing! Crissy Cheney

Mark said...

I appreciate the labor you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

Tom Magness said...


Thank you for such a terrific book. Have a great summer! TM

Tom Magness said...


I know you won't be disappointed. Let me know what you think! Thanks for stopping by and I appreciate the feedback on the blog! TM

Tom Magness said...


Thanks for the feedback on the blog. And thanks for stopping by! TM