Leadership as the Starting Point of Strategy

Even the best strategy can fail if a corporation doesn't have a cadre of leaders with the right capabilities at the right levels of the organization.

When it comes time to implement a strategy, many companies find themselves stymied at the point of execution. Having identified the opportunities within their reach, they watch as the results fall short of their aspirations. Too few companies recognize the reason.

Mismatched capabilities, poor asset configurations, and inadequate execution can all play their part in undermining a company’s strategic objectives. Although well-regarded corporations tend to keep these pitfalls squarely in their sights, in our experience far fewer companies recognize the leadership capacity that new strategies will require, let alone treat leadership as the starting point of strategy. This oversight condemns many such endeavors to disappointment.

What do we mean by “leadership”? Whereas good managers deliver predictable results as promised, as well as occasional incremental improvements, leaders generate breakthroughs in performance. They create something that wasn’t there before by launching a new product, by entering a new market,or by more quickly attaining better operational performance at lower cost, for example. A company’s leadership reaches well beyond a few good men and women at the top. It typically includes the 3 to 5 percent of employees throughout the organization who can deliver breakthroughs in performance.

Since bold strategies often require breakthroughs along a number of fronts, a company needs stronger and more dominant leadership at all levels if these strategies are to succeed. A defining M&A transaction, for example, requires leadership throughout an organization’s business units and functions in order to piece together best practices and wring out synergies while striving to carry on business as usual. In addition, leaders throughout both companies must transcend the technical tasks of the merger to rally the spirits of employees and to communicate a higher purpose.

As the number of strategic dimensions and corresponding initiatives increases, so does the pressure on leadership. Not surprisingly, our work in many industries with companies of all sizes has shown that high-performers, especially those with lofty aspirations, have the most difficulty meeting their leadership needs. Of course, companies that perform poorly are also lacking in leadership capacity. The higher a company’s aspirations or the more radical its shift in strategic direction, the larger the leadership gap. This rule holds true for high performers and laggards alike.

The Consequences of Inattention

Most CEOs will agree that leadership is important, yet few assess their leadership gap precisely. Fewer still build an engine to develop the right quantity of leaders with the right mix of capabilities, at the right time, to match opportunities.

If the number of leaders needed to achieve a strategic goal — for example, expanding current operations or developing new businesses — were set against the number of existing leaders, a company could uncover the numeric leadership gap it must address. Even if an organization has enough leaders, it may discover a shortfall in their capabilities. A company expanding internationally, for example, could find that its current leaders lacked the cultural sensitivity to operate in unfamiliar geographies. Or a corporation entering new markets could find it had too many engineers and not enough business builders.

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