Strategic Power: My Manifesto to Revolutionise Growth

Listen Up

At its heart, strategy is pretty simple: it’s about creating a clear direction and ambition that will drive your future success. But, as we all know, very few organisations succeed in either developing or delivering a strategy that delivers sustained growth.

It’s true that unpredictable markets, changes in technology and upstart competition all make it difficult to commit to a particular course of action and follow through on your objectives and initiatives. Yet, some companies do succeed in creating and implementing a strategy that works.

In fact, the more I think about it the clearer it is to me that the issue is internal, not external. Organisational culture, shared beliefs and senior leadership are the real enablers – or barriers– to strategic success. Everything else is just noise.

So, I have created a manifesto to help you build and develop your company’s strategic power. Use these 13 declarations as a checklist and a guide to the step-changing the effectiveness of your strategic approach:

  1. “The truth can’t hurt you, it’s just like the dark….” This is a line from an Elvis Costello song (I Want You, from the Blood and Chocolate LP), which continues, “…it scares you witless, but in time you see things clear and stark.” In other words, you need to face the facts and insights about your organisation’s current position, its performance and its future opportunities.
  2. Strategy is like football. Without a goal it’s simply just passing a ball around.
  3. The customer’s not always right, but that’s the way to bet.  All great companies have a laser-like focus on understanding what their customers really want and need.
  4. Nothing fails like success. Most companies don’t fail because they’re bad at what they do, but because they’re great at what they do. It’s by clinging onto strengths, capabilities, products and services that are no longer valued by your customers that will most likely bring you down. Just think of Kodak, Nokia and Blockbuster.
  5. #1 or gone. You have no choice than to aim to lead your market in some way. If you’re not willing to commit to leadership, your committing to your own demise.
  6. Strategy is a contact sport (1). Leadership teams shouldn’t delegate the development of strategy to lower level managers or consultants. They need to do their own blocking and tackling, analysis and development.
  7. Most business strategies can be developed within 48 hours. With a bit of planning and structure, leadership teams can create the outline of an effective strategy in a couple of days. It’s what happens after such meetings that makes the real difference.
  8. Innovation is an imperative, not an option. If you’re committed to being #1 then you have no choice but to innovate. In fact, it’s impossible to gain and sustain a leading position in your market without a systematic commitment to innovation.
  9. Actions speak louder than plans. Too many companies spend too much time planning incremental improvements to their business, when the winners are consistently focused on taking action.
  10. You can’t chase two hares. If a hunting dog chases a hare, it has about a 10% chance of catching it. But if it tries to chase two at once, the probability of success immediately drops to nil. Don’t try and do everything; focus, focus, focus on what you can move forward rapidly that will have a big impact on your strategic ambitions.
  11. Think big, start small, learn fast. Taking action isn’t just about taking big risks, but about learning faster and more cheaply than your competitors.
  12. Strategy is a contact sport (2). In other words, it’s all about the people. Strategy is created top-down, but it’s delivered bottom-up and 90% or more of your strategic focus should be on developing, engaging and supporting your people to deliver.
  13. Willpower beats horsepower. Strategic power and success is a result of the delivery of a consistent set of actions. That requires discipline, perseverance and a healthy dose of bloody-mindedness. Deep pockets are great, but they are nothing without collective willpower.

I’ll be writing more about each of these declarations in the coming days and weeks, so please join me to help you transform the strategic power of your business.

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved

Posted in Leadership, Strategy | Leave a comment

5 Ways To Keep Your Strategy On Track

Compass With Blurred Woods Trail

In the late 1990s, I took up my first major strategy role, leading the strategy team at the UK retail and pharmacy chain, Boots the Chemists. Not long after I started my role things changed for Boots – and not for the better! Wal-Mart’s acquisition of the UK’s third largest grocer, Asda, led to a price war with its key rivals, particularly Tesco. Health and Beauty, a relatively high-margin category for the grocers, was an effective battlefield for these retail giants, and Boots quickly began to suffer from collateral damage.

Overnight, it seemed, the company’s share price had fallen by a third as investors saw the value of the market evaporating and Boots’ competitive position crumbling. As the price gap with the grocers widened, and the pressure on future growth and profit margins intensified, the sense of urgency – and periodic panic – took off like a rocket from the once-calm quarters of the executive corridor.

