No Hard Choices = No Strategy and No Leadership
Just the other day a nonprofit communications director showed me her brand-new marketing strategy. Her organization’s leaders, the executive director and a committee of board members, had commissioned the strategy from a consultant. After several months of work, the strategy was delivered to staff to implement.
But the document I saw contained very little leadership or strategy: instead, it was everything and the kitchen sink. It included nearly every conceivable target group (including the dreaded “general public”), rather poorly aligned with a dozen communications channels. The sections on messaging were clearly written by a Buzzword Bingo champion.
Is This What a Good Strategy Looks Like?
The leaders and the consultant were both apparently very happy with their strategy. But the communications director was confused. She couldn’t tell what was most important. She couldn’t see how this was supposed to direct her own choices about what she should do at work this week, this month, or even this year. She couldn’t see how this strategy would produce results any different from what they were getting now.
She had lots of questions for me: Was this a good strategy? Or was she right in thinking that it really didn’t make sense? Or was it her? Was she misunderstanding the vision and direction embedded in the document? Was her own frustration about not being included as the strategy was developed clouding her judgement about the quality of the consultant’s work?
No Strategy to Be Found . . .
I assured her (in my typical blunt way) that the so-called strategy was a load of crap. I commended her for pushing back and asking hard questions of her leaders and the consultant. I encouraged her to continue to challenge the lack of strategy and leadership on display, albeit in a more diplomatic way than using my description.
Anyone with a bit of knowledge or experience can brainstorm a bunch of ideas and put them into tables, throw in some bold here and there, and label it a strategy. And charge thousands for it. But that doesn’t make it so.
The process of developing a real strategy includes looking at all the possible things you could do to achieve your goals, which themselves must be limited, clear, and specific. But it doesn’t stop there! It winnows those options down to the tight combination that is most likely to produce the best results — to the things you will do, backed up with adequate staffing and budgets. It prioritizes, which means saying Item #1 is more important than Item #2, and those are both more important than Item #3.
As Harvard professor and leading expert on competitive strategy Michael Porter says, “Strategy 101 is about choices: You can’t be all things to all people. Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”
No Leadership to Be Found . . .
So who makes those hard choices in the strategy? A good consultant can certainly frame them and queue them up, but the organization’s leaders need to actually make those decisions. Failing to choose, failing to prioritize, failing to say Yes to some, but more importantly No to most is a failure of leadership. It’s hard — really hard! — to say No to good ideas, but that’s what’s required to pursue the great ideas. That’s leadership.
Ask for the Choices to Be Made, or Make Them Yourself
And it’s not unreasonable for staff to expect real strategy and real leadership from their executive directors and boards. If you aren’t getting that, make your own choice to be bold and ask for it. And if that doesn’t work, be even bolder and make those hard choices yourself.