January 22, 2023




In this 8020Info Water Cooler, we consider what makes for a great strategist, how to lead like a steward, using clarity committees, questions to consider before promoting someone, and negotiating interdependent strategies. Enjoy!


1. What Makes for a Great Strategist?

Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, was recently asked by a student what skills are necessary to be a good strategist in “today’s wild world.”

His answer began with what won’t make for a good strategist:

  • a belief that strategy capability and IQ are correlated,
  • a belief that strategy is primarily an analytical exercise, and
  • a belief that strategy can be created by people divorced from operations.

Instead, a strategic mindset requires:

  • A belief that strategy starts with clients: It does not start with what shareholders want, or what core capabilities your organization has. “It starts with a profound appreciation of and fascination with customers, and a deep desire to make their lives/businesses better off. You will get better insights than most strategists who are merrily analyzing stuff will ever get,” he writes on Medium.
  • A belief that the world is a complex adaptive system: Hence it is probabilistic — the past cannot be extrapolated linearly into the future. At the same time, the future is not random and unknowable. The system in which you operate, he stresses, is “challenging to understand, but it has patterns that can be comprehended — not perfectly, but well enough to make educated guesses that can be tweaked and tweaked as you get feedback from the actions that you take.”
  • A confidence you can invent the future: Mediocre strategists believe optimizing the present is sufficient for success. Great strategists exploit what is and explore what might be.

2. How to Lead Like a Steward

Working as an estate planning attorney for the wealthy, David York became entranced by the notion of steward leaders — people fully invested in something bigger than themselves, thus making lasting impacts in the lives of others.

As he explains on the Leadership Now blog, here’s how they do it:

  • Use a because/therefore model for life: Most of the non-steward world operates within an “if/then” mindset — “if I do X, then Y will happen.” Stewards focus on their values, which is the driver of their actions. They are agents, investing energies in something bigger than themselves. “The expectations are on the self, not on the outcome: Because I value X, I expect myself to do Y.”
  • Care more about your successors than your own success: Stewards see their role as a temporary one. That makes them both open and forward-thinking, allowing them to take on goals and projects they could not accomplish alone or within their own lifetimes.
  • Make it all about purpose, not possessions: Unless we are careful, what we own tends to own us back; our businesses, homes, and properties all come at a cost. “Stewards are unique because they aren’t held down by anything because they are owned by nothing but their purpose,” he says.
  • Counterbalance your why and how: Steward leaders counterbalance transcendence (their why) with investment (their how) and allow the force of each to magnify the other.

This type of leadership path, he stresses, is rewarding but challenging.

3. Creating a Clearness Committee

When you’re faced with a difficult decision, veteran business writer Theodore Kinni recommends establishing a clearness committee.

This builds upon the Quaker idea that we have voices of distortion within us —voices of greed, fear, anger, envy, and violence— and to rely on your inner teacher, you need a mechanism for sorting out what voice you’re hearing and following.

How it’s done:

Clearness committees have five or six people who meet with the decision-maker, fully focusing their attention on his or her problem for a couple of hours, asking pertinent questions.

The members of the clearness committee are forbidden from saying anything, except to ask open, honest questions that will help that person have a deeper conversation with himself or herself.

They are not there to advise, or fix, or save the person from a mistake. What they think should be done is irrelevant. They are there to assist the person to access their own emotions and thinking.

“The desired outcome of a clearness committee is not necessarily a specific solution; it is clarity about the problem for the person in the problem,” Kinni sums up in strategy + business.

4. Are You an Authentic Leader?

Sales executive Steve Keating says authentic leaders know that when a team member underperforms, there are only two issues: The team member is in the wrong role, or the leader did not give the team member the tools and training needed to be successful.

He acknowledges some people chafe at that formulation, believing they are not responsible for poor attitudes of staff or their failure to follow directions.

On his blog he counters: “What you’re really saying, [when you say] those things, is that you’re not responsible for anything. You’re saying that you are not an authentic leader.”