While we had previously talked about the need for greater pace and stronger differentiation, our actions and our diaries had reflected a belief that we were still in control of events. Not any longer – we needed a different approach. In the space of three months I had led a cross-functional team of senior managers on a full-time project to develop radically alternative business models, run a series of strategy ‘away days’ for the executive team, and had undertaken reviews of pricing, cost and growth strategies. Some of the ideas and initiatives that resulted from this work helped to improve the company’s competitive position and performance; others didn’t. The interesting point, however, was that the reaction to greater chaos, uncertainty and turbulence was more strategy, not less.

So, how do you organise for effective strategy management in the twenty-first century? I suggest an approach that incorporates five specific elements:

  1. Annual Strategy Summit. For the past five years, I have run an annual strategy summit process for the executive team of a homewares business that has sought to test its existing strategy against a range of mutually exclusive alternatives. The process has allowed the team to kick the tires of its strategy and each year has enabled the team to shift resources into new priorities. There have been no huge single strategic “revolutions”, but five years on, the strategy is very different from its original focus.
  2. Half-Yearly Growth Summit. If the annual strategy summit is a forum for the executive team, and selected senior managers, to thrash out major strategic alternatives, a six-monthly growth summit enables a far broader set of managers to become involved in identifying and developing potential new growth opportunities and engaging with the leadership team on their relative merits. The aim of the summit is to identify a handful of new growth ideas – probably no more than two or three – that you agree to develop in the following few weeks and months. In addition to the executive team, managers from across the business are invited to the summit, along with external experts who can add further value to the discussions.
  3. Quarterly Priority Reviews. When a new leader joins a business, they often create a 90-day or 100-day plan. I think that this period is great for focusing effort –three months is enough time to get some serious work done, but short enough to keep the pressure on delivery – that I don’t know why more executives don’t have on-going 90-day plans rather than an initial, one-off. Some programs and initiatives can take years to deliver, but most can be broken down into quarterly milestones and, if you focus effectively, you can make rapid progress on some of your most important issues within a three-month timeframe. At one retail client, for example, a new CEO decided to focus on the single metric of product availability for the first three months of his tenure. Availability had been a perennial problem at the retailer, despite major investments in systems, but the new CEO’s focus on this single issue created the energy and collective focus required to improve availability levels by 10% and grow sales by 2% in that initial quarter.
  4. Monthly Strategy Sessions. These regular sessions enable you to build up the shared knowledge and insights of your business, your markets, your customers and your competitors that create the confidence for the bigger decisions that can come out of the annual reviews. As surveys have shown, big strategic decisions rarely come out of the big set-piece, annual reviews, but from the more regular meetings, and the corridor conversations that surround them. As Peter Birtles, the CEO of the Super Retail Group in Australia once told me, “As the leadership team has developed I have found it is the more regular, less formal meetings and conversations where our key strategic objectives and initiatives are really developed.
  5. Weekly Big Idea Reviews. Effective strategy delivery is generally a messy process of development, testing and refinement. If this process is to work, you need to have regular updates and reviews. One way of doing this that cuts the chain of command between the ideas and the leadership team is to have weekly ‘big idea’ reviews. During the turnaround of UK grocer, Asda, in the early 1990s, the executive team met each Monday morning at a local store that had been set up as a laboratory to run series of experiments and to test new ideas. The team walked the store, reviewed the week’s progress and agreed the priorities for the following seven days. The pace of innovation at Asda rapidly accelerated, and its subsequent growth and profitability attracted Wal-Mart sufficiently to buy the business.

Which of these five steps could help your business to develop, refine and deliver a more effective strategy for growth?

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Growth, Leadership, Strategy | Leave a comment

Business Rocks – Bilstering Service

Growth Riffs Summary Logo

This week’s riff: A couple of weeks ago we moved house. It’s our first move in 20 years and the process has been, in the words of our eldest son, ‘total mayhem’!

Our new house has been undergoing renovation for the last 9 months and, as a result of all the building work, the garden is trashed. Consequently, I have been taking the lead in creating a new lawn – all 1,000 square metres of it!

Together with my boys, I have moved 50 tons of top soil, raked it, graded it, removed any stones and weeds and then spread new grass seed. One of the big jobs I had to do with the soil was to remove the lumps. Our landscaping guy gave me a crash course in raking the garden and bashed some lumps with the back of the rake to show me how to do it.

The problem is that the process of bashing is quite long and laborious and led to several large and painful blisters appearing on my hands. I moaned about this to my wife – in a very manful way, of course! She replied, almost immediately, by asking why I didn’t just get rid of the lumps by kicking them, and then proceeded to use the back of her heel to destroy a group of lumps in a matter of seconds. Silently, and slightly sullenly, I started to kick the remaining lumps, removing them quickly and, believe me, painlessly.

