Tag Archives: leadership

What is Strategy?

It’s how decisions are made.  



Strategy is not a thing nor is it an event. Annual strategic planning is not strategy. Having a strategic plan is not strategy. Strategy is not linear. Leaders who gather one time a year to develop a strategy is not strategy. Science alone is not strategy. Art alone is not strategy. An officer in charge of strategy is not strategy. Having profit goals is not strategy. Customer focus is not strategy. 

Why start out with what strategy is not

To support a reset. To challenge conventional understanding. Books about performance, execution, implementation and outcomes remain among the most recommended business books. 

Leaders and managers in all types of organizations have fallen into the ‘pressures of results’.  Pressure that publicly traded companies assume on ‘managers’ to perform which equals return a profit to shareholders. The flaw in this focus is that it is not only narrowly defining what success means but it also puts weight on the outputs and not the things that go into creating a growing, high performing organization. (We’ll delve more into this in a future post.)

Strategy is a lot of things but most simply ‘strategy is how decisions are made.’ 

Nothing helped me to distill that simple ‘tweet length’ definition better than the engaging, curious and challenging dialogue with master’s degree students in sustainability. With an open mindset they also reconcile that ‘business as usual’ is not working and success looks differently. That opened my own mind to consider the limitations of a business model that had relegated strategy to a function, person or event. 

No matter how much or how little planning or formalization goes into defining a decision or the decision-making process, is informed by strategy or lack of one. 


The RitzCarlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience.” – Ritzcarlton.com 

In alignment with this mission, Ritz-Carlton has granted every employee with $2000 budget, daily, to use at their discretion to rectify a customer concern. Consider the time when a member guest did not receive a wake-up call at the requested time and missed his flight. The hotel agent receiving this situation was able to mail him and his wife (known as part of the customer profile) an embossed robe shipped to his home with overnight service with a note of apology. 

Ritz-Carlton’s strategy is to ensure that they deliver on their mission through empowering every single employee with decision-making power: a no-questions-asked-budget to rectify any customer issue or to provide service that delights them. This spurs creativity, agency and ownership of the brand which pays greater dividends than the cost of using the budget amounts. 

Whether a barista in a coffee shop or a manager on a manufacturing floor or a teller at a bank or the founder of a start-up, the information an individual uses to make a decision is largely and sometimes exclusively driven by strategy, good or bad. 


Comprehensive definitions of the components of creating strategy include aspects that 


are science based and components that are art based. Military leaders have provided a model of leadership that balances information, tactics and knowledge with deduction,lessons learned, insights and even intuition.

The things that comprise a strategy include the components core to an organization’s reason for being: vision, mission, values and purpose. Strategy is also informed by decision-rules, organizational structure, and most importantly the promise to the customer. (yes, this last one is informed by mission and purpose in a well-founded organization but I’ll share later why I call it out as separate.)

Some questions that inform an understanding of how decisions are made: is the organizational structure hierarchical or traditional in managers having command and sharing information? Are ideas formally asked for or is there a culture of trust with a ‘no fear of failure’ where any idea is something to consider and vet? Are all individuals tied to the mission or customer impact or just a specific customer-facing group? Is the purpose of the organization aligned to the day-to-day work of the organization? Is time dedicated to strategic thinking, as a distinct exercise different from planning or implementation? 


As part of my own learning to teach strategy after years of consulting on strategy, I most serendipitously met Julia Sloan. She is the world’s expert in Learning to Think Strategically and just gifted me the 4th edition copy of her book.  

How we learn to think sets the foundation for how we actually do strategy. And if we are not prepared to learn and grow from that learning, we are limited in our ability to ‘do’ strategy or be strategic. Her research with leaders about the role that thinking plays in doing strategy has informed all that I do. She sets forth a simple triangle. 

Her lectures confirm that there are tensions that connect each aspect of the strategic IMG_20191117_085240.jpgprocess: thinking, planning and implementation. They change all of the time based on circumstances and factors that affect business and organizational interactions. This requires that the manager of strategy be comfortable in such tensions and navigating a changing environment. Using structure to honor the role of thinking by all players, is the ultimate objective of any leader. 


