The business world today is experiencing a continuing period of rapid change. Fresh demands and innovative technologies materialise at an astounding pace. New markets emerge for private companies, while competition for these is fierce. The pressures for efficiency savings in the public sector are unrelenting and legislative revisions incessant. Hence at the present time, in order to sustain competitive advantage or avoid government penalties for poor performance, businesses need excellent strategists and effective leaders. For good reason these two, once separate, roles have increasingly combined into the single role of strategic leader. From divisional head to CEO, unique individuals are called upon to create winning visions and to guide their teams to realise the successes that these visions are designed to deliver.
While the concept of strategic leadership makes good sense, with direction driven unequivocally from the top, is it reasonable to expect one person to both devise and implement strategy? Does a person with the ability to craft a good vision and corporate goals, have the right skills to develop the pathway required to align an organisation to achieve these? And furthermore, does that same person carry the leadership skills to encourage staff to make the journey along the pathway? Are the characteristics of a good modern strategist the same as those of a good business leader?
Perhaps too much is being asked of strategic leaders. If this is the case then may be the answer lies in providing suitable additional support – to plug the gaps – offering a means of enhancing capabilities so that stakeholder expectations are fulfilled.
Over the last two decades, in an attempt to reverse the prior dominance of command leadership, much strategy development has been collaborative, involving the participation and agreement of impacted teams. The strength of collaboration is that alignment is pretty much assured, as most stakeholders have already bought-in and, likely as not, new ideas are only a limited move away from the current position. The weakness of such strategy is that it is a compromise: many small decisions made by numerous people, most of whom have little or no broad, high-level, long-term planning capability.
More recently, in view of the speed of change and competitiveness of the business world, it has been recognised that faster, more radical strategy formulation is required, using duly skilled, proven individuals. The result is revolutionary strategy, which evolves from a focus on outside factors (markets, competitors, politics, public funding sources and citizens’ needs), rather than on internal factors (such as current staff capabilities and organisational structures). Therefore an external strategist, experienced in the appropriate marketplace, is usually brought in. Impacted internal staff are only minimally involved in the strategy formation process, if at all. An outside figure brings original, clear, uncluttered thinking. He will be more creative and prepared to take on riskier challenges. Step-by-step proposals are discarded as too slow. Importantly, where collaborative approaches place an over importance on current resources, detached planning is likely to view existing staff as one of the least constraining factors.
The primary issue with revolutionary strategy, however essential and correct it might be, is the difficulty of aligning an organisation to it, in order to gain the benefits. This is where leadership skills take over from corporate planning skills.
Characteristics of a strategist
To be a valued strategist in today’s business world requires: comprehensive understanding of the environment in which an enterprise operates; wide-ranging insight of the customer base served; extensive knowledge of the trends impacting both the marketplace and delivery approaches; keen awareness of the variations in factors influencing supply and demand. But, above all else, a good strategist must be characterised by clear objectivity.
The individual formulating successful plans for his organisation’s future has to consider a vast database of information, which has the ability to affect the business area in question. He must know: his markets and clients; the techniques for communicating, promoting or selling to these; their potential profitability or capacity to realise benefits – but also, conversely, their likelihood to drain resources beyond budget tolerances. Additionally, a full appreciation of competitors, possible partners and range of suppliers is essential, in particular their strengths and weaknesses. Creating strategy draws too on a well developed sensitivity of the relationships and inter-dependencies, past and present, between all the parties involved – including providers, consumers and employees. The strategist must understand the current context in which his business area operates and all the influences affecting change – political, economic, technological, legislative and social. Then he needs the very best of analytical talents to drive out appropriate goals from this vast mass of information.
The strength of a proficient corporate planner lies in coupling high intellect and an extensive knowledge-base to exceptionally logical, rational thinking. Independent working achieves the clarity of assessment required, with self-sufficiency arising from self-belief. Strongly results orientated, the strategist isn’t distracted by emotive or people issues; to the detached intellectual, people can be re-skilled, redeployed or replaced.
