WHAT DISRUPTION REALLY FEELS LIKE
I first became passionate about the importance of how we lead strategy after personally experiencing what it feels like to be disrupted. A term made mainstream by Clayton Christensen, the idea of disruption is now so widely accepted it is taught in almost every business school strategy course and seemingly talked about by every would-be entrepreneur. But reading or talking about it is very different than living through it. How disruption feels to those being disrupted is- in a word- terrifying.
HOW WE LEAD STRATEGY MATTERS
My experiences with being disrupted occurred at 2 similar companies in different industries. In both cases, the companies were 100 year+ firms with iconic brands, near monopoly positions in their industries, and smart, well-intentioned leaders at the helm. Yet also, in both cases, they were knocked off their pedestal by disruptors, leading to massive value destruction for shareholders and for the thousands of employees who were negatively impacted as a result.
Experiencing first-hand the chaos and disorientation that are hallmark features of being disrupted, I was forced to blow up some strongly held, but unconscious assumptions. Just having great leaders doesn’t mean that disruption won’t happen to you. Equally, no matter how strong your company’s legacy or foothold in the market or psyches of customers you serve, all of it can vaporize in what feels like overnight. As a result, I found myself asking (hoping): is there an antidote that can prevent all of this from happening?
I turned to Jim Collins’ work How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In. This sometimes depressing, but always insightful study explores the dynamics of corporate decline, specifically: Can decline be avoided? Detected? Reversed? And, if so, how? Collins’ hopeful conclusion: Companies can learn how to prevent decline and even reverse their course once falling. The trick is the extent to which they use sound management practices and rigorous strategic thinking.
Said differently: How We Lead Strategy Matters.
WE NEED “LEADERS OF STRATEGY" NOT JUST “STRATEGISTS”
If how we lead strategy is the difference between greatness and failure, what does it mean for people leading strategy? Who are these people and what do they actually need to do?
I often explore these questions with executives wanting to become stronger strategic leaders by asking them to compare what effective “Strategists” vs. “Leaders of Strategy” actually do. On the surface, these two roles appear to be very similar. But when you begin to unpack them, you see subtle, but powerful differences.
Executives typically describe what effective “Strategists” do using words like:
Putting them together, in the purest sense, effective “Strategists” are experts at unpacking complex problems and creating sound recommendations to help move things forward.
Effective “Leaders of Strategy,” in contrast, are described by these same executives using phrases like:
In short, while the “Strategist” creates recommendations, it is the “Leader of Strategy” that guides and translates those recommendations into reality and business results.
To be clear, I ask the question in the way I do not because I believe “Strategist” and “Leader of Strategy” are two different roles you hire in for, or that one is better than the other. Clearly, they are complementary.
The point of making the distinction- much like making the distinction between “manager” and “leader”- is to highlight that in this era of disruption, when people are terrified by the realities of the major change and transformation that disruption brings, organizations need more than brilliant “Strategists” and strategies. To take charge of their destiny and thrive, organizations must also have competent “Leaders of Strategy” who can help people face their fears and the firm to position itself for long-term success.
“LEADER OF STRATEGY” DEFINED
Adding this lens of disruption, I’ve come to define an effective “Leader of Strategy” at the highest level as:
To help make this definition more practical and personal, I often ask leaders, to what extent are you:
- Understanding your landscape to identify and create “real” value for others– the kind of value that makes other people’s lives better?
- Helping your organization develop clear strategic choices to drive the creation of that “real” value through articulating its winning aspiration, where it plays and how it wins?
- Systematic around how you align and mobilize your organization to deliver on the most critical priorities that enable those strategic choices?
- Putting the right routines and cadences (i.e. hold regular strategy performance reviews) in place to accelerate execution of those most critical priorities?
- Consistently thinking, acting, and influencing in ways that inspire authentic confidence and commitment from others?
I have found the more leaders are intentional in doing these things, the more likely they are acting as a “Leader of Strategy,” and the more likely their organizations will have in place the sound management practices and rigorous strategic thinking required to succeed in an era of disruption.
WE ALL CAN BE “LEADERS OF STRATEGY”
To close, it would be a mistake to leave the impression that the “Leader of Strategy” role is reserved just for senior strategy professionals or senior business leaders. The great news is that becoming an effective “Leader of Strategy” is agnostic of function, level, or organizational type.
In fact, “Leaders of Strategy” are not “they” and “them, but rather “you” and “me:”
- Embracing a leadership perspective, to quote Collins, that says “our success depends more on what we do than what the world does to us,” and
- Consciously choosing to hone our mindset, character, and skill sets to play this role.
It’s dangerous, difficult work to be sure. But more than ever in this era of disruption, the world needs more of us to be “Leaders of Strategy” to push through our fears and make our collective future brighter than we ever imagined.
ALICIA HARE, PH.D.
Alicia Hare is an authentic, global leader of enterprise-wide strategy and strategic transformation. Grounded in a deep belief that we can all be “Leaders of Strategy,” her innovative approach to strategy combines an end-to-end methodology for strategy development and execution with fostering the cultural commitment and organizational capabilities required to inspire and enable people to make change happen. Over the past decade, this well-founded but practical approach to strategy has helped her lead strategy and deliver results in diverse industries like retail, telecommunications, media, energy and non-profits and with C-suite and senior leaders across organizations in the U.S. and abroad.