Being Strategic: Live from the Inc. 500

Column by Janine Popick, "Female CEOs"
September 25, 2009

I'm at the Inc. 500 Conference, America's leading conference for entrepreneurs. I'm at a seminar listening to speaker Erika Andersen who is the CEO of Proteus International. Her company helps other companies think about ways to grow through being strategic. By the size of the room and the attendance of this session (130 people and full) it sure seems like entrepreneurs are craving information for how to grow in this economy.

Erika’s session is all about how to think and be strategic when it comes to your business. Her definition of strategic is "consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future." She believes it's particularly important for entrepreneurs because our businesses can be very volatile, and I couldn’t agree more.

What all companies need to start off with is a clear vision. Then strategy develops out of that. You as the leader need talk about vision so that everyone in your company knows where you're heading. In Erika’s opinion, you need to be thinking 4 years out for your vision.

Then it comes to strategy. Erika talks of strategy being something that you think about 1+ years in the future, enough time to see your desired result. She was kind enough to hand out a template for thinking strategically and we all walked through it for our own businesses. What a great template that any business can put to work now. I’ve shared it below

Overarching Issue: What is your challenge?

  1. Ask yourself what isn't working. One example is there might be a disconnect between what your customers are asking for and what your team is providing. Sales might think the product they sell has the features it needs. The product team also thinks the product has all the features it needs. Your customers are saying the product doesn't meets their needs.
  2. Ask yourself how can I/we fix this? For example, you might try talking to the customers and find that they just didn’t know about the features and benefits you provide.
  3. Ask yourself, would this feel like success?

I wrote down that at my company VerticalResponse one of our challenges is that we need to be more customer-focused. What’s your challenge?

Through this entire process Erika outlines a common thread you need to be aware of: Become a fair witness - You need to be neutral and objective. Ask yourself; "Am I being accurate and true to myself about my situation?"

Pull back the camera - People that don't can be too tactical. See the situation you’re assessing from a wider lens and what effects any decisions you make would have.

Sort for Impact - Can you figure out what the impact of your decisions will be?

Once you’re clear on this, get clear on your current situation. You need to know where you’re starting from relative to the challenge.

Envision: What's Your Hope?

  1. Pick a timeframe that's appropriate relative to the size of your challenge.
  2. Imagine yourself there. Ask yourself what's it like to be there?
  3. Describe it - Pick out 5-6 key elements and describe them.

Face What's in the Way

  1. List the things that can get in the way of your vision and the challenge you want to overcome.
  2. Define how you’ll overcome them.

For VerticalResponse a few hurdles included access to people resources and capital for equipment. We found that by looking at our overall budgets and seeing what we could do without, we could find the money and the resources.

Determine: What's the Path to get there with Strategy?

  1. What does the roadmap look like?
  2. What do you need to accomplish to overcome your challenges?

At VerticalResponse for instance our strategies are to give even better customer service and offer a better product that is more reliable.

What's the path to get there with Tactics or Action items?

  1. Tactics need to arise from strategy
  2. Tactics need to be FIT (Feasible, Have a high Impact, a bang for your buck and Timely)
  3. Tactics include a Who, What, and When (Here’s where you don't pull back the camera, you’re laser-focused)
  4. Tactics take 6+ months to see any changes in your business.

At our company we’ve put more effort into our CRM tool so that our Customer Service reps will have access to the customer. We’re also developing new features for our customers in the next 6 months, and we’ve beefed up the back-end of our product to be more reliable. Of course all of these come with a ton of tactics, but I won’t bore you with them.

Being Strategic is an Ongoing Process.

You should be looking at your progress every quarter or 6 months to assess how it’s going or if things need to change. To do that assess:

  1. What is Now
  2. Re-confirm The Hope
  3. Re-assess What's in the Way
  4. Revise the Path

One thing we do at VerticalResponse is have an executive offsite every 6 months to go over where we are, what's happened in the industry, and where we need to focus for the next 6 months.

The great thing that Erika ended on was a quote from Michelangelo: “We’re still learning.” I think it’s something all entrepreneurs need to be aware of. I sure am.

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