Editor's Note: Back in the day, crafting and owning the company strategy was at the forefront of a business leader's priorities. Over the years, though, more and more, the responsibility has tended to be outsourced to consultants armed with shiny frameworks and background data.
"Strategy in many ways became the bailiwick of specialists," writes Cynthia Montgomery, the immediate past chair of the Strategy unit at HBS. "It wasn't until years into this shift that I fully realized what had happened. It was classic Shakespeare: As a field, we had hoisted ourselves on our own petard. We had demoted strategy from the top of the organization to a specialist function."
Montgomery maintains that it's time for CEOs to reclaim strategy, a point she argues fervently in her new book, The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs. The book was borne of a five-year stint teaching seasoned executives in Harvard's Entrepreneur, Owner, President (EOP) program. During that time, she realized that many of her students hadn't spent much time thinking about their own companies' strategies.
In this excerpt, Montgomery describes a lesson she teaches early on in the EOP program—that strategy needs to be a key facet of leadership.
Leadership and Strategy Are Inseparable
From The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs
By Cynthia A. Montgomery
Many leaders today do not understand the ongoing, intimate connection between leadership and strategy. These two aspects of what leaders do, once tightly linked, have grown apart. Now specialists help managers analyze their industries and position their businesses for competitive advantage, and strategy has become largely a job for experts, or something confined to an annual planning process. In this view, once a strategy has been identified, and the next steps specified, the job of the strategist is finished. All that remains to be done is to implement the plan and defend the sustainable competitive advantage it has wrought.
Or at least that's the positive take on the story.
But, if this were so, the process of crafting a strategy would be easy to separate from the day-to-day management of a firm. All a leader would have to do is figure it out once, or hire a consulting firm to figure it out, and make sure it's brilliant. If this were so, the strategist wouldn't have to be concerned with how the organization gets from here to there—the great execution challenge—or how it will capitalize on the learning it accumulates along the way.
But this is not so. What's been forgotten is that strategy is not a destination or a solution. It's not a problem to be solved and settled. It's a journey. It needs continuous, not intermittent, leadership. It needs a strategist.
Good strategies are never frozen—signed, sealed, and delivered. No matter how carefully conceived, or how well implemented, any strategy put into place in a company today will eventually fail if leaders see it as a finished product. There will always be aspects of the plan that need to be clarified. There will always be countless contingencies, good and bad, that could not have been fully anticipated. There will always be opportunities to capitalize on the learning a business has accumulated along the way. The strategist is the one who must shepherd this ongoing process, who must stand watch, identify and weigh, decide and move, time and time again. The strategist is the one who must decline certain opportunities and pursue others. Consultants' expertise and considered judgments can help, as can perspectives and information from people throughout an organization. But, in the end, it is the strategist who bears the responsibility for setting a firm's course and making the choices day after day that continuously refine that course.
That is why strategy and leadership must be reunited at the highest level of an organization. All leaders—not just those who are here tonight—must accept and own strategy as the heart of their responsibilities.
I say little of this tonight in the classroom. But it is on my mind as I return to my seat in the sky deck and reflect on all the would-be strategists I've worked with over the years as well as those of you who are just starting out. My hope is that you will come not only to understand the vital role of the strategist, but also to embrace it for yourself.
Five years ago, when I first started teaching in EOP, I heard the program described as challenging and transformative. At the time, "challenging" struck me as right, but "transformative" seemed closer to hype. Having seen it happen again and again, I now share the optimism.
As our orientation session draws to a close, I join the executives and fellow faculty as we head en masse to Kresge Hall for cocktails and dinner. Our work is about to begin in earnest.
In all my classes, I pose one fundamental question: "Are you a strategist?" Sometimes it's spoken, often it's only implicit, but it's always there. We talk about the questions strategists ask, about how strategists think, about what strategists do. My intent is not to coach these executives in strategy in the way they might learn finance or marketing. As business leaders, they aren't going to be functional specialists. But they do need to be strategists.
Are you a strategist?
It's a question all business leaders must answer because strategy is so bedrock crucial to every company. No matter how hard you and your people work, no matter how wonderful your culture, no matter how good your products, or how noble your motives, if you don't get strategy right, everything else you do is at risk.
My goal in this book is to help you develop the skills and sensibilities this role demands, and to encourage you to answer the question for yourself. It's a difficult role and it may be tempting to try to sidestep it. It requires a level of courage and openness to ask the fundamental questions about your company and to live with those questions day after day. But little you do as a leader is likely to matter more.