Your most valuable strategy gurus are right under your nose
A few years ago, I met a former colleague for lunch to catch up. We had worked together at a large Fortune 100 company, and she was a very highly skilled and high performing member of my team, but we had both left that company to pursue other opportunities.
The conversation turned to why she left – her potential there was virtually unlimited, or so it seemed to me. We worked together on a Customer Marketing team (what some companies might call Product Marketing and Channel Marketing), but she wanted to be more involved in the overall strategy of the business unit we worked in. She was certainly capable and qualified for it.
The company held “strategy” in a very high regard. They even created a group called Strategic Marketing, whose responsibilities included strategic planning, business transformation, M&A, etc. It was considered an elite role and came with unfettered access to the executive team and a fast-track to senior leadership positions.
Her challenge, however, was that Strategic Marketing roles were seemingly reserved for people with Ivy League MBAs or from one of the “Big 3” management consulting firms (or preferably both).
She had an MBA, but it wasn’t Ivy League and she didn’t have a consulting background. She was frustrated because she felt her upward mobility was limited, and she was probably right. She left the company, and we lost a very talented member of our team.
The issue was that this company over-emphasized the Strategic Marketing team’s “ownership” of strategy within their business units and under-emphasized the roles that other functions played in crafting that strategy. No offense to any of the MBAs and management consultants that made up that group, but this dichotomy created corporate silos and diminished the important role that others play in crafting a business’s strategy.
Don’t Let this Happen in Your Business
Similar contradictions can occur in small and mid-sized companies. Leaders often consider crafting strategy their primary job and focus on prescribing that strategy to their teams instead of incorporating them into its development.
Don’t go it alone, it’s a mistake.
If you’re a leader, consider this: your role should be to select the right strategy and oversee its implementation, not necessarily to create it. Strategy should be rooted in Customer Value, and those that are closest to your customers on a daily basis are likely the ones in the best position to identify and unlock that value.
These are usually your more junior employees, the ones who are too often overlooked during the strategic planning process. They may not have Harvard MBAs or come from McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group, but they typically have other attributes that can prove invaluable in crafting and setting strategy: customer relationships, detailed product knowledge, service delivery experience, etc.
When they are involved in the development of that strategy, they become much more personally and emotionally invested in it.
Your Strategy Might be Working Against You
Later in my tenure at the Big Company, I joined the Strategic Marketing group. No, I was not an Ivy Leaguer, nor did I come from a management consulting firm. I guess I just got lucky.
I certainly learned a lot from that experience.
I was one of the few that had worked in both corporate silos – operational and strategic. I also had experience working for our target customer segment, which made me even more unique on that team.
I knew the business unit teams resented the strategy group – they felt an air of elitism and lack of operational credibility. It was unspoken, but they thought it unfair that the strategy people had the inside angle on leadership positions, and that they hadn’t fully paid their dues in the trenches.
I was surprised to learn, however, that the opposite was true as well. The strategy gurus felt like outsiders inside their own business units and recognized their lack of direct customer and operational experience put them at a disadvantage. Many of them wanted to move into operational roles, but they did not get the opportunity due to lack of experience. Ironic.
As a result, the strategies they developed were often disregarded by the business units – even if they were valid and well-crafted plans. Sometimes it seemed different functions were working on totally different businesses, and it hurt the company. In fact, the ultimate reason I left was because we spent way too much time fighting these kinds of internal battles, and way too little time working on behalf of our customers.
Give Your Team Skin in the Game – ALL of Them
Strategy is critically important, but it cannot be created in vacuum, or a boardroom or by outsiders with no experience in your industry.
If you are a leader, your most important strategic resources are the ones on your team right now – sales, marketing, product management, engineering, customer service, operations, etc. They may be sitting in cubicles (or these days, at home) without Ivy League MBAs on their wall, but they know your customers, your products and services, your business, and they want to be a part of shaping its future.
Your job is to give them guidance, resources and runway to do their jobs, and to ensure the work they do is embedded across all facets of the business and engrained in everyone’s minds. When you do this correctly, you not only will have a winning, sustainable strategy rooted in real customer value, you will also have a loyal team motivated to ensure it is executed properly.