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Long-Range Strategic Thinking Ability: Why CEOs Must Have It

CEOs spend less time than they should on strategic thinking. Here’s how to think more strategically – more of the time.

Lizwe Nkala

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A study by world-renowned management thinkers Professor Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad has noted that in most organisations, less than 3% – 5% of executive time was devoted to looking outwards and developing foresight. Instead they recommend that 20% – 30% of executive time must be devoted to formulating a strategic view of the future

The Board-CEO strategy dilemma

As a pure management science, long-range thinking is one of the most difficult skills to test and verify in both practicing CEO’s and applicants for the top job. The most trusted IQ and personality tests that aspirant executives are put through hardly reveal any of the critical dimensions of a long-range thinker, let alone guarantee that the ‘A’ candidate will be able to look after the long-term welfare of the organisation. It is hardly surprising therefore that the majority of Board-CEO fallouts invariably site differences on long-term strategic direction as the main bone of contention.

Even for the most astute recruiter, predicting the probability of strategic naivety for a CEO prospect is, at best, a guessing game. Once appointed, the new CEO is presided over by a board whose long-range view of any business is encumbered by its limited understanding of the organisation’s industry and changing dynamics.

CEO’s therefore must champion the insight mining cause to gather intelligence on the industry, competitors and markets that the board needs in order to develop enough strategic foresight. Reality however could not be further from the truth. A study by world-renowned management thinkers Professor Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad, noted that in most organisations, less than 3-5% of executive time was devoted to looking outwards and developing foresight.

Instead they recommend that 20-30% of executive time must be devoted to formulating a strategic view of the future. A further study by Robert Kaplan of the Balanced Scorecard fame reveals that more than 80% of executives spend less than 1 hour a month on strategy discussion. Astonishingly, a staggering 50% spend no time at all!

Lack of strategic insight therefore relegates boards to reviewing thick board packs limited to conformance monitoring aspects around governance and compliance. The board-executive structure of most organisations therefore is at its weakest when it comes to instigating the long-term strategic thinking debate. Who asks the tough questions and who provides the answers? Who proposes and who provides the critique between the Board and the executive committee?

‘Strategic Thinking’ is every leader’s business

The long-range strategic thinking role of the CEO is not just limited to board level input, but is critical to instill to the rest of the executive and senior management teams as a way of doing business. Consider the following hypothetical example of a cruise ship operating company.

Much like the captain of a cruise ship is charged with its safety and adherence to its voyage plan, the CEO of the cruise company itself is charged with overall asset protection, appreciation and growth plans as agreed with shareholders. Further analysis of the two roles however, reveals a more complex set of variables that transform what are, seemingly, straightforward roles, into constant give-and-take decisions. They both need doses of the near-term view as well as a healthy big picture perspective; these two components are core to the practice of strategic thinking.

For the captain, he must constantly take trade-off decisions between providing passenger service with adequate stopover intervals in ports en route and keeping to the time schedule of the voyage. He must balance operational efficiency and safety of the voyage with the need to increase speeds between ports to stay on schedule: fuel consumption and safety risk will increase as a result. He must constantly monitor changeable whether conditions, wind speeds, the swell of the oceans and visibility changes and how all of this impacts voyage safety, economy and time schedule.

On-board the ship, guest services such as catering and entertainment are rendered in accordance to a fail-safe voyage schedule with low tolerances for error to guarantee the desired economic return when replicated over many voyages.

The captain’s job therefore is about constantly reviewing the long-range plan of the voyage while negotiating the short-term potential challenges facing it. Central to his performance is the need to optimize tactical changes to the voyage, sometimes enforced by safety requirements, with the need to maintaining the economic proposition of the cruise business itself. He must plan, forecast and anticipate the voyage as it unfolds in phases from port to port without neglecting the global perspective of the final destination and the economic payback to the larger business.