With the quality of a business’ strategy being fundamental to its ongoing successful survival, strategists with the strongest logical, objective reasoning have become most prized.
A strategist leading change
Once a vision has been defined, the strategist has to concentrate on the other key aspect of the strategic leader role: aligning his organisation to this vision. And therein, potentially, lies a very real difficulty: alignment requires leadership skills – but leadership skills are people skills.
To be an uncommonly powerful dispassionate thinker, a strategist – almost by definition – is unlikely to possess a high emotional quotient. Strategy formulation requires ‘hard skills’ – while guiding its implementation swings the emphasis around to people, to ‘soft skills’.
During planning and goal setting, the focus is upwards and outwards. Revolutionary strategy is usually prepared with minimal consideration to the people affected inside an organisation. With such an impartial approach to subordinates – and in possession of limited ‘soft skills’ – the strategic leader often naturally operates transactional leadership, whereby work is a series of deals and contracts. Employees are empowered to take full responsibility for delivering defined objectives, being rewarded or punished by basic means such as pay and status, in accordance with the success of delivery. Frequently low on empathy, the strategic leader may well assume that needs have been satisfactorily met through tangible rewards but, for the majority of employees, complex emotional factors and social values play a significant role in job satisfaction.
Introducing a new strategy to an organisation is a major change with broad impact. People naturally resist change, having deep seated requirements for safety, certainty and control. They feel threatened, fearing that moving from the current situation to an unknown destination can only be for the worse. But the new strategy, which in itself may be excellent, is worthless unless achieved. The workforce has to fully commit to a transformation, in order to bring about alignment to, and delivery of, new corporate goals. A misaligned organisation results in people working at cross-purposes, creating conflicts and wasted effort.
Although, initially, employees might be interested to be sold new ideas, the strategic leader may well not recognise the need for an internal selling campaign. His natural instincts aren’t to provide coaching, nurturing or encouragement. Instead he relies on setting high-level objectives for his executive team that, if met, bring about alignment. There may be a failure to see that some, or all, of the team members could have their own personal motives for resisting, such as perceived loss of power in the future.
Any tendency of a leader to adhere to a transactional style is inappropriate in circumstances where considerable change is necessitated. The style is proven to be effective only when people are well motivated, clear of their targets and feel confident to achieve what is expected of them. In a time of instability the environment is usually quite the reverse, calling for a more people-centric approach – but too many strategic leaders do not possess the empathic skills to realise this nor to suitably adapt their style. Transformational leadership, with its emphasis on selling a vision, providing guidance to the unsure, listening, soothing and enthusing, is far more effective in an uncertain situation. Pushing through change requires energy from leadership, not distance.
When denied communication and support, staff typically become more and more de-motivated as time passes, fearing the worst. In a scenario where alignment isn’t happening, because staff don’t understand what’s required of them, the benefits of a new strategy won’t be realised. Loss of respect can easily set in on both sides. The leader becomes frustrated by his workforce, unable to understand their problem; he fails to see why, when the vision and objectives are so obvious to him, they aren’t equally clear to everyone else. Meanwhile the workforce, increasingly resentful that they weren’t involved in the formulation of initiatives, start to perceive their leader as inflexible and unhelpful – an image intensified by the strategic leader’s unflinching belief in his unsold vision. Each side sees the other as lacking in commitment.
With a necessity for the very best strategists to have powerfully rational unemotional thinking, a strategic leader is likely to struggle when faced with the people-centric task of aligning his organisation to his beliefs. Ideally the tasks of strategy derivation and subsequent organisational alignment are the responsibility of a single, highly- talented individual – a strategic leader. But dividing the tasks across two separate, cooperating roles can yield acceptable outcomes. A change manager offers the complimentary role in this scenario. To take advantage of a supporting change manager, a strategic leader must possess the self-awareness and honesty to acknowledge his own limitations, given the personality contradictions demanded by the multiple components of his role.
