Book Excerpt: ‘The Strategist’

It's time for CEOs to start reclaiming strategy as a key executive responsibility, argues Cynthia A. Montgomery in her new book, The Strategist.
by Cynthia A. Montgomery

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

The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business NeedsMany 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.

Reprinted by permission of Harper Business. Excerpted from The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs. By Cynthia A. Montgomery. Copyright 2012, all rights reserved.

About the Author

Cynthia A. Montgomery is a professor at Harvard Business School.
    • rajeev shastri
    • engineer, CAE Inc.
    The extract from the book complicates what Strategy is! - nothing much on practical sense it describes.
    The common sense of mine allows me to think Strategy as a optimization of what you have! A business needs a proper planning with feasibility of execution for the success; which can happen through co-ordination between planning and execution.
    It is always planning setting the goal above achieved point- execution strives to achieve.

    Strategy= Planning
    Leadership= Execution
    • Robert Liley
    • Principal, The Signal Group
    Good God! So that's what has happened to North American business! In my view, one of the key roles a CEO has is to determine where the enterprise is to go over the next five - ten years, and figure out what it has to do to get there. Strategy personified! But it is no longer clear to me that many CEOs understand what their real role is. Could Wall Street be having some inordinate influence here?
    • Jody Graf
    • Exec. Direstor, Visions In Education
    Hello -
    Great article - is this work based on developmental theory from Harvard and Suzanne Cook-Greuter's work?
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Leaders today are working in a highly complex environment where speed of proper decision making is vital. They cannot succeed unless they stragise their growth processes. Strategy is generally devised by specialist consultants. For creating appropriate strategy they need to work closely with the top management and the active involvement of the CEO and the Board is very necessary. The strategy once devised has to be kept under close periodical review considering the present volatile, globalised, hyper-connected age.
    For optimum success, today's leaders have to learn to think
    differently to face extraordinary challenges created by the quick environmental changes occuring day in and day out and hence implementable strategy is a very handy tool to achieve the corporate business and allied goals.
    • Noman Ahmed Khan
    • Head of BBA Program, Bangladesh Institute of Management Studies (BiMS)
    Nice new insights are here. The implementation part and the need of an implementer is highlighted. A broad environment perspective is excellent, I can share with my students. Thanks.
    • Raju Swamy
    • Founder & Adviser to Family Business, PROMAG Consultancy Services
    Prof. Montgomery makes perfect sense to a student catching up on management education in a Business School, or for preparing a presentation on 'Corporate Strategy' to an extracurricular meeting.

    To me what has worked as 'Strategy' is to fix your goal - Revenue/ Profits and list the Action Points to get there with Accountable Names and Deadlines......and then of course you make sure it you have 'Strategy' and then you have 'Management of Strategy' is important though to never achieve your 'Strategic Goal' 100%...keep raising the bar everytime you are nearly there.....this is what creates excitement in Entrepreneurship......And I deal with Entrepreneurs all the time.
    • Mbuso Nyathi
    • Projects Officer, Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe
    I agree absolutely with this assertion. I did an executive MBA whose thrust was exactly this... that the business leader out to be conversant with strategy. The CEO should, even in rare instatnce where he/she has outsourced the strategy, be able to intelligently critic and change it as situations change
    • Anonymous
    Strategy is the process that harmonizes people, companies and environments
    • Mahmoud
    • Senior Budget Analyst, Saudi Electricity Company
    In SEC as a holding company in the KSA, Riyadh we successfully implemented the BSC as a strategic tool of the company performance, but unfortunately we are in lack of alignment of the strategy to the down levels, so i thought that we had a gap in the application of BSC process.

    I'll appreciate any share or valuable comments in this concern.

    Best Regards.

    • Frankie C. Salinas
    • Managing Director, USAesTrade, LLC
    The work of the strategist in a business in my opinion is a visionary person who set up the principles of the business productivity for the next 10 years, but changes the strategy of the business according to the real numbers a business generate in daily business day.