"I want my people to be more strategic...

Here's what one leader said recently: "Look. Here's what it's like being the chief executive of a medium sized business. It's very frustrating, and that's on a good day. On a bad day it's absolutely terrifying, because fact is, you can see the way things are going. Thinking forward five years, this business is either going to look very different from how it currently does, or it's going to be dead. The rate at which things are changing, new competitors arriving, new technologies popping up, and that's even before you start to think about all this stupid political chaos – don't get me started on that. Anyway, it's clear that we need to be evolving. I'm absolutely convinced about that, but it's just so difficult to get anyone else even to understand the need, never mind do anything effective about it. And we really do need to be making a start on this now."

Your direct reports are probably very good at managing what they call "the day job". They hit their KPIs and control costs. But they pay insufficient attention to the big picture. Sometime, they optimise their bit of the business even if it hurts the whole. They don’t think about value creation. They don't know how to propose initiatives, and they don't know how to think about taking prudent risk.

If these senior managers just keep doing what they're doing, achieving your growth goals is going to be very difficult. If you're like the CEO I quoted above,it could be a matter of survival.

At team meetings, you explain the big picture, and they seem to ‘get it’ as long as you’re all in the room together. At the next meeting, though, you’re disappointed. Again. Progress is slow: shared understanding has all but evaporated.

Are your reports merely paying you lip-service? Or, do they lack basic talent? My experience says: not usually. Lots of good operating managers just don’t understand growth. Their past experience has left them unprepared for the bigger game.

Newsletter/Video script: They can’t add value if they can’t get in the game

A few years ago, I met with the strategy director of a well-known insurance company to discuss an executive education programme. She was very excited about the business, and supportive of the proposed programme, but man was she frustrated!

She was ex-McKinsey. As you would expect, she was very smart. In fact, her mind operated at a very high clock speed even for an alumna of The Firm.

She talked 10 to the dozen - but what she said was clear, cogent and very interesting. It was also what the company needed. Her frustration was that managers at the next level down couldn't keep up with her.

It was easy enough to see why.

As I reflected the situation back to her: "They're like talented and potentially high performing middle ranking players on the world junior tennis tour, and you're Serena Williams. You’re just warming up, but frankly they aren't even seeing the ball!

“Now, you hired and promoted them for a reason, so my guess is that at least some of them have the potential to give you a good game.

“I think it’s an issue of calibration. If they could just return one ball to you, maybe you could get a sense of where they are at and adjust, and my bet is you could then help speed them up hugely. Certainly, the most talented ones would rise to the top and it would be a lot more satisfying for you, and valuable for the company.”

I concluded: “My job will be to get them to the point where they can return the ball.”

The programme that we put together for her did exactly that, concentrating on consultative skills, packaging information simply, building strong cases for action – a lot of the stuff they might teach a new recruit at an elite consulting firm, for example!

I've seen this phenomenon any number of times: world-class thinkers who are struggling to bridge the gap to reports who may or may not potentially be capable of the same level.


Typically, when there’s an X gap happens, the boss gives overly detailed instructions to the report, and they are okay until something changes. Then the boss turns on a penny, but the sync is completely lost.

How do you get people sufficiently in the game so that they have a chance to learn from the feedback? 

What if you could get them into that game?

Once senior managers better understand how to create value, everything in the organization seems to take off. Suddenly, you’re seeing:

  • Accelerated growth
  • Answers, not just questions
  • Better discussions about value-creation
  • Proposals for new revenue stream that are well thought out and easy for you to evaluate
  • Less fighting for individual budgets and bonuses regardless of the effect on the whole
    Leaders who translate your strategic imperatives into terms that staff can makes sense of and get behind.

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