CEOs and Strategy: Defining Corporate Purpose

sun-tzu-art-of-war-8My favorite quote is probably:

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without Strategy is the noise before defeat”.

Sun Tzu – 512 BC   

Besides being a favorite of mine, I believe this insight is one that transcends time and is as relevant today as it was over 2,500 years ago. Although the world is constantly changing there are lessons from the past that we can still learn from or that we should at least consider as valuable in the context of the present day.

This brings me back to another insight from the past.  In 1963 Seymour Tilles wrote an article in Harvard Business Review titled: “How to Evaluate Corporate Strategy,” In that article, Tilles proposed that of all the questions a CEO has to answer, one predominates:

What kind of company do you want yours to be? 

In a world that is so often focused on mission statements, where we think in terms of the triple bottom line (People, Planet and Profits) I thought it made sense to revisit how our present-day perspective on strategy may have come full circle rather than evolving or being reinvented.

The other evening I had the pleasure of eating Sushi with one of my favorite executives, a mentor whose insights always help me reexamine my existing assumptions.  The topics were varied, but we drifted for a time to brilliant CEOs.  The discussion focused on the astonishing ability of certain individuals to create and transform companies both large and small.  How their presence and absence cause both the rise and fall of some of the world’s greatest companies.  We discussed famous founders and their ability to pursue unconventional strategies, taking what (at the time) appeared to be incredible risks.  People with a vision that sometimes brought into question their competence, or perhaps even their sanity.  At the same time, we talked about other CEOs who have taken some of the biggest companies in the world that were on the brink of disaster and transformed them.  People now famous, who at the time may have seemed like they were making one of the worst career moves ever.  So what is that recipe?  To be sure it has a lot of ingredients, many of which are not readily available and/or are in short supply.  With that said, I believe a component of their success is touched upon by Cynthia Montgomery in an article from HBR (also an oldy but a goodie) that discusses how “strategy had become viewed as a problem to be solved’, and how with this transformation, we had lost sight of the fact that strategy is not just a plan, not just an idea; it is a way of life for a company…

Now for a challenge with looking at content that, although relevant to the world today, was written in a different time and place.  This article from 2008 was written by Cynthia Montgomery, an economist from Harvard, and as you will notice, the article does refer to aspiring executives as “men”.  As such, the value derived from reflecting on the past provides us with things to emulate and things to change.  Clearly, our past is of value in part because it forces us to reflect on attitudes and perspectives that should never have been acceptable at any time or in any place.

Regardless of this perspective best left in another time… It is still worth the read.

Putting Leadership Back into Strategy

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