“I don’t know how you do what you do.”
Years ago, I was lunching with a long-standing client to discuss a new leadership challenge he was taking on. This had become our pattern: he takes on a new challenge, I get a call for lunch and then I have a new project. I love this pattern.
Each challenge was new, each project had its unique goals, but all required strategy development and alignment of the team to a new set of goals. My client was a warm-hearted and inspirational leader. I loved working with him. I wanted more clients like him, so I asked: “What makes me unique? Why do you prefer working with me over others you could call in?”
He leaned forward and said, “I have no idea how you do what you do.” When I asked him to explain he told me he loved to take on new challenges and I had become one of his core assets for success. I helped him make sense of it all – the team, the culture, the market, etc. - so he could lead.
I was surprised. I thought it would be something more specific like, “You are always easy to work with.”, or “You exceeded expectations on project goals." or “You never go over budget”. What I learned is that he depended on something that came naturally to me.
Recognized early on for Strategic Thinking
While still in my twenties, I was plucked from the financial analysis and reporting function at Levi Strauss & Co. to take a very prominent executive position usually won by long-standing accounting department managers. The role, Director of Finance and Planning for the Menswear division, was the senior financial position on the executive team for the second largest division of the company. I never expected to be selected for the position and only applied because senior executives in the company pulled me aside and told me I should. I respected them too much not to do as they asked.
The Menswear president was a savvy market leader and was tired of the “controller” type that the corporation traditionally developed and provided as candidates to fill this financial seat on executive teams. I was not that typical controller type, but my youth made me a risky choice. However, during our interview, the division president recognized something in me for which I will be forever grateful. I think the moment of recognition came at the end of the interview as we were wrapping up. He asked if I had any other questions, so I asked, “What is our company’s strategy to address the excess capacity of our finishing plants now that highly processed finishes were falling out of fashion?”
He pushed himself away from the table, looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. After a pause, he responded “There is no strategy developed yet.” I smiled back and responded with a couple of ideas I had come up with from reading the industry trade publications. He smiled again. “Do you read WWD and DNR?” he asked. “Yep, everyday.” I stated. He smiled again.
This interaction, where I just showed up as myself, being curious, creative, interested is what got me this highly sought-after position and in a very real way set the path for my professional life. I was a natural strategist.
Strategic Thinking can be Taught
In our custom consulting engagements, I have recognized many ”natural strategists” at various levels in our client groups. As part of these engagements, we also strengthen the ability for everyone to think and lead more strategically, even those that are not natural strategists. Anyone can learn to be a strategist and that is why I launched Strategy Class™ to teach strategic thinking tools and techniques to everyone.