Three Critical Strategy Lessons

When I wrote my book, The CEO’s Strategy Handbook, I included interviews I’d undertaken with the CEOs of various companies. One of these interviews was with Stephen Ford, the President and General Manager of Avon Cosmetics, Australia and New Zealand. Stephen shared three strategy lessons that are, I believe, critical to leading strategy successfully in your business.

The core thread that has run throughout my career has been the development of company strategies, both as a management consultant and as a leader within businesses. So I recognise the importance of having a clear, focused strategy for a business, helping people across the organisation pull in the same direction and understand where the company is heading. Since taking over as the President for Avon’s Australia and New Zealand business, I have learnt three critical lessons.

First, it is paramount that the leader makes the strategy tangible. I cannot let the strategy be seen as an abstract idea that has no relevance to everyone’s day-to-day activities, otherwise it will die.

Consequently, my first strategic decision was to set a clear, stretching performance goal for the business. Having looked at various options with my executive team, we settled on a goal of receiving 1 million orders from our tens of thousands of representatives.

We chose this goal because, all things being equal, growing orders will drive our profitability. But we also used this goal as it’s memorable –¬†everyone can remember the “1 million orders” target. As a result, we have energised the wider organisation and also use the scale of growth we’re after as a benchmark to decide which projects to pursue and which to park.

The second lesson I’ve learned is that we must focus on the big stuff, and not get distracted by less important matters. There are many areas where our business could improve, but if we tried to sort all our issues our organisation would simply seize up.

We must deliver our current performance goals and service standards as we deliver our new strategy, and so we pick our operational battles carefully, and only make changes where the prize and strategic gains are worth it.

As a VP of Strategy I could create a long list of areas for improvement, but as the country president I have learned to say “no” to many opportunities, so that we can ensure we are successful with our critical strategic projects.

Finally, my third lesson has been the importance of asking provocative questions, rather than relying on detailed analyses to drive our strategy discussions. We are a lean team and so, while we need enough facts to ensure our conversations are robust, I recognise the need to trust the judgement and wisdom of my team.

The way to bring that wisdom out onto the table has been my ability to ask challenging questions. I have also leveraged my role as the country’s boss to get direct feedback and ideas from the front line, and use these insights to challenge my executive team, something that our Avon representatives would be far less willing to share with me when I was in a strategy role.

Which of these lessons three will you adopt to accelerate the performance and growth of your business?


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