I meet Erika at the 800-CEO-READ event a couple of years ago and have been fascinated by her work. Her new book “Being Strategic” is out and I am participating in the Post2Post Blog Tour for the book. I asked Erika a few questions about the book and simply about being strategic. Here is the interview:
RS: Why do people and businesses avoid “being strategic?”
EA: It’s not so much that people avoid being strategic…it’s more that they default into other ways of thinking and behaving, and don’t realize there’s a more effective alternative.
One extremely common thing that takes people away from being strategic is simply the pull of the day-to-day: people tend to get sucked into over-focusing on what’s right in front of them. Stephen Covey talks about it as “doing what’s urgent, vs. what’s important,” and I think it’s a very common human tendency. And once you’re doing it, it’s tough to stop: it’s hard to be strategic when all your mental bandwidth is fully occupied with putting out fires!
The second “pull” away from being strategic is fear. Fear causes people to hunker down, to narrow their scope – to focus on simply surviving and on defending/protecting themselves. Interestingly, I’ve found that helping people to be strategic is a powerful antidote to fear. If you can get people to begin looking clearly at the actual problems that face them (rather than their often-exaggerated fears about those problems), they can often begin to see their current situation more accurately, and then have the mental freedom and flexibility to look toward a better future. I wrote a ChangeThis manifesto (http://www.changethis.com/59.02.BeingStrategic) about this very thing, using Henry V’s victory at Agincourt as a great example of a leader being strategic and redirecting his people’s focus in such a way as to allow them to succeed against all odds.
RS: Why should people and businesses focus on “being strategic?”
EA: It’s still true today, as it was in the 15th century for Henry V: when you as a leader are strategic – that is, when you determine and then focus consistently on those core directional efforts that will best move you toward your hoped-for future – you are much more likely to achieve that future.
I’ve found this is especially true when times are tough – as they are now. If you can “pull back the camera and be a fair witness” – two skills for being strategic that I explain and encourage in the book – you’ll have a much better chance at actually creating the future you want or yourself or for your business. That’s because using these mental skills makes it easier to see accurately: your current situation, where you want to go, and what’s in the way. And then you can craft strategy and tactics that will allow you to navigate through whatever difficulties exist and get where you want to go.
RS: What is the core message of your new book?
EA: I think the core message is: this is learnable and useful. That being strategic is a truly powerful and applicable capability, both personally and professionally; that it’s based on practical and learnable skills; that almost anyone can improve their ability to think and act in this way by learning those skills.
RS: How can startups (especially ones that are bootstrapped) benefit from this process?
EA: Over the past couple of years, I’ve been doing vision and strategy work with a couple of high-tech start-ups in the medical field. And I’ve noticed a couple of important ways this approach has helped. First, it’s allowed them to be much more efficient in the use of time, money and people – because they’ve determined their “core directional efforts” and so are much clearer about how to allocate their precious resources.
Second, it seems to have quickly created a deeper and stronger sense of team, and therefore a more fun and productive work environment. I think this is partly because they’re all on the same page about where they’re going and how to get there, and partly because they all created it together, so everyone feels really bought-in.
Finally, I’ve noticed they’ve had a pretty easy time getting second and third round funding – especially given this environment. And I think that’s because having a clear and articulated vision and strategy has provided them with a much more compelling story to tell potential investors than what’s usually contained in a traditional business plan.
RS: What do you wish that people “take away” from your book and apply in their lives or in their businesses?
EA: I hope that my readers feel that, having read the book, they can better identify their own key challenges — and that they have a way to address them.
One of the testimonials on the book is from my client, colleague and friend Nancy Tellem, who runs CBS; she says, “Erika Andersen is to strategy as Suze Orman is to personal finance.” I was honored when she said that, and I hope it’s true: that people come away from having read the book feeling more capable of being strategic in their own lives – of using these skills and this approach to achieve their personal and professional dreams.
RS: Can you please share your favorite “being strategic” story?
EA: Oh, there are so many! One thing I really love is when people see the power of this approach and it overcomes their cynicism. Just last week, I was working with a non-profit group that’s had a lot of internal political difficulties in recent years. I was conducting the vision and strategy process with a pretty large group – about 25 people – consisting of board members and senior staff. The first day went very well and was extremely clarifying…and the political factions seemed to be coming together around the newly defined mission and vision.
We went to dinner that night, and one of the independent board members came up to me and said, “You know, I thought this was going to be excruciating. I’ve done a lot of strategic planning in my life (he’s a corporate executive), and it’s usually way too theoretical and abstract – we end up creating binders that just sit on somebody’s shelf. It has almost always felt like a huge waste of time to me. But this – this felt really productive. And,” at this point he smiled and looked a little bemused, “I know this sound weird, but it’s actually…fun.”
That’s what I like to hear.
I wish Erika the very best with this book and all her projects.