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Help helps: Solving the strategy deficiency

Shane Needham

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Coconspirators, from left: Chief Growth Officer Shane Needham, Chief Brand Officer Saya Heathco and Chief Connection Officer Ally Gannon.

It seems all too often we find ourselves without the time and space for a good think. Amidst the hundreds of emails and the oppressive number of video calls and meetings, we struggle to include our individual work tasks into each day. So it goes without saying that finding time for strategic work has become not only challenging but an inevitable “someday” item on our list. Yet, 95% of business leaders surveyed by the Management Research Group stated that being strategic is most important to their organization’s success.

So why is there such a disparity between value and priorities?

In research done by Richard Horwath, CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute, the top 10 challenges leaders face, when it comes to strategic performance, were identified. The top two were time and commitment. Rounding out the top five challenges were an absence of clear priorities, a fear of change, and the lack of understanding of what strategy even is.

If we look a little closer at strategy as it pertains to marketing and demand generation, we see a more grim picture. In a recent article in Marketing Week, Mark Ritson posited that 90% of marketers never develop a strategy at all. It’s a good article as it aims to bring to light that the “horror of strategic bankruptcy is about to be laid to bare” and defines that horror as a growing deficit of positive results and an increase of opportunities missed outright.   

These indicators certainly bring our vision of the future of our organizations into a rather harsh perspective. At some point, as business leaders, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to reprioritize the day-to-day in favor of what our brands need to survive and thrive.

So … what do we do about it? How do we make room between the firefighting and the managerial functions of our work (oh, and all those emails) to bring a sharper strategic focus to our brands? How do we establish a more sustainable strategic practice to carry our brand from good to great?

The simple answer is to prioritize the important over the urgent. Easier said than done, right? Then there are the other challenges of change and understanding what real strategy even looks like.

Well, let’s look at this from another perspective. What do you do when the lawn needs to be mowed more often than you have time for, or you need to fix that leak in the shower, but you know it’s going to be a bigger job than you’re capable of? You call someone. You hire someone to help you with the things you can’t do by yourself. The same is available for the strategic work necessary to keep your brand relevant to your customers, sustainable for your stakeholders, and more successful all around. You can hire an outside team to help.

At this point, I would like to point out that I did not just spend nine paragraphs of build-up to tell you about consultants. I mean, I did – but then again, no.

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to strategic thinking and prioritizing the bigger picture items, an external solution is often more effective than trying to muscle it into your schedule while wringing you and your team dry in the process.

The value of an outside perspective is well documented. We don’t have to look further than the $250 billion management consulting industry to see that. However, when we look at the frequency with which external resources can bring new ideas, innovative practices and a level of accountability to the process, we begin to get a glimpse of the real opportunity.

An outside strategy firm can bring you a variety of opportunities to address your brand’s strategic needs. Whether it be facilitated workshops or a process for strategic integration, a seasoned strategy team can make a measurable impact quickly.

Of course, just like any other contractor, who you choose and how you lead that relationship makes all the difference. Ask lots of questions and ensure their process and passion is in line with your vision. Then follow a few simple rules:

  1. Follow Their Lead: During your due diligence, you inquired about the process. If they had a well-documented process that met your needs and expectations, then trust your decision and put them to work. Let them lead you and your team through the process.
  2. Put in the Work: Hiring a strategy firm isn’t a silver bullet and doesn’t mean you can go back to answering emails and taking meetings. Your involvement is pivotal to achieving any results, let alone positive ones.
  3. Good Input is Good Output: Makes sense, right? Well, it doesn’t work if you hold back. A good firm is not there to judge or tell you you’re doing it wrong, but they do need to know the good, the bad and the ugly. It will only help in the long run.
  4. Ask Questions, Listen, Disagree, and Listen Some More: The relationship only works with open dialogue and contrary opinions. Even the best consultants don’t know it all, and they get better with each conversation and every interaction.
  5. Build a Relationship: Many consultants got into doing the work because they wanted to develop relationships with a broader range of people. Trust is important, but a strong relationship will build more than trust, resulting in an intrinsic concern for your business and its success.

Expect that any strategy project will require a three to six-month engagement with a good firm. While they may make you feel like you’re their only client, I can assure you that you are not. You’ll want your new extended team to have time to focus on your business, so make sure you’re not in a rush.

Of course, the nature of your brand’s strategic needs will dictate the length, cost and complexity of your engagement. The opportunity to learn and grow yourself is another outcome of this approach. When it works, both business leaders and external resources often forge a bond that brings value for years to come.

OK, so this is where we wrap this up …

Strategy is important. We know it, and yet we don’t give it nearly enough of our attention. The daily distractions that keep us away from our strategic priorities will not suddenly fade and reveal the time and focus on prioritizing this work. The risk we assume by not tending to what is essential grows with each day. However, there are opportunities to engage external resources as insiders to our business that can help move us forward and keep us focused on what is truly important. 

While the challenge and the work may be complex, the answer is simple; help helps. Don’t hesitate to find it.

Shane Needham is the founder and Chief Growth Officer of the St. Petersburg-based executive marketing firm Coconspirator.

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