5 Steps to Build a Strategy

The corporate role is not to see over the horizon but rather to imagine what one might find there, and begin preparations accordingly. This frees the crew to focus its full attention on the shoals and treasures that are already in view. ~Michael E. Raynor

Strategy is an organizational hot potato. I see the ownership of organizational “strategy” being tossed from the CEO to senior leaders, to managers, to board members, and so the cycle continues. It doesn’t matter if the organization is for-profit or not-for-profit; the challenge of “strategy” seems to perplex all sectors.

I believe part of this challenge is coming to a shared understanding as to what is strategy. There are many definitions (one source indicated a Google search for strategy resulted in 85 million definitions). Sue Barrett, a sales consultant from Australia, researched many definitions and concluded that this definition encapsulates the similarities she found.

Being strategic means ensuring the organization’s core competence is consistently focusing on those directional choices that will best move the organization toward its new future, with the least risk and in the most orderly fashion. [Note, she didn’t say no risk.]

The strategy comes from the leader(s) as Michael E. Raynor described: “not to see over the horizon but rather to imagine what one might find there, and begin preparations accordingly.” Or as Sue Barrett said, “focusing on directional choices…” That may be easier said than done. Barrett provides 5 steps to help map out what a strategy might look like.

  1. Decide what challenge(s) you’re solving: Once there is a clear sense of the challenges being addressed, they can start being addressed.
  2. Answer the value proposition question: “How can we provide a uniquely valuable customer (client, member, etc.) experience that drives our success?” Look at your core competence and decide what the value proposition is. Make sure it answers the question. [Andy Stanley provides some thoughtful insights about being uniquely better. He says that “every industry (again, both for-profit and not-for-profit) has shared assumptions. Every industry is ‘stuck.’ However, somebody, somewhere is messing with the rules to the prevailing model. Someone is creating a uniquely better”]
  3. Know where you’re starting from: Once you’re clear on your challenge, it’s important to have an accurate picture of the current reality.
  4. Be clear about your new future: In difficult times it’s always easy to retreat into survival mode. However, having a clear, bold sense of the future gives employees a positive frame and offers an antidote to fear.
  5. Face the obstacles and determine the brutal facts: Now look at the possible obstacles to the vision in a dispassionate/objective way. What are the brutal facts you can control and which ones can’t you control? Facing the obstacles in a clear-minded manner allows the organization to assess the situation well and take appropriate action to overcome them.

 Create your strategy by imagining what might be over the horizon, and begin preparations for a uniquely valuable customer experience.

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Change one word; change your leadership.

It is widely assumed that introspection—examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—improves self-awareness. Yet, people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being. ~Tasha Eurich

I’m continuing with more findings from the research study on self-awareness I quoted in my last post. Now that I’ve had some time to ponder this next finding, it seems so obvious, especially for leaders.

Eurich says that “the problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective—it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly.” She suggests that the most common introspective question is “Why?” That’s the question we tend to ask ourselves when we are trying to figure out our emotional reaction, our behavior, or our attitude. “Why did I respond so rudely? Why am I so adamantly against my boss’ approach?”

Here’s the reason Eurich says that asking “why” is ineffective when it comes to self-awareness. We don’t have access to all of the unconscious thoughts or feelings we are striving to uncover. Consequently, we invent answers that “feel” right, but probably more often than not, are wrong. For example, following an out of the ordinary demeaning email from their boss, a new employee may jump to the conclusion that they must not be cut out for their new job. When the real reason could be because their boss just got off the phone with their child’s principal, again.

When attempting to be introspective, asking why can also encourage unproductive negative thoughts. Eurich’s research found that “people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns.” For example, I worked with someone who had completed a 360 review for the first time. Someone wrote a negative comment, and he went on a [witch] hunt asking everyone if they were the person who wrote that comment and he wanted to know why. He wasn’t even thinking about a more rational assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.

Which leads to the more productive introspective question, which is “What?” The reason is that “what” questions help us to be more rational, future-focused, and even empowered to act on this newly acquired knowledge.

The person with a negative comment on his 360 review could have been asking himself, “What are the situations where that comment might be true?” Or, “What are steps I could take to ensure that perception doesn’t occur again in the future?”

The point here is not to completely stop asking yourself “why” questions. But maybe consider what you are gaining by asking “why” questions. If you are only becoming more anxious, frustrated, or even depressed, then maybe it’s time to switch your introspection from why questions to what questions.

I would venture a guess that leaders who spend their introspective time asking themselves more “what” questions are more likely to be moving their organizations forward.

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Leaders: Experience and Power Hinder Self-Awareness

Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria. ~Tasha Eurich

Experience and power hinder self-awareness. Yes, that’s correct. While for some leaders, they do learn from experience. For others, all that experience and power has a negative impact on their self-awareness and leadership effectiveness. Referencing the findings of this research study, it may be the vast majority (85-90%) of leaders who fall into that second category.

Self-awareness in this study is defined as how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. And, understanding how other people view us in terms of these same factors.

I was fascinated by this study and article by Tasha Eurich in HBR because I’ve often wondered if this might be the case. I’ve seen leaders proudly proclaim their self-awareness and ability to hear and receive feedback. Then, I’ve also seen these very same leaders fire and force out the very people who provided them with that valuable and generous gift of honest and kind feedback.

James O’Toole, author of numerous books on leadership and culture said “As one’s power grows, one’s willingness to listen shrinks, either because they think they know more than their employees or because seeking feedback will come at a cost.”