Strategy is dedicated time for thinking. Ensuring the problem is defined correctly before diving into solving. Ensuring ideas are exhausted to best position for innovation. Ensuring trust is established to welcome the identification of the proverbial elephant in the room. 

Strategy is a system. Interdependent parts of art and science each being called upon depending on the situation at hand or the objectives aspired. 

Strategy is supported by all roles having clear expectations and contributing in alignment – aka complimentary or mutually supportive, to the purpose of the organization or it’s reason for existence. 

Strategy is bringing inputs – people, resources, knowledge, information and potential all together in the most essential, thoughtful and consistent manner possible. 

Strategy is realizing (that means subsequent to something) that the inputs you have brought together will respond, creating outputs. These in turn will yield outcomes, good or bad. 

Strategy is most often associated with business practices or large organizations. But any organization of people, for profit or not, incorporated or community organized, either formally or informally evolves from strategy that is strong or strategy that is lacking. 

So after reflecting on both the living of strategy in organizations, the teaching of strategy to business students worried about shifting business for good and my own process of learning, I remain committed to this definition. It invites us to consider the inputs, the complexity of those and that our leadership creates impact, taking time to shift that impact. 

Strategy is how decisions are made.


Dr. Jula Sloan and I at NationSwell East Summit 11/2019

It’s the Who, Not the What

It was the Spring of 1999 and I was taking a break at work. I was planning a trip to Sedona Arizona. Additionally, I had just consolidated all outstanding college-related debt including canceling of all credit cards and was feeling ‘free’ – ready to redefine the trajectory of my somewhat mundane life. I was about to click ‘purchase’ when one of the executives requested a brief discussion in her office.

Three months, and much ‘how-are-you-providing-unique-value-to-our-country’ paperwork later, I was ready to relocate to our office in Sydney Australia. My new ‘Go-to’, or manager, would be Gale. I knew him a little bit but recall knowing that he was highly regarded and would be my main advisor in this consulting role in Gallup’s most recent acquisition. I would also have reporting responsibility to the country manager and regional leader. The most important thing I would learn in the first few months was who to go to for what. A true matrix.

After reminding my mother that my current life was more on hold than her perception of what this might be, Gale and I met in SFO to take me to a new city. We flew business class. Using his many millions of miles. He chuckled apologetically as we took off, noting that this would likely be my last company-sponsored business class ticket. It was also my first. I remember little about the details of our working 15+-hour journey from California. I recall more reflection and consideration, more about getting to know myself, the new consultant in a city center new to the company but not new to the current employees or customers. I wish I could find those notes or recall more details of his thoughts and how they helped me to know myself or realize I should.

This was pre-virtual work environments. But not pre-globalization. Gale was globalization. He built this sort of relationship with consultants and researchers on all continents. While we would meet in person only two times per year, Gale was always an email or a phone call away, no matter the time of day in Lincoln. I so looked forward to those breakfast meetings during my US visits; the opportunity to get input on my laundry list of hugely important items.

When it was time to acknowledge my expat duties were complete and return to the states, he said “Steph, I would like to give you a choice but we really need you in Seattle. Are you ok with Seattle?” Of course I was ok with Seattle, I trusted the who. While I would end up with a different city and a choice about that, I would always know from his human-first approach, that he was juggling the interests and talents of his humans, in cities all over the world, in balance of company strategy.

As the best example of mentoring leadership and humanity in business, I now reconcile all that Gale taught me and so many other consultants. Almost all of it was as an example to us, not as a manager of us. During the most stressful days of my career, I would be trusted. To navigate, to ask, to defer, to observe, to push, to fail, to learn, and to expect.

I attribute so many key lessons in leadership to working with Gale. Trust. Patience. Perspective. Discernment. Candor. Humor – even in the most serious of situations.

gale kay

Gale and Kay Muller at our wedding, November 2005.

In the most fundamental way, he also was my best teacher about the value a consultant provides to customers. Whether they be internal or external. He simply outlined his view of time and how we help customers according to insight and issues, always through a team.

As we celebrate his life and the peace that his suffering on earth is over, I wonder if he knew how much who he was helped so many become who they are. I hope to some degree he did. I feel so thankful for having such an incredible manager, mentor and friend during such significant milestones in my career. To him I imagine his guidance was meaningful but also part of his day-to-day normal way of interacting with others. It was who he was.