I was looking at my recovering hands yesterday morning as I listened to Andrew Stephenson, the People Director of Lookers plc, describe his efforts at DFS to improve customer satisfaction. His work, validated by the University of Staffordshire, demonstrated that the key drivers of service satisfaction for DFS were factors such as a pleasant greeting for customers, asking customers politely what they’re after and making sure customers were asked if they’d like to buy the sofa at hand.

Many business leaders make the pursuit of customer service like my approach to soil lump removal. Retailers installing tablet computers for customers to use, having fancy flooring, or offering a range of teas and coffees may all sound exciting, but they’re most likely to create corporate blisters than they are genuine improvements in customer service and satisfaction.

Where could your business focus its efforts on improving customer service where it really counts, rather than over-investing your effort and time on factors that are likely to lead to blisters instead of results?

Off The Record: This Hard Land by Bruce Springsteen

Hey there, mister, can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown?

Can you give me a reason, sir, as to why they’ve never grown?

They’ve just blown around, from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Business Rocks | Leave a comment

Business Rocks – Communicating Strategy Is Boring

Growth Riffs Summary Logo

This week’s riff: The UK general election campaign is now underway and at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, reporters said that Theresa May and other Tory MPs quoted the phrase, ‘Strong and stable’ over 15 times.

As with President Trump’s campaign slogan – Make America Great Again – politicians use a repeated refrain to help voters buy into their message. This is, of course, a classic advertising tactic and is equally useful for executive leaders who want their managers and colleagues to buy into their business strategy.

When I was at Boots, for example, the CEO, Richard Baker, started his answer to any question by listing the company’s five strategic priorities. Quite quickly people began to understand what the priorities were and managed their own agenda accordingly. I estimated that, over his 3-year tenure, Richard listed these five priorities around 6,000 times (3 years x 200 working days per year x 10 meetings per day)!

Strategy implementation is all about alignment and persistence, and a consistent leadership message is an essential element in creating an aligned and focused organization. Communicating the message may become, well, a little boring, but the results you deliver can be transformative and, whatever your political persuasion, that is surely something worth voting for.

What is the strategic message you want your teams and organization to understand and focus on?

Off The Record: Strong Enough by Sheryl Crow

Nothing’s true and nothing’s right

So, let me be alone tonight

‘Cause you can’t change the way I am

Are you strong enough to be my man?

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Business Rocks | Leave a comment

8 Ways To Accelerate The Delivery Of Your Strategy

Get Ready

I’m currently working with a UK retailer to help accelerate the delivery of its new strategic agenda. The company, and its leadership team, is in a common position. Although the executive team has worked hard to find a clear way forward and agree priorities, managers are struggling to get going and, as a result, the business is spinning its strategy wheels.

As a result I’ve decided to embed the following eight approaches to enable the team accelerate pace and results, which can be summarized as ‘Do Less, Achieve More’. The retailer, like many other businesses, is trying to do everything immediately. As a result, managers have created a high level of competition for key people and resources and confusion about the company’s priorities. You can already sense the leadership team’s frustration with the lack of tangible progress.

Instead of this scattergun approach to implementation, you need a combination of discipline, organization, perseverance and energy to step-change the pace of delivery. Here are the eight approaches that you can work on immediately to make that a reality:

  1. Focus, focus, focus. Pace isn’t about trying to do everything at once; it’s about focusing your resources and energy on delivering against your most important issues and opportunities. Prioritization is a critical enabler of pace, and there is a clear correlation between those companies that are able to focus and those that move and deliver at speed.
  2. Lead by results. Developing great plans is all well and good, but real implementation pace, and achieving more things quicker and better than your competitors, is about taking prudent risks, having a bias for action and maintaining a focus on delivering tangible results and success.
  3. Identify and pursue your #1 top priority for the next 90 days. By combining the two recommendations, above, a great way to build engagement, momentum and belief is to choose the single project that best combines an ability to deliver a significant impact on your #1 goal and that enables you to make a real noticeable difference in performance in the next three months. The results you deliver through a mono-focus on this priority acts as a demonstration of what a step-change in the pace of your business could actually mean for your business.
  4. Think big, start small, learn fast. Pace is not about being reckless or taking unnecessary risks, but about learning as cheaply and rapidly as possible so that you can invest in your success with as much confidence as possible. There is a clear sequence to follow when delivering new strategic initiatives, and those companies that choose to miss out critical steps do so at their peril.
  5. Remember, delivery is the day job. A key differentiator between those companies that are ‘first and fast’ and those that are left in their wake is that the successful businesses are able to combine strategic progress with daily operational management. Their leaders know that delivery of the company’s key strategic actions is just as much the day job as delivering against each customer order, and the companies that succeed most are those that are able to integrate these potentially competing priorities.
  6. Ruthlessly remove the weeds. A great leader needs to vigorously remove the organizational “weeds”. This means keeping organizational structures and processes as simple as possible, removing poor-performing managers and those that are actively preventing the corporate goals from being delivered, rationalizing the range of products and services you offer so that you are not supporting activities that simply do not pay their way, and rapidly halting or amending initiatives that are failing to deliver.
  7. Establish unambiguous accountabilities. Critically review your existing accountabilities, identify and tackle areas where there are overlaps, committee-based accountabilities and uncertainties. You should, of course, start with your own team.
  8. Increase the frequency and discipline of your progress reviews. Monthly or quarterly reviews of key projects suggest that pace is not such a big issue for your business. Weekly sessions – or, at most, fortnightly – for the executive team to review progress of your most important priorities will raise the energy, pace and momentum of these initiatives, helping them to deliver rapid results. These sessions need not last hours, or require the usual reports and documentation. Instead, they can and should have simple administration, so that your focus is on ensuring that they make a material impact as quickly as possible.