Domain of the change manager
Implementing change is the domain of the change manager who, unlike a strategist, can call on strong empathic skills, applying a range of paradigms to any situation, viewing events through many varying mindsets.
The change manager possesses strong people-focused ‘soft skills’. She is analytical of people issues, bringing logical reasoned assessments to behavioural matters, just as the strategist does to corporate planning. Sometimes incorrectly perceived as ‘pink and fluffy’ or overly inclusive, in reality a good change manager is a highly persuasive influencer, with a deep comprehension of how to inspire and motivate.
With such capabilities, the change manager understands why others don’t understand. She knows that perception, however incorrect, is reality to the perceiver. That change happens inside people’s heads, not necessarily visibly. Most importantly, a change manager comprehends resistance and how to overcome this. She forms a bridge from the present state to the future state, providing people with the confidence to make the required journey and accept revised plans and outcomes.
Whether pushing or pulling an organisation into alignment, the primary tool of the strategic leader’s supporting partner is communication. She ensures that the vision is explained and sold, over and over again. The strategic leader may well see the benefits of the new strategy purely in corporate terms, but the change manager expands and personalises the benefits, from divisional to team to individual, knowing that ultimately each staff member’s real concern is “What’s in it for me?”. And, unlike a strategic leader, a change manager recognises that benefits to most employees aren’t as simplistic as just status and pay. What about security, work-life balance, harmonisation with personal ethics and life goals (within and outside the workplace), impact on teams and social structures, use of existing abilities or requirement for new skills?
Convincing others of the need for new practices and ambitions isn’t only gentle and soft. Applying shock tactics, to generate a fear of not redefining the future, can be just as effective. An organisation must be shaken out of its cosy view of itself, revealing the realities of an actual or potentially deteriorating position, showing how comparator organisations are gaining ground and moving ahead. Thus the change manager applies a variety of tactics to generate a willingness to embrace new strategy, rather than oppose it.
The fear of transformation is eroded by coaching, training and support. A key activity is the identification of skills and knowledge gaps that will open up as the new strategy is adopted. A training plan forms an essential component of a ‘change delivery plan’.
Like strategy formulation, planning and managing the delivery of a change is often best undertaken by an external expert, who provides objectivity, has no axe to grind and carries appropriate authority directly assigned by the strategic leader. However, change is effected from within. Therefore a team of internal champions has to be established, who take responsibility for carrying through fresh initiatives. Stakeholders and their influencers are analysed, assessing their power and interest in the future agenda, and their degree of resistance or support. Based on this assessment, the ‘change team’ allocate time and energy to the stakeholders, acting as guides, coaches and advisors, measuring the progress to alignment and broadcasting successes as milestones are met.
But the change manager’s most important touch-point within an organisation is the change sponsor: the strategic leader. It is he – having acknowledged his own limitations and hence delegated certain key interventions – who must be most receptive to the advice and influence of the change manager, trusting in her ability to deliver.
The purpose of establishing the strategic leader role was to encapsulate, in a single talented individual, the responsibilities for both corporate planning and guiding leadership. The perceived benefit of this dual role sprang from the logic that: the person developing a strategy must surely be best placed to inspire others to embrace, and align to, the vision. However, experience has found a flaw in the logic. The characteristics that define a first-class strategist largely contradict the requirements of a motivating leader.
If a strategic leader struggles with the aspect of his role that calls for people skills, then – in order to succeed further – he needs the self-awareness to request and accept assistance. By engaging supplementary change management support, organisational alignment can be achieved for the most part, thus releasing many of the benefits of new strategy. Reinforcing a strategic leader’s weaknesses has the ability to ensure a relatively good outcome, although positive results may take longer to be realised, while successes are likely to be a little reduced in magnitude.
While this not-ideal compromise engenders a tolerable degree of success, an interesting dilemma remains: could encouraging a strategic leader to develop higher levels of ‘soft skills’, so that he satisfies the full extent of his role, diminish his highly focused, objective thinking? If so, does the business world need to be careful when pressing good strategists to become all-embracing strategic leaders?