Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

Deciding stuff – that’s the easy bit

Some time ago, my colleague at the London Business School, Phanish Puranam, and I ran a short survey with 111 top managers; all alumni from our School’s senior executive programme. We gave them a list of 35 strategic management topics asking them to rate each of them on a 7-point scale, ranging from unimportant to very important for corporate leaders in today’s business environment.

The three things that these senior executives said were the most important issues in their view and experience were:
1. Attract and retain talent
2. Decide on the company’s next avenues of growth
3. Align the organisation towards one common goal

Some further (statistical) analysis showed us that the number one – “attract and retain talent” – pertained to things such as putting together an effective top management team, and managing top management succession. Many business leaders see as their main task to recruit and develop other leaders, and it seems our senior executives were no exception.

The second one – “decide on the company’s next avenues of growth” – reminded me of a survey one of the global consulting firms used to run (I believe it was the then Anderson people). They ran an annual survey asking CEOs “what keeps you awake at night?” It was one of these PR endeavours aimed at getting some free publicity in the business press, bolstering their image as a source of management knowledge & wisdom. However, this survey was not a great success, and they seized to run it, simply because every year the same thing came out on top (which made it rather boring and hardly ideal to get the business press excited…) and that was: “The firm’s next avenue of growth”. Our survey confirmed this result.

The third one – “aligning the organisation towards one common goal” – pertained to this thing that tends to make non-senior executives (including business school professors) smirk: creating a mission and vision statement. These vision things inevitably seem to lead to some generic yet draconian expressions (e.g. “to be the pre-eminent” something) that could only be generated by a de-generated consultant brain. Moreover, inevitably they appear to be highly similar to the terminology on the wall of the firm next door. Nevertheless, our senior executives do seem to take them quite seriously. I guess they’re typical of top managers’ efforts and struggle to “align the organisation towards one common goal”; in their desperation they even turn to hammering a mission or vision statement on the canteen’s wall. Guess it really is a struggle.

What struck me about all these three topics, however, is that none of them are decisions. It seems – also from analysing the remainder of our survey – that top managers are quite unfazed by strategic decisions, no matter how big and far-reaching they are. But things they can’t “decree” – like having an effective team, organic growth, or a common vision – is what keeps them awake.

Indeed, you can’t just declare “I decide that next year our organic growth will be 30 percent”. Instead, you will have to build and nurture an organisation which fosters innovation and motivates people and other stakeholders to achieve autonomous growth. You can’t just decide to have it, like you decide to pursue a particular acquisition, enter a new foreign market, or diversify into a new line of business. Similarly, you can’t just decide to attract and retain talent, or decide that “from now on everybody will believe in the same vision and aspiration”. It simply doesn’t work that way. And apparently top managers are a lot more comfortable with stuff they can decide than with things that are not under their direct control; things they need to foster and carefully build up over a longer period of time. And I don’t blame them: that stuff seems easier said than done.

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