Why is there so much Strategy Talk, yet so little Great Strategy?

In my first book, Secrets of Next Level Entrepreneurs, I made the point that business strategy is a must-have hard skill for leaders. No matter the size of a business, there is no way they can be successful over the longterm without a clear understanding of what strategy is and how to create it.

If strategy is so critical, how come there are so few that truly master this subject? How come there is so much strategy talk out there, yet so little great strategy? To unpack this phenomenon we need to look at three elements: executives, strategy consultants, and strategy as a subject. 

What they teach isn’t strategy

Let’s start with strategy as a subject: business schools and universities give their courses fancy titles that contain the word ‘strategy’: competitive strategy, sustainable business strategy, or strategic planning. I had my fair share of these courses, as a business school undergrad, and later, attending strategy courses at various institutions. The problem is this: a lot of what these courses teach has little to do with business strategy. 

Strategy is about defining the priorities that will make your customers go “wow!”. Strategy has the customer at its heart. 

But that’s not at all what business schools teach. I learned about analysis tools more than anything else, from SWOT, to BCG Matrix, about Porter’s 5 forces, and sometimes we also talked about customers. But more as an afterthought than as the ultimate success criteria. That’s not strategy.

Strategy consultants sell you analyses, not strategy

Which brings me to my second talking point: Strategy consultants. When graduates become consultants, they often know very little about strategy, as a result of the focus of the strategy courses they attended. What they do know is how to run analyses, which is useful because that’s what they will do 90% of their time working in client projects. But again, that’s not strategy. 

I used to be a consultant myself, and I have no problem admitting that consultants make more money with strategy adjacent topics than with strategy projects as such. Strategy is just the entry ticket. It’s what CEOs care about.

Once they hold the key to the C-suite, consultants use it to unlock all kinds of topics left and right of strategy. That’s where the volume of the work is, and thus more money. And the strategy part becomes inflated, and complicated. 

But it shouldn’t. Strategy is NOT complicated. Working with consultants, organizations must have started to believe that strategy is in fact a complicated art and science. And that they need the consultants to help them figure it out. 

Leaders who don’t understand business strategy get blindsided

Which brings me to the third point: executives. When you grow a career and become a senior leader or executive, your people expect you to lead strategically. They expect marching orders, they want to see a business strategy they can rally around and implement. 

The problem is this: most leaders climb the ladder because of their subject matter expertise, not because they are brilliant people leaders or strategists. When you only start to get your head around strategy as a subject when you need it, it’s a little late. Dig the well before you are thirsty. 

When executives feel a little insecure about strategy they rely on consultant to help them with this mysterious topic. The same consultants that make you believe that the topic is pretty complicated. It is a recipe for disaster, and very often the consultants take over and are in the driver seat. Not the executive team anymore. 

The results are disengaged leaders, especially when things then don’t go as planned – or as explained in shiny consultant presentation slides with fancy terminology that sound elitist and important. When the consultants are gone, executives are left with a “strategy” they had – at best – a part in creating, and now they get the blame when implementation hits bumps and road blocks. 

The remedy: educate yourself and engage strategy facilitators

The only remedy for leaders I see is this: educate yourself about strategy beyond business school courses and MBA programs. Engage specialist practitioners rather than large consulting companies. And build a functional executive team that leads the consultants (if you still decide to hire them), not the other way around. 

Pro tip: Hire a strategy facilitator that has your success in mind. They guide you through the strategy process and can advise when it’s best to hire consultants, e.g. to ramp up resources short term when you identify a need for it during a strategy process. 

Main image by Jan Vasek