The keys to strategic leverage

The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once said, “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”In the vast arena of business, strategy seems to be well known and professed to be used. However, it is poorly understood and sloppily executed. From our own business planning to political strategy, having and executing a coherent strategy is misunderstood. How many times have we thought to ourselves that a strategy exercise we just completed was a waste of time, or complained that our good planning never went anywhere? I think the sloppiness of planning is due in part to the free ride we had in the good economy. In the future, strategy will play a more important role, and be better executed because only those who are good at it will do well.This month the panel and I first aligned ourselves around a definition of strategy. We agreed that strategy is an action that leverages our advantage. The key here is action. It is not merely a vision or goal. It is what you do. The other key is leverage, the ability to move large objects (metaphor) with a small and coordinated action.Therefore, if the objective is to be the leading firm in your market, the strategy would provide specific action to how to make that happen. Unfortunately, this is usually where a strategic exercise ends. Even if you map out specific strategic actions, you still need to communicate them, enlist staff and partners and lead lots of people and ideas to action.This cannot be done in a vacuum, and it can’t be done overnight. The leverage point, therefore, is relationships.Our panel believed that regardless of what your strategy is, a key leverage point to executing your strategy is your network. This includes resources, partners, staff and competitors — everyone who is impacted by what you do.Our panelist John Robinson from Our Ability emphasizes that today more than ever, it is about partnering with your stakeholders to create action. From his perspective, the days of a silo organization locked in competition in a stable channel are gone. It’s all about creating and leveraging today the relationships you made yesterday, and the relationships you make tomorrow next year.His point — if you don’t have the relationship to match the action your strategy dictates, you’re done.Execute quicklyOutside connections are important to your strategy for obvious reasons, but inside relationships provide the energy to get stuff done. Another strategy mistake is assuming that because you came up with a strategy, the organization will automatically move towards it.Strategy planning means change, and change requires fine leadership. If your relationships inside your firm are not strong, nothing will get done. Textbooks are filled with case studies of companies that lost their way because of poor judgment, but the primary reason strategy will fail is that your team doesn’t embrace the shift.Sun Tzu saw strategy as the invisible hand that moves a journey. I see it differently today. Even if we keep our strategy a secret, it should not be a secret for long because we need everyone to come with us. Therefore, it is critically important to execute and move quickly.Also, the nature of competition is that you maneuver around your obstacles. The quicker you become an obstacle to your competitor, out in the open, the more likely they are to move in a different direction.If you haven’t looked at your strategy for a few years, consider these suggestions for an impactful exercise: • Move beyond visions and wish lists. These kinds of exercises are good, but only a starting point which will change when you are done. A vision does not constitute a strategy — leveraged action does. • Ensure that you review the entire business situation. A quick intuitive review of variables is not going to flesh out the real advantage and possible strategic maneuvers. Spend more time looking at your business than you would looking at colleges for your kids. This is important stuff when done right. • If you don’t have a solid network of partners, vendors and experts, start building them now. You may want their input and research, and you may need them to support your strategy in a more proactive way. Build these partnerships all the time. • Once you have a strategy outlined, you need to move immediately to action. This means action planning, execution, accountability and aligning everyone. If it was more than an exercise, then put it to work. • Hire an expert to take you through strategy creation.A few months ago, I met with executives of a firm, and I asked them to define their strategy. They said it was to be the best and to grow. When I dug for more details, there weren’t any. Their strategy was to stay on the treadmill and work harder.We have a choice to work hard or work smart. When strategy is done well, and you work smart, your hard work will pay off.Dr. Russ Ouellette, managing partner of Bedford-based Sojourn Partners, can be reached at 603-472-8103 or