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The Strategist

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."

Good strategy 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, then strategy.

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."

Without great 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.

Once you've got those folks in the boat, develop a good strategy. A good strategy is realistic and flexible.

Realism is 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.

Great strategists 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.

Helmuth von 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.

Moltke replaced 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 them.

That flexibility 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 plan.

Compare that 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 vehicle."

Police and 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 Chief.

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.

Chief Hart 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.

Chief Hart 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 happen again.

George Hart 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.

This feature appeared on 24 June 2002


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