- The founder and CEO of an early-stage company that has just closed a solid seed round tells me that what has benefited his business most in the past year, and allowed him to pivot toward a promising future, can be expressed in one word: focus.
- The CEO of a late-stage startup who spent more than 100 days closing a recent round with an important new investor tells me how he was thoroughly “beaten up” during due diligence because of what was perceived to be a lack of clarity in the company’s market positioning. This added weeks to the process, diverting resources away from sales and daily operations.
- The CEO of a B2B content start-up tells me that he and his team are doing too many things and essentially careening from one new idea to the next, acknowledges the need to prioritize but indicates he has to get through his short-term list first.
Each of these conversations is recent and real – they all occurred in the past two weeks. And while they happen to be about young, relatively small companies, each of these situations scales to big, mature companies, as well. If the issue isn’t about closing a round of funding, it’s about getting funding in the annual budget. If it’s not about investor feedback, it’s about reacting to the latest round of input from the CFO or the board. And who among us hasn’t bemoaned the quarter-to-quarter focus of publicly held companies of every size and sector?
Each of these stories points to the need every business has for strategy. And even if you think you don’t have one, or can coast along without one, guess again – you just have strategy by default.
What is strategy? Better yet, what isn’t it?
Strategy is NOT:
- The domain of high-priced (or any price) consultants who create fancy documents – although some outside perspective or facilitation can be a big help
- The catch-all for anything your team comes up with that survives the budget review process even though it cannot be precisely quantified (I have witnessed respected members of the finance function inside a Fortune 100 company be fully comfortable with this characterization)
- The department in which geeky, analytic introverts perceived as unable to execute (hence they create more of those strategy documents) build their careers
- Optional, something to be dealt with later, maybe when you have more time (tell me when, honestly, that will be?)
- A list of strategic initiatives…or a set of PowerPoint slides full of cool visuals
So, then, what is strategy?
- Strategy, quite frankly, is what leaders do to identify and allocate resources to help them get their businesses where they want them to go.
- Strategy is mostly about execution.
- Strategy is less about what you must do, than what you should not be doing.
Or, my favorite definition:
- Strategy is about knowing (1) where are you? — (2) where do you want to be? — (3) how are you going to get there?
There are both direct and opportunity costs of deferring answers to these three questions, and ultimately taking the actions that ensure every employee and partner can buy into and play their roles in ways that reflect the answers.
Where to start:
- Write down what you envision at your “point of arrival.” What is it going to look like and feel like? What will respected colleagues and members of the sector be saying about your company when you reach your destination? What will your products, customer or client experience and customer service be like? What will your brand represent?
- Then write the story of where you are today, answering these same sorts of questions in the present.
- Spend most of your effort breaking apart the answer to “how” into three to five headlines.
- Now here is the toughest part: The temptation will be to build laundry lists of activities under each headline, or even just rearrange (and add to!) what you are already doing today. The successful outcome of this thought process is to surface things you would like to do (including things that are already underway) that you have to admit play at best a limited role in getting you where you want to be. And to cross them off the list and actually stop doing them.
What I am suggesting is not a one-and-done exercise. It’s not a solo activity. And while it may begin at an offsite or work session, it’s not a meeting. This is a process to reflect in your daily leadership, management and the culture of your company. This is how strategy becomes meaningful to creating sustainable and persistent growth.