Hands-on CEOs

For the CEO, he has to wrestle with capital demands of maintaining a fleet in an environment where safety reputation is the heartland of the business. He must champion a culture of safety-based customer service that keeps the passengers coming back while maintaining the attractiveness of the company to investors, financiers and analysts.

He must have an ear to the ground, tracking industry product and market changes and regulatory environmental issues. Further, the CEO must oversee a balanced portfolio of cruise ships in terms of size and appointments suited for achieving operational and cost efficiencies in the company’s chosen routes. He must continuously track the competitive landscape and rivals’ customer value propositions, enhancing the overall customer experience and the need to balance all of that with costs and margin implications.

He must maintain cost leadership without sacrificing market share growth while staying clear of aggressive price wars that could ultimately undermine profitability. He must be awake to swings in consumer demand that global economic shocks can deal on the leisure travel industry and how his business is prepared for the worst case scenario should it materialise.

He must question the durability of the company’s current strategy and business model and the extent to which it can continue to serve the cruise company shareholders in the long-term. He must clarify the leadership, skills, organisational capabilities and culture that will be required to take the company to the next competitive phase.

Both the captain and the CEO have to make tactical decisions as well as long-range decisions without the certainty of adequate information. In this way, their jobs are similar in profile but not in scope. Each has a unique decision-making context, applying a unique repertoire of strategic thinking skills and competencies along the way while taking resource allocation decisions.

Strategic thinking is more art than an exact science

Championing an organisation’s long-term prospects is part science but mostly art. Business school executive education programs that are case study driven emphasize reasoning skills and analytical logic. They are big on teaching strategy as a process of extrapolating the future using a rear-view mirror approach where past experiential learning carries a big weighting in how executives perceive and judge the probable future of businesses and their performance.

Crucially though, the art of forecasting the future strategy of the company in this way is based on one fallible assumption: that the business model will remain the same. However, the global rate of change currently spares no organisation: unexpected market and competitor disruptive forces introduce a game changer in every industry by the day, with it business models are decaying at an alarming rate.

Arrival of digital photographic technology brought iconic Kodak to its knees as management procrastinated on changing a fast decaying business model even as the ground collapsed around the company. They chose incremental change when what was needed was breakthrough innovative thinking that would have kept pace with the rate of change in the industry, with dire consequences

Long-range strategic thinking is one of artistic dreaming and imagination in which the CEO must intuitively and courageously lead the business model rethink and rejuvenation. Pure science and rationality can then be applied to concretise and test the commercial strength of the business case; it simply cannot be the starting point.

The business-planning craze in many organisations has chocked companies of much needed idea generation and finding new sources of future value that strategic thinking can deliver. Long-range strategic thinking is a game in controlled experimentation ignoring the operational results of the current business model because it is not an incremental management process.

Rather it focuses more on artistically imagining and describing a series of probable, ideal and hostile future scenarios to which the model company of the future must be matched. With every scenario, the model must be concrete enough for its operational and performance implications to be readily apparent.

The transition from short to long-term thinking

The resistance to long-range strategic thinking in most executives is reference to the practice as ‘the warm and fuzzy.’ Abstract art that requires imaginative and creative interpretation in a top gallery attracts the same ‘warm and fuzzy’ description from casual critics hence it has striking similarity to how long-term thinking is invariably perceived.

Making the transition from the concrete world of short-term scientific extrapolation in operational strategy to the warm and fuzzy artistic design of long-range corporate strategy is the biggest challenge facing most CEO’s and executives. Of necessity, taking short-term decisions entails reference to existing, tangible and visible set of data and information in a finite decision space.

The average executive team can achieve this with minimal pain. The long-range strategic decision-making exercise is a voyage into the unknown. It is a barely tangible world, with infinite variables and risks that only brave but artistically deep CEO’s are comfortable to flirt with. The real skill lies in fabricating that unknown future so well that it resembles a picture of reality despite it being a process riddled with uncertainty.