Which of these eight actions could help your organisation to step-change the pace that you delivers your strategic priorities and accelerate the growth of your business?

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Leadership, Simplicity, Speed and Pace, Strategy | Leave a comment

10 Ways To Reduce Your Organistion’s Complexity

Definition: Simplicity

As organisations succeed and grow they begin to face new issues and problems for managers to solve. One of the biggest issues, often unseen, is the problem of complexity.

Organisational complexity is a like an overgrown garden. Both are a result of neglect rather than design, and, although you may still be able to see some elements of the original intent, the weeds and light-hogging plants slowly but surely stunt the growth and impact of the best blooms.

A certain level of complexity is inevitable, yet many organisations make this situation far worse by living with too many management layers, fudging decision rights and accountabilities, setting unclear objectives and persisting with inappropriate projects and programmes.

Take your organization through a periodic simplicity audit and rate yourself these statements:

  1. We have a clear strategic intent that, in simple, everyday terms, articulates how we will succeed.
  2. As a management team, we have identified a handful of objectives (say, 3-6) that drive our focus and activity.
  3. We have crystal-clear accountabilities across the business, and managers are never concerned that they are stepping on someone else’s toes.
  4. Managers know exactly how to get approval for a new investment or initiative.
  5. In a typical week, I spend less than a quarter of my time in formal meetings.
  6. We have minimised the number of management layers – there is no further room for improvement.
  7. Our planning and budgeting process is short, sharp and effective, taking less than three months from start to finish.
  8. When a new programme or assignment isn’t working, it is quickly adjusted or killed – we do not allow problems to fester.
  9. I set my team clear objectives, but leave it to them to work out the best way forward. And they act in the same way.
  10. In the past six months, we have taken big strides in removing unnecessary complexity from our organisation.

Without clarity and simplicity, your projects and your people simply get stuck in the organizational swamp. So, how many of these statements can you honestly say you agree with? If it’s less than eight then, in my experience, your organization will struggle to deliver major programs of change and development.

In that case, work on each of the areas to tackle your organisation’s complexity at source. Simple!

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Leadership, Simplicity, Speed and Pace | Leave a comment

Strategy’s 7 Fatal Flaws

Watch out!

In my experience, many successful CEOs and senior executives dislike the time they have to spend on developing strategy. There are two reasons for this:

  1. First, strategy is seen as being difficult. Consultants and academics have somehow succeeded in creating a misguided mystique around strategy that only people with an IQ of 150 or more and who have attended the world’s best universities can do it, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that demonstrates that the best business strategies are created and led by pragmatic business leaders.
  2. Second, and more importantly, strategy development perceived to be irrelevant to managers’ daily and most pressing issues. Attending strategy meetings and retreats feels like a world away from the real work that must be done, and as the meeting progresses the frustrated executives begin to take a peek at their smart phones so that they are able to keep up to date on what’s really happening with their business.

To a large extent, the frustrations of these executives are not their fault, but result directly from the way strategy is developed and managed in many organizations. I have identified seven ‘fatal flaws’. By addressing each of these flaws, you will start to hardwire your strategy work into the real issues and opportunities facing your business.