5. Zingers

  • Three Roles for Leaders: Consultant Wally Bock says people who lead within organizations have three types of work:  leadership, which involves setting direction and helping the team maintain momentum, and management, which is getting the mundane stuff done so everything runs smoothly. Then there’s supervision, often forgotten in the great debate about management versus leadership, which is the one-to-one part of your job and is essential for great team performance. (Source: Three Star Leadership).
  • Narratives, Commitments and Tasks: Leadership consultant Ravi Mehta recommends replacing Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) with Narratives, Commitments and Tasks. Start with a strategic narrative of what the team wants to accomplish, followed by 3­–5 deliberate and objectively measurable commitments that everyone agrees must be attained, and then the tasks to get there. (Source: First Round Review).
  • Second Thoughts: Entrepreneur Seth Godin advises you to distinguish between second thoughts that won’t take you anywhere and those that are productive – associated with problems worthy of re-examination a second, third or fourth time. (Source: Seth’s Blog).
  • Fond Farewells: Consultant Julie Winkle Giulioni urges you to rethink your response when an employee resigns. Make it warm, which can build your employment brand and leave the door open for good talent to return.    (Source: JulieWinkleGiulioni.com).
  • Learning Leaders: Let people see you learning, advises leadership coach Dan Rockwell. You might say, “I am reading this great book; what are you reading?” or, “I used to think X but now I think Y.” Another helpful, related idea: Let people see you giving second chances. (Source: LeadershipFreak).

6. The List: Seven Questions Before Promoting Someone

Here are seven questions New Zealand leadership consultant Suzi McAlpine recommends asking to ensure you are promoting the right person:

  • Are they a great coach?
  • Are they a “we before me” player?
  • Are they a great communicator?
  • Are they already leading?
  • Do they emulate the values of the organization and are they ethical and trustworthy?
  • Are they performing in their current role – not necessarily a top performer, but doing well?
  • Do they even want to take up a people leadership role?.


7.  Around Our Water Cooler 

Negotiating interdependent strategies

This year the talk around our water cooler has focused on the value of taking consultations with stakeholders deeper, beyond standard practice for strategy development.

Many organizations routinely ask for input from staff, clients, partners, and funders. They seek their take on the pressure points of needs and operating conditions. With that input in hand, they sit down internally to hash out strategic choices, priorities and objectives.

But your strategy-making process may need something more, particularly when dealing with systems that are complex and dynamic.

When interdependent strategies might make sense:

  • Think of social service agencies, for example, making strategy independently in response to the swirl of players and programs helping people cope with a tangle of poverty, addiction, mental health, food insecurity and homelessness.
  • Or in healthcare, where hospitals, primary care practitioners and allied health professionals seek to work more closely with home and community care services. Their success is interdependent from a patient’s point of view.
  • Facing tight budgets, smaller non-profits often lack scale to achieve operational efficiencies needed for back-office functions such as human resources, financial or tech administration. Can compatible partners split the work?

We have seen effective approaches used by our local KFLA United Way, recently ranked in the top 10 charities in Canada. They work with community partners to develop a shared sense of direction and then design their own strategic role within it.  That leads to solutions you can’t achieve on your own.

We also worked with a local municipality that brought a dozen partners together (business associations, social service agencies and infrastructure managers) to respond more effectively to conditions that lead to vulnerable people asking for help on our street corners. It had the flavour of community development, everyone had a part to play, and the city was able to find its own strategy within a broader consensus on actions needed.

Interconnected clusters of ideas all support and enable each other.

As Steven Johnson has noted in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, the best ideas usually do not come from inside just one person’s head. Instead, they come from social interaction. We can take that concept a step further to consider developing interdependent strategies.

It takes more time and effort to negotiate a strategy involving coordinated commitments among collaborative partners. The process bumps into different goals, mandates, cultures and operating styles. But the result can be far better than from making your own strategies in isolation.

What We’re Reading:

  • Harvey’s Pick: In Behavioral Economics for Leaders, a neatly organized and well-written package, researcher Matthias Sutter brings together key studies on the workplace that often counter our traditional managerial practices.
  • Rob’s Pick: Here’s a selection brought to my attention by our friends, Phil and Catherine Gaudreau at Make It Matter Media).  ThinkerToys,  a handbook of creative thinking techniques by Michael Michalko, shares hints, tricks, tips, details, puzzles and exercises to help you approach problems in unconventional ways. Not all of them are new, but they can be refreshing and thought-provoking if you need to stimulate new ideas.


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8020Info helps senior leadership teams and boards develop, clarify and build consensus behind strategic priorities. Our services support strategic planning and change processes, marketing communications and research / stakeholder consultations. We would be pleased to discuss your needs and welcome enquiries.

8.  Closing Thought 

“What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt — it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Hal Boyle, journalist