Stephanie Mead and Steven Stowell on “The Art of Strategic Leadership”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

mead-1Stephanie S. Mead, MBA, is the co-author of five books, including The Art of Strategic Leadership: How Leaders at All Levels Prepare Themselves, Their Teams, and Organizations for the Future, and has also published many shorter works on the topics of strategy, leadership, teamwork, and facilitating the work of teams. Stephanie is the Executive Vice President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness (CMOE) and has two decades of experience in operations management, leadership-development curriculum design, and organization-development consulting.

During her career with CMOE, she has designed complete leadership curriculums—including programs for supervisors, mid-level managers, and senior leaders—for some of the world’s leading organizations. Stephanie’s experience includes diagnosing training and development needs and creating customized learning programs. She has developed specialized learning experiences, blended learning programs, and executive-coaching programs aimed at maximizing human and organization performance and has also worked with national and international organizations diagnosing training and development needs and formulating solutions. Stephanie received her undergraduate degree in Business and Organization Behavior from Brigham Young University and her MBA from Westminster College.

stowell-1Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness (CMOE). Steve specializes in facilitation, training, and consulting with senior- and executive-leadership teams to help them develop the skills required to transform organizations into high-performance, strategically minded, team-oriented entities. Steve also spends time coaching leaders and executives on a one-on-one basis to help them further develop skills that will allow them to maximize their level of performance.

Steve earned his Ph.D. in Organization Behavior from the University of Utah and has served on the faculty at Oklahoma State University and the University of Utah. He has over 40 years of experience designing and delivering workshops and customized learning experiences covering dozens of leadership and management topics for some of the world’s largest companies. Steve and Stephanie have co-authored five books: The Art of Strategic Leadership (Wiley, 2016), Strategy Is Everyone’s Job (CMOE Press, 2013), The Team Approach (CMOE Press, 2nd ed. 2012), Ahead of the Curve (CMOE Press, 2005), and Leading Groups to Solutions (CMOE Press, 2002). In addition to the books listed above, Steve has also co-authored three other books: Win-Win Partnerships (CMOE Press, 1996), TeamWork (CMOE Press, 1994), and The Coach (CMOE Press, 1987; 2nd ed. 1998) as well as numerous articles.

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For those who have not as yet read The Art of Strategic Leadership, hopefully the responses in this portion of the interview will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

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First, when and why did you decide to write it?

Mead: Steve and I collaborated on two previous books on strategy, Ahead of the Curve and Strategy is Everyone’s Job. In those books, we focused on identifying practical steps, processes, and tools for developing strategy for yourself, your team, or the piece of the business you lead. Many leaders grapple with these issues, but what we’ve discovered is that strategy processes and steps also need to be coupled with certain leadership characteristics and qualities. So, in The Art of Strategic Leadership, we wanted to look at another important facet of strategic leadership: the personal qualities and attributes that strategic leaders possess. We wanted to get at the heart of what great strategic leaders actually do and the inner characteristics that drive them to be proactive. When we were originally exploring topics with Wiley in early 2015, we explained to them that this was the compelling need we were seeing in the market and an issue that every one of our clients is dealing with.

Stowell: I would add that we are confident that these practical ideas will help people become better leaders, build forward-thinking cultures, and serve as active contributors to the long-term success of their organizations. We have seen these qualities in action and we have seen them change lives, teams, and organizations. Our hope is that leaders who read the book will be able to identify the natural strengths they have, and then draw on those strengths as they identify and work on personal opportunities for improvement. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but self-awareness is the first step in guiding your pattern of leadership behaviors and thoughts.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Mead: Organizations are crying out for leaders and employees to have influence over their work, align with the organization’s or function’s strategy, and for individuals to have their own strategic-contribution concept. As we worked on the book, we realized how compelling this need is—even more so than we had originally realized. While we were working through the details of the seven qualities, we were amazed at how many of the managers we have worked with face these same issues and dilemmas in a demanding business environment, and we were really energized by the idea that we’d be able to speak to so many leaders with this book.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Mead: The final book is actually very similar to what we envisioned because the qualities were identified as a result of our ongoing research and the observations we’ve made in our training and consulting work. We began with a clear picture of what leaders need to do, we just wanted to articulate the message in a very compelling way. We also wanted to make the book easy to read and appealing to a variety of readers. We chose to introduce the qualities of strategic leadership as part of a fictional story about a bright leader and his team who are facing one of the greatest challenges of their careers. The situations, dilemmas, and characters we introduce in the book will be recognizable to most readers because they are based on the practical strategic challenges real managers face every day.