How does this happen? Eurich says that once we see ourselves as highly experienced, we do less homework, stop seeking disconfirming evidence, and no longer question our assumptions. This experience can also “make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge.”

In one study of more than 3,600 leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills. This included competencies of emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.

So, how do we become one of the 10-15% who truly are self-aware? Eurich says to “Seek frequent critical feedback.” I’d suggest a slight modification based upon my experience with leaders. I’d say, “Seek frequent critical feedback and receive and accept it graciously.”

Here’s a feedback tip. Be specific. I frequently recommend Sheila Heen’s suggestions (author of Thanks for the Feedback). Her two suggested feedback questions are:

  1. What’s one thing you appreciate about…?
  2. What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s causing me to be less successful than I could be? And you could be even more specific like: What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, when I conduct our staff meetings that may be causing those meetings to be less effective than they could be?

Be a more effective leader by increasing your self-awareness. Increase your self-awareness by seeking frequent critical feedback.

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Barbara Bush on Leadership

If human beings are perceived as potentials rather than problems, as possessing strengths instead of weaknesses, as unlimited rather than dull and unresponsive, then they thrive and grow to their capabilities. ~Barbara Bush

Remembering Barbara Bush and her quote about seeing people as potentials possessing strengths, reminded me of something I wrote three years ago inspired by Mark Batterson. I think Barbara Bush would enthusiastically support Batterson’s perspective.

Batterson said, “If you are in a position of leadership, engineering opportunities is part of your portfolio.  One well-timed compliment can open the door and let the future in.”

We could each look back on our own history and find that destiny left us clues. As Batterson says, “Architects built cities out of Legos. Saleswomen sold enough Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies to feed the country of Liechtenstein. Entrepreneurs cornered the lemonade stand market on their cul-de-sac. Entertainers owned the Eurhythmics in Guitar Hero. And teachers set up makeshift blackboards and lectured their stuffed animals.”

But it doesn’t end with our childhood, that’s only the beginning. In 2002, when working on my doctorate, I can recall two professors who, unbeknownst to each other, gave me the exact same compliment. That got my attention and I still refer back to that compliment to this day. I’ve redirected my career to follow their observation and I haven’t regretted it for a minute. I’ll be eternally grateful to both of those individuals who took the extra 30 seconds to point out one of my strengths that I thought was commonplace.

When was the last time you gave someone a compliment about something they did really well? Can’t remember? Then it’s clearly been way too long if you consider yourself a leader.

Batterson tells us that “One nudge in the right direction can change a plotline for eternity. You don’t need to put undue pressure on yourself—don’t worry about missing opportunities or making mistakes.”  However, speaking for myself, from time to time I “think” a compliment in my head, but don’t say it out loud. That needs to change. When I think it, I need to say it!

How would your day look different if you went about it with the mindset that you were going to engineer opportunities? Lavishly bestowing compliments on those around you, assuming that now and then those compliments will be well-timed and let the future in.

Why wait?! In Barbara Bush’s honor, think of people as potentials possessing strengths. Be a leader who engineers opportunities and make today the day you open the door and let the future in for someone else. That they might thrive and grow to their capabilities.


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Leaders: You are dinner table conversation.

Leaders are conversation at the dinner table; try not to spoil everyone’s appetite.  At the end of the day, try to make certain that no one is going home wishing that you weren’t the boss or worse, wishing that they were employed elsewhere.  ~Sony Singh

I remember about 25 years ago I was supervising someone and I have no doubt I was dinner table conversation. It didn’t help that we could not have been more different from each other. I was a young woman in a white collar position; he was a man approaching retirement in a blue collar position. I put a high value on productivity over loyalty or longevity; he put a high value on loyalty over productivity.  And that’s just the start of the list. After I had been supervising him for several months, one of the VPs at the organization was kind enough to tell me the extreme level of stress I was creating in this man’s life. He would literally get tense and upset just at the sight of me. I had no idea; but what a learning moment.

I’m not advocating that leaders should become close friends with their followers. However, if your followers are going home and spending time at the dinner table venting their frustration with you, especially to the extent that they wished they were employed somewhere else, then that really should give you pause.

In my scenario, I certainly did pause. I tried to see things through his lens or his worldview. It was hard, really hard. We were of different generations, genders, and genes (i.e., values). I tried to assure him that he was truly appreciated, something I hadn’t done nearly enough. I tried to be very sensitive to how I was coming across. But in all honesty, I don’t think his anxiety decreased until I moved on to another organization. I’d like to think that 25+ years of experience and having failed a few more times would enable me to handle this same scenario much differently today.

A client also comes to mind. This particular leader viewed herself as the one person in the organization who was willing to make tough decisions. In reality, most everyone viewed her as controlling, unwilling to listen, and rude. She too was likely dinner conversation.

Thinking about several examples, including my own, I believe that leaders become dinner conversation (in the negative sense) when they are least self-aware. It may even be when they have the best intentions, but at the end of the day, and at the dinner table, what matters is how leaders’ intentions are both perceived and received. Sometimes leaders are distracted, preoccupied, or just simply out of touch. Leaders forget to stop and think about how they come across.

Warren Bennis, author of leadership classic On Becoming a Leader said, “The essence of leaders is placed firmly in issues of character, on who we are, on self-awareness.” Other bloggers have noted and I’ll join them in saying that self-awareness is not a one-time event, or some exercise or courses we engaged in when we first accepted a leadership position. Self-awareness is an ongoing learning process that never ends. It’s those who choose to keep working at it who become truly effective leaders. After all, if we’re going to be dinner table conversation, we might as well be adding to the enjoyment of the meal and not spoiling anyone’s appetite.

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