“Strategy” is a word that attracts a lot of excitement in the business world. People who work on strategy get paid more and senior executives like to use the word a lot to talk about their decisions.
In consulting, I worked with many companies helping them to develop strategies. Although these were often focused on different levels of the business and different topics, all of the “strategies” were similar.
They each included:
- A synthesis of all of the relevant information about a company (trends, financials, expert perspectives, research, competitors, market, etc…)
- A story of how the company leaders think about the future of the company
- A set of specific initiatives that are a probabilistic bet on a specific future
Because people see strategy as something that is complex, they rarely spend any time thinking about their own companies’ strategy. I think that is a mistake and I want to show you that not only is strategy simpler than you think but developing your own strategic perspective can help accelerate your career and help you work on more interesting projects.
Strategy Is Simple (Example: Pepsi)
Most people don’t realize that you can find the strategy documents of most public companies by going to their investor relations page and then looking for recent presentations that they have made at conferences. In these presentations, you will find frameworks that outline a high-level vision of the company. These kinds of things are also included in most companies’ annual reports or 10-K documents.
Here is a page from a recent conference presentation Pepsi made to consumer equity analysts in New York:
It includes a high-level mission, vision, and then what they call the “PepsiCo Way.” This is essentially the strategy.
While your first thought might be “this is too simple!” – there is a reason for that. In a company as big as Pepsi, simple is better. Simple enables the ideas to spread more easily. I guarantee a majority of the company knows that “Faster. Stronger. Better.” is a core focus of the company.
At the highest level, a strategy is a story. It’s a story of where the company is headed and what bets the company is making to capture more upside in that future. The best explanation I’ve seen of a strategy is as a probabilistic bet on the future. In consulting, if you are helping a client with their strategy, you might help them make some specific decisions or trade-offs on urgent matters but what you are really doing is trying to help them increase their odds of success. If you can help a client increase their confidence from 30 to 75% that their industry is going to shift in a specific way, they can move faster, more accurately, and potentially invest more money.
I’m not going to share the whole presentation here but if you go look at it you’ll realize that there is a lot of thought behind this simple diagram. The presentation includes a detailed assessment of Pepsi’s past, its current situation, and then a lot of specific information about each of the three pillars.
It then breaks down the three pillars into a number of initiatives
For example, there are many pages of detail specific to “Stronger” coded as orange slides
Within each division of the company, these high level frameworks will be translated into tangible and measurable goals (though sometimes this is where the complexity of big companies can undermine things too). The way this is rolled out throughout the company is through formal meetings or strategy sessions. In these meetings, individual leaders of divisions will react to the high-level targets and set their own goals for their group. There’s often a bit of back and forth at this stage where people negotiate what they are able to reach. Bold goals might be great if you are able to meet them but if you fall short, that can really hurt your career.
There is much more to be said here but I really just wanted to give you a high-level perspective of what strategy looks like.
How To Develop Your Own Strategic Perspective
I was talking to a friend last week who is stuck in the middle of a large organization. He was looking for ways to stand out and start working on more interesting projects.
I asked him, “what’s your take on the company strategy?”
He had never thought about it.
Many people are in this position. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day flow of work and never take a step back.
I shared a simple approach he could take to develop a perspective on the company and it’s essentially the same process you might take working at the CEO level of a large company.
There are nuances, but these are the steps I would take:
#1 Find The Current Strategy: Like I mentioned before if your company is a public company you will likely be able to find a strategy presentation on the investor relations page. Just google “investor relations” and your company and then look for the “Events & Presentations” page. Often companies make pitches at industry conferences and will share their strategies publicly to motivate investors to invest money in the company. Another way is to read the quarterly earnings transcripts of the CEO and other company leaders. In this document, you will find word-for-word details of how company leaders are describing the company.
For example, in Pepsi’s most recent call, the CEO said that. “I think we’ve always seen innovation as a key driver of our competitive advantage in the marketplace and we’ve been investing a lot in R&D, we’ve invested a lot in insights and we’re connecting better. I think insights with R&D and the whole commercial execution to get the maximum return on those innovations”
If I were at Pepsi, I’d try to learn more about innovation, what departments have the biggest budget, and also think about how I might be able to find ways to work in areas that are developing insights and analysis.
#2 Spend Time Being Curious: Gather information on the current state of the company, industry, market, and competitors. Read all you can and start talking to people inside the company. Reach out to people whom you think are good communicators and let them know you want to learn more about the company and how they think. Ask questions about not only their views but how they developed them.
#3 Develop a Perspective: Start to develop your own view of what the company is doing and connect it both to what your division is working on and what you are specifically interested in. I would create a PowerPoint, Word, or notes document to capture ideas and interesting information you stumble upon. Eventually, you can experiment with creating your own frameworks or stories (a challenge might be to write one paragraph as if you were talking about the company on a quarterly earnings call). Since you are not the CEO you are likely in a unique position to see more of the reality of how the company is really operating and what opportunities are ignored.
#4 Share This, Slowly and Then More Broadly: Start talking with colleagues and see how they react to your evolving perspective. Some people may react negatively as it is uncomfortable for some people to act outside of what they see as the limits of their job. Try to connect your stories and view of the company to people’s specific divisions and jobs and see if they agree with what you are saying. For example, if you discover your company is investing in product innovation, ask people about their division’s goals for the number of new products they need to develop. The more you can connect your own perspective to what others are working on the more intrigued people will be. It’s also a way to signal to senior leaders that you are speaking their language. This puts you in a great position to ask for and get projects that are working on broader strategic objectives. Be proactive in finding this kind of work and then see what happens.
This is an ongoing practice and the longer you do it, the more likely you will start looking at everything you do differently. A big challenge that many people face is that they get stuck in the “middle management trap.” This is where you are rewarded and praised for executing familiar projects over and over again. This can be fine in the short term but over the long term, you will be passed over for people who are able to think and act at a higher level in the company.
By developing a strategic perspective you can put everything you do into the context of the company, communicate to others why it matters, and start giving feedback and ideas to the people around you.
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