Business Standard

How strategists lead

A Harvard Business School professor reflects on what she has learned from senior executives about the unique value that strategic leaders can bring to their companies

Cynthia Montgomery 

In this article, reprinted from the McKinsey Quarterly, Harvard Business School Professor Cynthia Montgomery discusses how a strategist leads. At the heart of her argument is a simple observation: it is the strategist who must make the vital choices that determine a company’s very identity, who says, “This is our purpose, not that. This is who we will be. This is why our customers and clients will prefer a world with us rather than one without us.” Being a meaning maker plays out in the strategist’s role as a voice of reason in the face of overconfidence and when working as an operator, bridging the gap between strategy and operations. While Montgomery does not address CFOs specifically, these are roles that will ring true for these leaders, who bring hard data and sound analytics to the discussion. Of particular interest is her discussion of overconfidence, which she encounters among executive-level decision makers facing the bigger investments that help define the business—and that can make or break a company.

Seven years ago, I changed the focus of my strategy teaching at the Harvard Business School. After instructing MBAs for most of the previous quarter-century, I began teaching the accomplished executives and entrepreneurs who participate in Harvard’s flagship programs for business owners and leaders.

Shifting the center of my teaching to executive education changed the way I teach and write about strategy. I’ve been struck by how often executives, even experienced ones, get tripped up: they become so interested in the potential of new ventures, for example, that they underestimate harsh competitive realities or overlook how interrelated strategy and execution are. I’ve also learned, in conversations between class sessions (as well as in my work as a board director and corporate adviser), about the limits of analysis, the importance of being ready to reinvent a business, and the ongoing responsibility of leading strategy.

All of this learning speaks to the role of the strategist—as a meaning maker for companies, as a voice of reason, and as an operator. The richness of these roles, and their deep interconnections, underscore the fact that strategy is much more than a detached analytical exercise. Analysis has merit, to be sure, but it will never make strategy the vibrant core that animates everything a company is and does.

The strategist as meaning maker
I’ve taken to asking executives to list three words that come to mind when they hear the word strategy. Collectively, they have produced 109 words, frequently giving top billing to plan, direction, and competitive advantage. In more than 2,000 responses, only 2 had anything to do with people: one said leadership, another visionary. No one has ever mentioned strategist.

Downplaying the link between a leader and a strategy, or failing to recognize it at all, is a dangerous oversight that I tried to start remedying in a Harvard Business Review article four years ago and in my new book, The Strategist, whose thinking this article extends. After all, defining what an organization will be, and why and to whom that will matter, is at the heart of a leader’s role. Those who hope to sustain a strategic perspective must be ready to confront this basic challenge. It is perhaps easiest to see in single-business companies serving well-defined markets and building business models suited to particular competitive contexts. I know from experience, though, that the challenge is equally relevant at the top of diversified multinationals.

What is it, after all, that makes the whole of a company greater than the sum of its parts—and how do its systems and processes add value to the businesses within the fold? Nobel laureate Ronald Coase posed the problem this way: “The question which arises is whether it is possible to study the forces which determine the size of the firm. Why does the entrepreneur not organize one less transaction or one more?” These are largely the same questions: are the extra layers what justifies the existence of this complex firm? If so, why can’t the market take care of such transactions on its own? If there’s more to a company’s story, what is it, really?

In the last three decades, as strategy has moved to become a science, we have allowed these fundamental questions to slip away. We need to bring them back. It is the leader—the strategist as meaning maker—who must make the vital choices that determine a company’s very identity, who says, “This is our purpose, not that. This is who we will be. This is why our customers and clients will prefer a world with us rather than without us.” Others, inside and outside a company, will contribute in meaningful ways, but in the end it is the leader who bears responsibility for the choices that are made and indeed for the fact that choices are made at all.

The strategist as voice of reason
Bold, visionary leaders who have the confidence to take their companies in exciting new directions are widely admired—and confidence is a key part of strategy and leadership. But confidence can balloon into over confidence, which seems to come naturally to many successful entrepreneurs and senior managers who see themselves as action-oriented problem solvers.

I see overconfidence in senior executives in class when I ask them to weigh the pros and cons of entering the furniture-manufacturing business. Over the years, a number of highly regarded, well-run companies—including Beatrice Foods, Burlington Industries, Champion, Consolidated Foods, General Housewares, Gulf + Western, Intermark, Ludlow, Masco, Mead, and Scott Paper—have tried to find fortune in the business, which traditionally has been characterized by high transportation costs, low productivity, eroding prices, slow growth, and low returns. It’s also been highly fragmented. In the mid-1980s, for example, more than 2,500 manufacturers competed, with 80 percent of sales coming from the biggest 400 of them. Substitutes abound, and there is a lot of competition for the customer’s dollar. Competitors quickly knock off innovations and new designs, and the industry is riddled with inefficiencies, extreme product variety, and long lead times that frustrate customers. Consumer research shows that many adults can’t name a single furniture brand. The industry does little advertising.

By at least a two-to-one margin, the senior executives in my classes typically are energized, not intimidated, by these challenges. Most argue, in effect, that where there’s challenge there’s opportunity. If it were an easy business, they say, someone else would already have seized the opportunity; this is a chance to bring money, sophistication, and discipline to a fragmented, unsophisticated, and chaotic industry. As the list above shows, my students are far from alone: with great expectations and high hopes of success, a number of well-managed companies over the years have jumped in with the intention of reshaping the industry through the infusion of professional .

All those companies, though, have since left the business—providing an important reminder that the competitive forces at work in your industry determine some (and perhaps much) of your company’s performance. These competitive forces are beyond the control of most individual companies and their managers. They’re what you inherit, a reality you have to deal with. It’s not that a company can never change them, but in most cases that’s very difficult to do. The strategist must understand such forces, how they affect the playing field where competition takes place, and the likelihood that his or her plan has what it takes to flourish in those circumstances. Crucial, of course, is having a difference that matters in the industry. In furniture—an industry ruled more by fashion than function—it’s extremely challenging to uncover an advantage strong enough to counter the gravitational pull of the industry’s unattractive competitive forces. IKEA did it, but not by disregarding industry forces; rather, the company created a new niche for itself and brought a new economic model to the furniture industry.

A leader must serve as a voice of reason when a bold strategy to reshape an industry’s forces actually reflects indifference to them.

This article was originally published in McKinsey Quarterly, . Copyright (c) 2012 McKinsey & Company. Reprinted by permission

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First Published: Mon, November 26 2012. 00:49 IST