What should “strategic management” really look like?

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Bought a book about strategic management at a bookstore in San Diego this weekend, because I’m a nerd. The book is called The Carrot Principle and I think most CEOs would use this book, and a $20 bill, to light their next bonfire. It mostly talks about recognition and engagement. As we all know, those are tough concepts to track — and because “what’s measured is what matters” is what drives the thinking of most senior leaders, well, these topics die in the flood. That’s why 6 in 10 senior leaders claim they “don’t have the time” to respect their employees, as if “respect” is something one schedules in Google Mail.

Near the beginning of this book, as the authors are laying out their research and concepts, they talk about four pillars of strategic management. In essence, these are the four things you need to do in order to be a good boss. This is backed up by literally decades upon decades of research. Ready? Drum roll.

The strategic management pillars:

  • Goal-Setting
  • Communication
  • Trust
  • Accountability

Seems logical, right? Let’s take a ferry ride through them quickly.

Strategic Management Pillar: Goal-Setting

This aspect of strategic management is actually more a reference to ‘goal alignment.’ That means aligning the strategy (big picture) of the work with the execution (day-to-day tasks). Most companies are terrible at this, as are their senior leaders. Most of it ultimately comes from poor priority management — 1–2 levels below the C-Suite, basically it’s a giant game of “Who’s on first?” In such a context, if you’re a rank-and-file employee, you’re coming in and working on day-to-day tasks that probably have no connection to any relevance at all. It’s fun! Back in my cubicle jockey days, I used to call this “no-ROI deliverables.” (Even doing freelance, you still encounter these.) Even super-high-growth companies are really bad at setting priorities. It happens everywhere.

Goal-setting is an important strategic management concept, then, but most companies (and more leaders) whiff on it like a six-year old facing down his first curveball. More on that in a second.

Strategic Management Pillar: Communication

Ah, yes. Communication. Most senior leaders will bellow and screech that it’s a “soft skill!” with “No ROI!” That’s actually not true. Check out this graph, from that link:

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I once had a senior leader at a job literally tell me “I ain’t got time for this fluffy shit, I slay revenue dragons!” That was said with a straight face. I’d hardly call that strategic management. Again, we’ll fix some of these problems in a second. Bear with me.

Strategic Management Pillar: Trust

Trust is essentially the currency of all human relationships. “Bosses” to “employees” are not exempt from this. However, there are a few potholes along the way. Companies don’t operate according to moral norms, for one. Empathy declines as people gain power, and empathy is crucial to trust. Most bosses don’t help you with your career goals. You can see that 6 in 10 respect stat above.

There’s also some documented work about the decline of ethics in the workplace.

If trust is truly a strategic management pillar, we’ve got a long way to go here.

Strategic Management Pillar: Accountability

For projects and processes to move along, people need to be held accountable to certain standards and deliverables. That’s the essence/core of most jobs. Here’s the issue, though. Many managers confuse ‘accountability’ with ‘scaring someone.’ And then, because many of our employee surveys are confidential due to legal fears, we completely strip away aspects of accountability there as well. In short, accountability is a legitimate aspect of strategic management — but not many people are out there doing it properly.

Strategic Management: So, what now?

We’ve got these four strategic management pillars above, right? And in each case, most traditional managers don’t seem to be doing a very good job with them. What now?

Well, first we need to remember a few things about management in general. Namely:

  • Most managers aren’t very good at their jobs (research)
  • Most managers focus on tasks and not people/energy (research)
  • Many managers are essentially target-chasers (opinion)
  • Management is not intuitive (expert research)

When you combine those four bullet points, here’s the first place you should reach: there’s no such thing as ‘strategic management.’ It’s a buzzword in 2016. Most management is task-to-task, meeting-to-meeting, call-to-call. You’re chasing bullet points and deliverables for 1–2 levels above you. It’s usually that simple. If you think you’re doing ‘strategic management’ and spend most of your day looking at Excel or Google Sheets or Outlook, re-evaluate your job role.

‘Strategic management’ typically happens at only one level: the C-Suite or top dogs. There are many problems with decision-makers at most orgs, including skewed views on new ideas and variability in the models of how decisions are made. But because most of us feel comfortable with hierarchy, this persists.

As a result, ‘strategic management’ is typically resigned to one level — for better or worse. But you yourself can be a better manager wherever you reside.

Strategic Management: The individual perspective

One of the biggest issues with work is that we try to approach everything at a macro level (big picture), but change really happens at a micro level (individual work).

So, if you are a manager of others, take heed of these four pillars of strategic management. Focus on goal-setting. Align the big picture to the day-to-day. Focus on trust. Build it. Talk to people. Focus on communication. Be clear. Don’t withhold information. And focus on accountability. Praise people when they do well. Course-correct when they don’t. Products, profits, and processes matter, yes — but so do people.

Back to this Carrot Principle book for a second. I’ve only read about 60 pages. (I read it on the plane last night.) There’s a good anecdote around page 50–55. These consultants go into a business and they ask the managers, “Hey, if there’s big news, how do you convey it?”

The managers say, predictably:

  • Newsletter!
  • Intranet!
  • All-hands meeting!
  • eBlast from the CEO!

The consultants say back: “These are good ideas, but are they guaranteed to reach everyone?”

The answer: of course not. People ignore e-mails. They don’t check Intranet. In an all-hands, they’re surfing Facebook.

Strategic management comes down to this, then: you communicate with the masses, but you manage to the one.


My name’s Ted Bauer. Here’s my blog. Here’s my newsletter. Want to be friends?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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