What comes to
mind when you hear the word "strategist?" For many of us the word
conjures up images of brilliant people thinking great thoughts that
will change the course of events and shape the future of companies
and nations. There they are, far above the fray, plotting the moves
that will win the day.
We think about
strategy this way because it was generals who first wrote about
strategy. In fact, the word strategy comes from the Greek word for
general. The generals wanted folks to think it was their great strategy
that brought victory. That's the way they looked best. So they played
up strategy and played down things like luck and disease and logistics
and sergeants and grunts.
In the corporate
world "strategy" has developed two common meanings. First, there
is the quaint annual ritual where one business unit leader after
another presents a boring Powerpoint presentation that differs only
in background color from last year's. Once the dogs and ponies have
been sent home from the show, the strategies nestle down in giant
three ring binders, to hibernate until next year's show. Hardly
anyone likes this definition of strategy.
The other meaning
of strategy is "magic stone." New CEOs claim their strategy will
magically improve profitability and shareholder value. Authors and
consultants tout their Strategy du Jour, which your company can
buy or rent and which surely will make the desert of your financial
statements bloom. The only people who seem to like this definition
of strategy are CEOs needing to buy time and journalists who can
now write about the "new strategic direction."
is neither of these. It's also not as important as generals and
corporate executives want us to think. Great strategy will not save
the day if it can't be carried out in the trenches, day after day.
And that won't happen without good people. In fact, people come
before strategy on the way to success.
Listen to Jim
Collins. His book, Good
to Great, reports on his research into companies that had made
the leap from decades-long mediocrity, or worse, to long-term superiority.
"The good-to-great leaders began the transformation by first getting
the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and
then figured out where to drive it." In other words, people first,
Listen to Larry
Bossidy, now CEO for the second time at Honeywell. Bossidy says
that when things are going well he spends about twenty percent of
his time on people issues. But when he's got to turn things around,
he spends forty percent of his time there. That's because the best
strategy in the world is worthless if it can't be executed. It's
people that have to do the work.
Listen to Jack
Welch. As CEO of General Electric (GE) Welch had one of the most
spectacular records in history. Great strategy, right? Nope. At
the end of his long run at the helm of GE, Welch would say, "Great
people, not great strategies are what made it all work."
people, it's very, very hard to do great things. That doesn't mean
that you need the brightest folks, or the ones with the most credentials.
It does mean that you need folks who care about what needs to be
done and who take responsibility for their part of the job.
got those folks in the boat, develop a good strategy. A good strategy
is realistic and flexible.
vital when you develop a strategy. You have to know the current
situation, along with your strengths and weaknesses. You have to
know the marketplace and your competitors. Then you have to select
performance targets that you can hit, then mobilize your organization
to get the job done. Being realistic about your situation and prospects
increases the odds that you'll develop plans that work.
work through simple plans. It's simply impossible to plan for all
possible contingencies so you have to allow for folks to make critical
decisions on the spot.
Moltke became Chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1858. He served
there thirty years during a period of great political and technological
change. Many writers see Moltke as the paragon and proponent of
centralized, strategic planning. Moltke certainly was among the
first to prepare plans for an entire nation to use in different
political situations. But he also changed the Prussian military
system to make it more flexible.
the rigid Prussian system of "operation orders" with a system of
"general directives." The directives gave a commander his objective
in broad terms, but allowed him considerable freedom to choose how
to accomplish it. He expected German officers to seize the opportunities
that came their way, even if the original plan did not anticipate
disappeared under a later Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen.
Schlieffen, like many top ranking folks, believed that if a little
planning was good, then much more planning must be better. He constructed
a detailed mobilization plan that included 11,000 train movements
on a precise timetable. The planners could calculate precisely how
much a given delay would cost the army in terms of land given up
at the front.
It was a masterful
plan, a true intellectual achievement. It was also far too fragile
for reality. When it was finally put to use political and military
forces worked to destroy original assumptions and disrupt the precise
with Oakland, California on October 17, 1989. At 5:04 pm that day
Northern California was struck by an earthquake measuring 7.1 on
the Richter scale. Buildings were damaged. Part of the Bay Bridge
fell into the water. And the two deck Cypress Freeway collapsed.
As Sid Rice,
one of the Police Watch Commanders on duty at the time put it, "For
a couple of days we did what we needed to do. We didn't have time
to open the book, so we just worked off the trunk of the Watch Commander's
fire and other emergency workers could do what they did without
looking at a written plan because they were great people who'd been
selected and trained to respond to emergencies. They'd been trained
in the emergency response plan, and the plan allowed them to make
key decisions without slavishly following some written formula.
The man who
helped make that possible was George Hart, then Oakland's Chief
of Police and one of the all time great police leaders. The first
time I met him is burned in my memory.
I had been
talking with the head of the training section at the Oakland Police
Department about teaching leadership and effective supervision.
It looked like we had a deal The Lieutenant took me up to meet the
I figured this
would be a welcoming handshake. The Chief would say nice things
about how he hoped I'd enjoy working with the department. I planned
some polite noises about the honor of it all.
shook my hand across his desk. He sat down and motioned for me to
do the same. Then he said, "Well, looks like you're going to be
teaching leadership to our people. Give me your definition of leadership
in a sentence or so." He sat back and waited.
My heart rate
shot into the red zone and my throat got very dry very fast. I don't
remember exactly what I said then, but it must have been OK. I learned
later that if it hadn't been, the training contract wouldn't have
been mine. I'd also experienced my first example of George Hart
doing something strategic.
took the Oakland Police Department from a bad reputation and questionable
efficiency to one of the premier police agencies in the country.
He did it by paying attention to what he considered the few most
important things, the strategic things.
He paid attention
to hiring. His directions to recruiters were simple. He believed
there were people out there who were qualified to be Oakland police
officers who weren't white males. He told the recruiters to find
them. There would be no lowering of standards.
He didn't just
do this by sending memos or by exhortation. He read every background
investigation and hiring recommendation. Imagine the pressure that
put on the recruiters and background investigators. But he got the
quality of candidates he wanted. He got the right folks on board.
Then he paid
attention to training. He personally met anyone what was going to
teach in a critical area. That's what he was doing the day I met
him. He made sure that the person in charge of training was among
the department's best, and that great performance in the training
department slot really helped your career.
It didn't happen
overnight, but over time the great hires became great sergeants,
then lieutenants and captains and deputy chiefs. Several, including
Sid Rice, went on to be chiefs in other departments.
Most of the
time, Chief Hart kept a low profile. When the department made a
big arrest, you wouldn't see Chief Hart announcing it on TV. Instead
you'd see the investigator responsible for the case getting the
good press. But, if the department did something wrong, then you
saw the Chief taking responsibility.
A press investigation
uncovered the fact that some Oakland sex crime investigators had
been closing out some rape cases improperly. Chief Hart was in front
of reporters then. He said that what the press had said was accurate.
He took responsibility. And he set about making sure it wouldn't
shows us what a good strategist really is. A good strategist isn't
up in some ivory tower thinking grand thoughts. A good strategist
is in the trenches doing the important work that needs to be done.
appeared on 24 June 2002
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