In the book, we also present concepts and suggestions for leaders who are seeking solutions that will allow them to be better prepared to respond to business challenges, leverage new opportunities, and excel in their role. Our overarching goal—in all of the books and programs we’ve developed—is to demystify strategy and leadership at the team and individual level and make the messages we send clear, practical, and usable. Busy leaders need straightforward information that they can easily apply their work and that is what drives us and the work we do.

You focus on “seven essential qualities” of strategic leaders. Which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Mead: Every manager struggles with different things, but generally speaking, I think that taking risks can be one of the most difficult qualities to master, particularly if you have a natural tendency to avoid risk. The world we live in influences our view of risk and creates apprehension about doing something new, bold, or different. We have found that in order to be proactive and support the organization’s efforts to grow and transform, leaders have to look for ways to pursue and leverage high-value, game-changing opportunities even when there is some risk involved. There are plenty of leaders out there who do everything possible to maintain safety and security.

The interesting thing is that when you desperately try to avoid risk, you are actually taking a risk and losing out on great possibilities. Strategic leaders are able to take control of their situation and take some calculated risks that will create a better situation for themselves, their teams, and their organizations. The key differentiator is that they think carefully about the risks they could take and then go after the right risks in a smart way. They recognize that they can’t afford not to take risks, and they break down any negative beliefs and assumptions they may have about risk. In the book, we present some practical ideas and how-tos that will help leaders move outside of their comfort zones and become a little more risk-tolerant.

Stowell: Organizations easily become attached to the status quo. It is normal to get comfortable with your products, services, and methods of production. Reservations and misgivings accompany both radically new ideas and small, incremental changes. When we engage in new ways of thinking and working, it means that people have to be flexible and adopt new skills and processes that will not be perfect in the early stages of assimilation. This requires a bit of risk-taking and an entrepreneurial spirit that can be uncomfortable for people accustomed to working in their comfort zone using traditional and proven methods. It feels safer to trust conventional practices and activities and only skirt around the edges of big ideas. But if you don’t break from the grips of the status quo, someone will eventually take a leap, make an investment, and discover the next breakthrough.

So businesses have a choice: lead or follow. If you don’t innovate in the areas that differentiate you from your rivals or substitutes, you begin to look just like other suppliers. If you wait until it is safe to create or adopt a new technology, for example, you may be out of business in a rapidly transforming business environment. The only way to maintain your unique, special, value-added position is to create new concepts or adopt new conventions faster than the competition. Cautious people say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” while others say, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” Strategic leaders know when to push and challenge traditional thinking and disturb the complacency that can easily find a home in every highly successful organization.

In your opinion, which of the seven is least appreciated in terms of its importance to personal growth and professional development? Please explain.

Mead: I’m not sure people fully appreciate the importance of thinking and acting like an owner, yet it is critical to making a strategic difference in an organization. We have found that people are most successful as leaders and in developing and implementing strategy when they have a strong sense of ownership and can foster that mindset in their team members. Engagement is certainly important, but ownership comes from your heart and mind and draws out your entrepreneurial spirit. Leaders who think and act like owners are easy to spot because they typically have a pulse on the organization and are able to break down silos and work across boundaries. They seem to have a clear picture of where the organization is heading and the key priorities they need to be supporting. This knowledge allows them to align with that direction, build supporting strategies for the part of the business they lead, and extend themselves beyond natural or formal boundaries. Because ownership involves having a broad, holistic mindset, these leaders are acutely focused on aligning the efforts of their team with the other functions in the business, which is an important skillset for leaders to master and is incredibly valuable to organizations. Thinking and acting like an owner benefits the person as well because it makes work more meaningful and enjoyable, even in difficult times.

If the two of you were retained by a Fortune 50 company to formulate a program to develop strategic leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise, where would you begin? Why there?

Stowell: We have worked with Fortune 50, 100, and 500 companies, and without a doubt, leaders in every type of company and at every level must think and lead strategically. Strategy isn’t just a top-down occurrence; it must come from the bottom up, as well as include managers in the middle who will become the lynchpin for the entire process. Ideally, if Senior Leadership has a clearly defined strategy or direction, leaders in the middle can cascade that overarching strategy to the business and create their own, aligned strategic priorities for their functions and departments within the business. We use the phrase “Managing the Business Within the Business™” to describe how each manager is running a small enterprise, and for some it could be large operations. They are responsible for ensuring that resources are used in a way that supports the overarching direction in which the firm is moving and that their functions adapt and evolve to suit a shifting business environment. In order for this to occur, it is important to help people learn how to fulfill their regular responsibilities in a proactive and forward-thinking way as well as contribute value to the organization in new and unexpected ways.