  • Fatal Flaw #1: Allowing planning to kill strategy. The term ‘strategic planning’ is an oxymoron. Strategy is all about creating a direction for your business that maximizes your chances of future success. Planning, on the other hand, is about the allocation of resources to achieve – usually incremental – targets. The problem arises when you try to do the two together because the urgency of planning will always beat the importance of strategy, resulting in incremental gains rather than step-change breakthroughs.
  • Fatal Flaw #2: Incremental thinking. The key to effective strategy development is the ability and willingness to engage in ‘what if’ questions that encourage dramatic new possibilities for your business. Unfortunately, however, there are several barriers to achieving this. An unwillingness of many senior executives to be seen to be ‘wrong’, unclear or limited goals and a resistance to challenging the sacred cows of your organization and market all contribute to incremental rather than step-change thinking.
  • Fatal Flaw #3: Putting financials ahead of ideas. Developing a business strategy relies on creativity and idea generation far more than it is driven by analysis. A certain level of analysis is, of course, essential, but without a greater focus on ideas, you will simply end up with a greater understanding of your current market position, rather than a dramatic new way to grow your business.
  • Fatal Flaw #4: All vision, no direction. A vision is not a strategy. While a vision statement can act as a point of inspiration for your people, you must also define how you will turn that statement into tangible success.
  • Fatal Flaw #5: A failure to make trade-offs. The flip-side of a strategy is deciding what you’re not. If you’re unwilling to make clear and proactive trade-offs, it is unlikely that you will ever turn your strategy into reality.
  • Fatal Flaw #6: Insufficient focus on action. Few, if any strategies emerge from implementation unscathed. It is only by learning from your actions that you can really clarify how you will best succeed in the future. In many ways, the best companies are not those with the best strategy, but those that can learn more quickly and more effectively than their competitors.
  • Fatal Flaw #7: A reliance on external consultants. As a consultant myself, I know that, done well, working with an external consultant can add real value to the strategy process. But ownership of your strategy only really happens if your people have been effectively involved in developing it. You cannot simply delegate the development of your business strategy.

Which of these seven fatal flaws are affecting your ability to develop and deliver an effective, high-value strategy?

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Strategy | Leave a comment

Business Rocks – The Last 98% of Success

Growth Riffs Summary Logo

This week’s riff: If you want to lose weight, the best way is to manage your calorie intake on a daily basis. Similarly, if you want to get stronger, you should undertake regular – ideally daily – exercise, and if you fancy becoming a good guitar player, you should put some time aside each day to practice and improve.

In other words, it is the regular, daily discipline of action that makes the difference in achieving your goals. I call implementation the last 98% of strategy because you will only ever succeed if you and your managers and teams across right across your organisation have the collective discipline to make it happen on a daily basis.

It’s a little like oil exploration. Without the initial identification of a possible oil field the oil company will not succeed. But that is just the start, the first 2%. The remaining 98% of the company’s success depends on how it executes to overcome the inevitable production and logistical issues in bringing the oil to the surface.

What steps are you taking to improve the daily implementation discipline of your teams so that you can deliver the final 98% of your strategy and ensure that it succeeds?

Off The Record: Discipline by Nine Inch Nails

Once I start I cannot stop myself

I need your discipline

And you know

I need your help

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Business Rocks | Leave a comment

Cross Shots: The Magic Number

Stuart Cross talks us through the ‘real’ magic number for business and how you can implement this into your strategy.

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Cross Shots | Leave a comment

The Most Important Driver Of Your Strategy


Your performance goals drive your business strategy. If your goals are fuzzy, weak or unclear, don’t be surprised if your strategy has similar characteristics. On the other hand, clear, ambitious goals – such as becoming the #1 player in your market, or achieving sales of £x million – demand a clear and well thought through strategy.

That is why it is so important to identify your organisation’s #1 performance goal; the goal, above all your other targets, you want to achieve over the next few years.

Here’s what Ian Filby, the CEO of DFS (the UK’s leading sofa retailer), said about the importance of goals in my book, The CEO’s Strategy Handbook:

One of the big strategy lessons I have learnt as CEO of DFS is that a strategy has to meet a clear goal. Without agreement about the goal, you can’t settle on your strategy. As a result, one of my first tasks was to agree the exit strategy goal – to agree the size of the business, its growth prospects and the type of sale expected by the owners.

As we did this we realized that we had different sale options according to the length of the current ownership journey, that inevitably would be market dependent.

We then built on these insights to create some new growth options, which hadn’t previously been considered. That’s what I mean about goals driving strategy.

What are your big, strategic goals? How clear and distinct are they? And what must you do if your organisation is to achieve them?

© Stuart Cross 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted in Strategy | Leave a comment