The Strategist: A book review by Bob Morris

The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs
Cynthia A. Montgomery
HarperBusiness (2012)

How and why to become a strategist “whose time at the helm could have a profound effect on the fortunes of your organization”

Most of what I know (or at least think I know) about strategy I learned from several thought leaders who include Sun Tzu, Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, Lawrence Hrebiniak, Henry Mintzberg, and Walter Kiechel. Almost immediately, Cynthia Montgomery informs her reader that she offers a “revisionist view of strategy,” based on her experiences while teaching for five years in what she identifies as Harvard’s Entrepreneur, Owner, President (EOP) program. (That isn’t its real name but you can easily find out, if interested, by contacting her with a click here.) One of the objectives of this program is to prepare participants to “become a strategist “whose time at the helm could have a profound effect on the fortunes of [their] organization.” By the time I finished reading the book, I had learned at least as much about strategy from Montgomery as I had from anyone else.

If I understand her concept of a strategist (and I may not), it suggests – at least to me — some similarity with a maritime pilot who comes aboard what is usually a huge ship and guides it safely to open water. Consider this brief excerpt: “The strategist is the one who must shepherd this ongoing process [of refining while implementing plan of action], who must stand watch, identify and weigh, decide and move, time and time again. The strategist is the one who must decline certain opportunities and pursue others…it is the strategist who bears the responsibility for setting a firm’s course and making the choices day after day that continuously refine that course. Whereas the maritime pilot leaves the ship after guiding it for a time, the strategist remains on course. “That is why strategy and leadership must be reunited at the highest level of an organization. All leaders – not just those who are here tonight – must accept and own strategy at the heart of their responsibilities.”

Each reader needs to consider carefully before responding to this key question: “Are you or do you aspire to become a strategist according to these terms and conditions?” If the answer is “no,” then there is a responsibility to do anything and everything possible to help the strategist in the given organization. If the answer is “yes,” Montgomery has written this book specifically for you. She cities several dozen real-world situations in which real people are struggles with real issues and, sometimes, amidst a real crisis. However the circumstances may be between and among those situations, there are recurrent themes and values that include:

o  Regardless of their size or nature, all organizations need a great strategy that gives them a “difference that matters.”
o  Ensure that your organization’s vision as well as its mission (i.e. higher purpose) reveal, indeed affirm its ultimate destination.
o  Most small-to-mid-size companies focus on a narrow range of customers with idiosyncratic needs and build value creation systems that meet those needs.
o  You cannot be everything to everyone. Know who you are and, as Oscar Wilde suggests, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Before reading this book, I misunderstood to what its title refers. I assumed that Cynthia Montgomery would offer her ideas about how to think strategically and/or why a company needs a CSO (chief strategy officer) and/or how one type of business thinker (metaphorically, someone who thinks that strategies are “hammers” that drive tactics, viewed as nails). Well, what she offers is relevant to what I expected but exceeds my expectations. In essence, she defines organizational greatness in terms of a Great Leader fused with a Great Strategy. They are a single, living entity. One has no meaning or value without the other. Bionic in nature. Either become one or follow one. This is what Helen Keller may have had in mind when asserting, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

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