The variety of solutions and tools we have in our portfolio enables us to tailor an approach that meets the needs of our clients in a way that will work best for them. For example, we could start by delivering our Strategic Leadership program, which introduces members of middle and upper management to a powerful process for creating strategy for the piece of the business they have stewardship over and the skills needed to think and act more proactively.

We would also review the characteristics of strategic leaders because, as we’ve said, you can’t have strategy without leadership. We might then introduce our Applied Strategic Thinking® methodology and tools to middle managers and first-line leaders as well as key employees. This program develops the participants’ ability to think strategically and introduces a process for creating a strategy for their role that links and contributes to broader organizational and functional strategies. We could also provide supporting programs that would help the organization grow and adapt over time, especially as they operationalize their strategies.

For example, many clients utilize our coaching programs so their leaders can gain the ability to have strategic coaching conversations with their team members. Regardless of the specific approach, the objective is to help every leader, function, or business activity be relevant and add value to customers, shareholders and members of the organization by providing a compelling value proposition that is focused on the organization’s long-term success. Strategy can only be successful if each element of the value chain and every function throughout the business knows how to be proactive and build supporting strategies.

In my opinion, the global marketplace today is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than it was at any prior time that I can remember. Presumably you agree. Why is strategic leadership uniquely well-qualified to achieve success in that world?

Mead: I completely agree and would add that the volatility and uncertainty is occurring faster than we’ve ever seen. In my view, being a strategic leader has never been more important because of the nature of the global marketplace. However, not everyone is anticipating and preparing for the future and too often we find that leaders are caught off guard or fall behind the curve in capturing opportunities, mitigating threats, and responding to changes. The chaotic and turbulent marketplace requires that we become more comfortable being nimble and flexible enough that we can make the adjustments that are necessary for our organizations to survive and thrive in this environment. In fact, a Forbes article entitled “Agility: The Ingredient That Will Define Next Generation Leadership” reported that only 10 percent of today’s employees have the appropriate level of leadership agility. That’s a big gap to fill.

We need to help the leaders of today and tomorrow learn how to quickly assess situations and reframe their options, responses, and next moves, even when they find themselves in an ambiguous situation. We have to help them see that when it comes to executing on plans and initiatives, you have to go into it expecting the unexpected. You just can’t be so committed to a particular direction that you don’t leave room for flexibility and adjustment. Again, the key is anticipating changes or volatility as much as possible, being flexible in your approach, and acting with speed when responding to any situation you find yourself in. It is definitely a challenge we see organizations facing all over the globe.

Here’s another observation, by William Gibson, to which I ask you to respond: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Mead: Some people see the future as a long way off and believe that the future will somehow take care of itself. For others, the future seems elusive or mysterious. The message we are trying to share is that the future is now, and that regardless of whether the “future” for you is very near (literally weeks or days ahead) or many years off, you need to be looking beyond the present moment and considering how you will position yourself to add value down the road. Whether you realize it or not, the things you are doing and choices you are making now are shaping your organization’s future—and your own. It is critical for teams to perform now or there won’t be a later. But later also won’t happen if you aren’t anticipating and investing in the future today. Being operationally and strategically effective is a fine balance that leaders need to strike.

Stowell: It’s an interesting observation. I agree with Mr. Gibson in the sense that strategy is very situational. What this means to me is that the future, for some people, in some lines of work, is very far off. For people in the energy and aerospace business, 10 or 15 years out is pretty short term. It takes that long to create a geothermal, natural gas, or solar facility and bring it online. For others, the horizon is very close and the volatility is very great, as is the case in the consumer-electronics industry. Moore’s law says that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. So, the future comes at us in varying speeds and forms.

Another way to think about the uneven distribution of future strategy is based on where you sit in the organization’s structure. People way up in the hierarchy probably need to spend 80% or more of their time thinking about the direction the business is moving and how to operationalize their strategy. People deep inside the business might only need to spend 20% of their time formulating, planning, and executing the team’s strategy and 80% of their time delivering results and operating in the tactical space. Their primary role is to keep the lights on, so to speak. But we believe that to successfully navigate the future, everyone in the business needs to be forward-thinking.

Google, for example, asks every new hire to spend at least 20% of their time thinking about future-oriented, innovative ways to contribute to the business. Each of us, from the CEO to the employees on the front lines of the organization, has to determine the right amount of time and mental energy we should devote to planning for the future and executing on important priorities to avoid being outflanked by rivals, competitors, and substitutes.

Of all the information, insights, and counsel that are provided in the book, which material—in your opinion—will be of greatest value to supervisors who want to help their direct reports to become strategic leaders? Please explain.