Every business must engage in long-range thinking because it is primarily the source of revitalization and continuous re-alignment of the business model. CEO’s of distinction not only invest copious amounts of time in artistic strategic design but also lead similarly minded management teams at every level whose core job is to keep re-inventing the business and finding new sources of competitiveness.  No wonder that strategic thinking ability is singled out as the no.1 executive skill demanded by world-class companies, it is the essence of the CEO’s leadership role.

Lizwe Nkala is an influential corporate strategist working at executive and board levels of large corporations. He is the MD of Flamingo Moon Consulting and a founding partner of the Strategic Thinking Institute, where he coaches executives and presents tailored strategic thinking seminars and webinars, and provides strategic thinking tools and templates on a subscription basis for corporate clients. For more, visit www.flamingomoon.co.za

Strategy

What’s The Worst That Can Happen With A Disgruntled Silent Shareholder?

Whether a shareholder brings capital to the business, experience or connections, you need to ensure everyone has the same vision and values.

Kyle Torrington

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While we often hear that it can be bad to have a silent shareholder that does not want to play ball, it is not often that we make enquiries about how the governance of a company can be hindered by a disgruntled shareholder.

Most of us assume that as long as they own more than 50% of their own company, they are entirely in control of all aspects of the company and how it is governed. This is not true: Even if you are a majority shareholder, holding less than 75% of all the shares in your company can still result in headaches if a minority shareholder, holding at least 25% of the company, becomes disgruntled and neither participates in the decisions of the company, nor consents to the decisions being made.

What is set out below highlights, among others, why it is so important to give shares in a company to prospective shareholders over a period of time, rather than from the outset. This allows for shareholders to prove their worth without you potentially placing your company in a position where it could be held at ransom for many years.

Related: 7 Factors To Determine Who Are Your Employees (And Who Aren’t)

The illusion of holding more than 50% of the shareholding in a company

  • Many people assume that by holding more than 50% of the shares in a company they are free to do with the business as they please. This generally only holds true for basic decisions of the shareholders, such as the removal and appointment of directors. The most important decisions of a company are based on special resolutions. A special resolution requires that shareholders, either individually or collectively, holding at least 75% of all the shares in a company, vote in favour of a specific decision.
  • Examples of decisions that require a special resolution include:
    • Amending a company’s Memorandum of Incorporation
    • Approving the issuing of shares or granting of other similar rights
    • Authorising the basis for determining directors’ salaries
    • Disposing of company assets
    • Mergers and acquisitions.

So, what does this mean for you and your company?

  • If you are a start-up looking to raise funds, apart from some exceptions, you will not be able to issue further shares to new shareholders or anyone other than existing shareholders if there is a shareholder that is effectively dead weight.
  • Should you manage to vote a new director to the board, you will not be able to determine the basis on which they are compensated (their salary) without a special resolution.
  • If you intend to merge with another company, you will not be able to pursue this without a special resolution.
  • If you plan to raise money by disposing of or selling most of the assets of your company you will, once again, be prevented from doing so.

Related: Reality Check: You Probably Don’t Own That Work You Outsourced

Accordingly, it is always best when starting a venture to vest your shares over a period of time. This means that, for example, shareholders are only entitled to have their shares allocated to them after a certain period of time to avoid a situation where you have a dead-weight equity shareholder hindering the governing of your company, and requiring possible litigation to remove them.

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Strategy

There’s More To Team Management Than Leadership

When you’re running a business you need to ensure that your employees are on your side, helping you to make profits. Giving them job security, taking them seriously and treating them with respect, will go a long way in enhancing loyalty and productivity.

Henry Sebata

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The staff that work for you determine:

  1. How happy your customers are with your business
  2. The quality of the things that you sell
  3. The costs that you incur to sell your products and services
  4. Your risks – the things that can go wrong and how much it costs you

All of these things determine your profitability and how competitive your business becomes. How do you ensure that everyone is on the same side and helping you to make profits?