Mead: From my perspective, the chapter called the Art of Vision is helpful for supervisors who want to help their direct reports become more proactive and engage in strategic thought and action. People want to work for visionary leaders who are willing to fight for a bright future. Vision is what informs people’s behavior and helps them choose how to act and what to do. In order to tap into the entrepreneurial energy and collective strength that comes from an aligned team, they have to have a clear vision of what they are working towards. It is difficult to fully leverage your talent and achieve results if you don’t have a viable vision and plan to guide your efforts and theirs. Quite simply, having a vision—even one that’s imperfect—is an essential part of leading any kind of team.

When supervisors effectively communicate a compelling vision for the future and strategic priorities to work towards, it makes people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. On the other hand, without a clearly articulated vision, it is difficult for people to prioritize, see where to aim, and know how to get to where they need to go. When we’ve observed supervisors who are able to get the members of their team to buy into a vision, we’ve seen the team members get excited about the journey that lies ahead and their everyday routine becomes more interesting and meaningful.

Stowell: Our intent was to inspire leaders in the middle of the organization and below to discover their role in strategy and their own “strategic-contribution concept,” and the entire book is built around this approach, so I hope supervisors will find all aspects of the book to be valuable. That said, while it is important and necessary for leaders at all levels and in all functions to participate in the strategy-development and execution process, it is as important and necessary for front-line leaders to keep three key responsibilities foremost in mind:

1. Be aware of the organization strategy and the unique environment in which their team operates.

2. Translate the organization’s strategy and insights about their own profession and build their own strategy that aligns with the business and professional trends.

3. Execute the strategy and deliver on their own value proposition for the business.

Essentially, strategy is everyone’s job. It isn’t enough to just show up at work and help your team survive the routine tasks and crises that arise day in and day out. Leaders at all levels have to figure out what’s next by understanding which skills and competencies will be needed from their team members, what technologies and resources will be needed, and how to be prepared so they aren’t caught off guard.

They also need to diagnosis the future needs of their internal or external customers so that new, value-added services or products can be created. In short, front-line leaders need to plan and prepare for the best- and worst-case scenarios that lie ahead. They can’t think that just because they are in the warm cocoon of the organization that strategy is the work of people at the top.

Of all the information, insights, and counsel that are provided in the book, which material—in your opinion—will be of greatest value to those who are now preparing for a career in business or have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Mead: I think it is important for people who are embarking on their career to understand that as hard as you may work and no matter how much you try to avoid them, obstacles and adversities can and will enter your professional life. I don’t believe that people starting their careers realize how resilient you have to be and that you need to develop the capacity to bounce back from setbacks and learn to manage a variety of situations. New leaders or people aspiring to be leaders need to be determined and willing to do what is necessary to learn from setbacks, build new momentum, and move forward. As we describe in the book, a tenacious person has the will to press forward and overcome disruptions, resistance, and obstacles.

In a way, the challenges that driven people face actually seem to strengthen their resolve to achieve what they desire and they forge ahead even when circumstances are less than ideal. I hope those preparing for their careers have a clear line of sight on some key goals, but they also must learn to take detours in stride and recognize that there might be times when they have to improvise, draw on their experience, and find creative ways through challenges. We encourage leaders to let their passion for success drown out the doubts that they feel from time to time. When they do, they tend to experience the rewards of thinking big and acting even bigger.

For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Art of Strategic Leadership, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Mead: I think small-business owners will find tremendous value in all of the chapters, but they may find the chapter called the Art of Awareness to be particularly beneficial. This chapter reveals some things that they may not realize are important to their long-term viability. As we explain in the book, awareness is a leader’s ability to gather information that helps them develop a full picture of the world in which they operate. Leaders who have high levels of awareness pay attention to the road signs and indicators that influence their future so they can act on those insights.

Leaders of small organizations may be fulfilling many roles and they can easily be consumed by daily demands, putting them in a position where they’re less attentive to the world around them. Unfortunately, this can leave them exposed to unwelcome surprises and they will be more likely to miss windows of opportunities that open up. This is an important point for small business owners—and any leader for that matter—because strategic awareness isn’t just about seeing and understanding information, data, and signs, it’s about figuring out how to take action on that information in order to achieve better results.

I think leaders will be surprised at what they can discover when they remove themselves from the daily grind from time to time.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Stephanie and Steve cordially invite you to check out these websites:

CMOE website link

The Art of Strategic Leadership website link

CMOE Blog link

Stephanie’s LinkedIn link

Steve‘s LinkedIn link

Stephanie’s Twitter link

Steve’s Twitter link

Stephanie’s Amazon author link

Steve’s Amazon author link

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