At work everyone believes that they are getting something (such as money) and are giving something in return (such as time and effort). They are weighing up in their mind “how much am I giving, how much am I getting in return and is this fair?” If they believe that they are:

  • Giving too much or
  • Getting too little
  • Then this is unfair, and they won’t work well (poor productivity – how much they produce).

Related: Why Innovative Employee Benefits Are Your Competitive Advantage

The manager needs to:

  • Know what people are thinking about what they are giving and getting and
  • Manage the giving or getting side
  • So that people become more productive

In a smaller business you sometimes cannot afford to pay more or provide the sort of benefits (pensions, medical aid, bursaries etc.) that larger firms can and so the staff may be unhappy, not be productive and be on the look-out for something better.

How do you increase happiness without money?

Everyone wants:

  1. Job security – knowing that you will still have a job next year – and that you will get paid on time.
  2. Contributing to the success of the business. If you train staff to have the knowledge and skills to do a better job and you then encourage and support them to do this then they are happier, and you increase profits. If you then share some of these profits with the staff that helped you to make them then everyone wins!
  3. To be taken seriously and treated with respect. If you do this then staff are happier, and they will also treat your customers with respect.
  4. To be part of the team. You can often do this by having a regular briefing on what your plans are and discussing ideas. Because staff are doing the actual work they will often have good ideas and then will be motivated to implement them – it was their idea after all!

Staff leaving you all the time is a can destroy significant value. If you implement the strategy above, you will have happier staff that are more productive and a more profitable business.

Read next: Understanding Your Responsibility As An Employer

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Strategy

Jeff Bezos Reveals 3 Strategies for Amazon’s Success

One of the richest men in the world shared his leadership tips for running a company.

Hayden Field

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“It remains Day 1.” That’s how Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, signed off in his 2018 letter to shareholders. He’s been propagating the “day 1” mantra for decades, and it’s meant as a reminder that Amazon should never stop acting like a start-up – even though the company now boasts more than 560,000 employees and more than 100 million members of Amazon Prime, the company’s paid service for free shipping on select items.

Here are some of the most useful nuggets of wisdom Bezos shared in his letter and during a recent onstage interview:

1. Standards are contagious

Bezos says he believes high standards are teachable rather than intrinsic. “Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt,” he writes. “The opposite is also true.”

If a company or team operates with low standards, a new employee will often – perhaps even unwittingly – adjust their work ethic accordingly.

He also says that high standards in one area don’t automatically translate to high standards in another – it’s important for people to discover their “blind spots.”

Related: Executive Director Hasnayn Ebrahim’s 5 Rules For Strategic Growth In Your Business

Try making a list of your duties, then ask trusted colleagues to tell you which responsibilities are your greatest strengths. If certain things from the list don’t come up during the conversation, it might be useful to think about how you can up your personal standards in those areas.

2. Set clear, realistic expectations

If you’re looking to raise your standards in a particular area, the first course of action is to outline what quality looks like in that area. The second is to set realistic expectations for yourself – or for your team – regarding how much work it will take to achieve that level of quality.

Exhibit A: You won’t find a single PowerPoint presentation at an Amazon company meeting. Instead, teams write six-page narrative memos to prepare everyone else for the meeting.

Bezos says the quality of the memos vary greatly because writers don’t always recognise the scope of the work required to reach high standards.

Related: Jeff Bezos: 9 Remarkable Choices That Shaped The Richest Man In The World

“They mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!” Bezos writes.

3. Stay involved with the people you’re serving

Whether you’re selling a product or service, it’s a good idea to make sure you never lose touch when it comes to the people you’re serving – no matter how high up the ladder you climb.

Related: Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

Bezos says he still reads emails from his public inbox (jeff@amazon.com) as a way to keep his finger on the pulse of what’s happening with Amazon customers.

He says he believes focusing on what customers are saying is much more important for success than focusing on what competitors are doing, and he often compares customer feedback to company data to see where they misalign.

“When the anecdotes and the data disagree,” Bezos said at a recent leadership forum at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, “the anecdotes are usually right.”

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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