Sustainable Strategic Growth For the Enterprise Leader with Stuart Leo,

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The following was transcribed from a recent interview on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Today we’re going to talk about how enterprise leaders can achieve sustainable, strategic growth and how to avoid pitfalls along the way. To help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Stuart Leo, CEO of

[Greg Kihlstrom] Why don’t we get started, give a little background on yourself as well as what led you to found is an intelligent business management platform. What does that really mean? It’s a platform that can act as a strategic command center for your business. OK? Do we need another one of those? What is that? Well, at the end of the day, we’ve found that most people don’t have a single source of truth on strategic insights, growth opportunities, plans and goals. They’ve been living in PowerPoint decks or Trello boards or one-page plans. And organizations have lacked a language and a skill and a system around their strategic decision-making. And so before I get into the sort of how and why, that’s what Waymaker is; it’s a place where we do, in a few minutes in real time, what a traditional management consultant would do to diagnose a business over three or four weeks. And we do that in five to 15 minutes. We surface growth gaps and opportunities and we allow teams and leaders to translate those into strategic plans and goals across their team.

Great, well, let’s get started here by talking about business strategy and what some of the common pitfalls are for those leaders that are trying to achieve strategic growth. So even though works with many different sizes of companies, for this conversation and for the audience of this show, we can focus mostly on enterprise companies and leaders. So most enterprise leaders likely consider themselves to be strategic in what they do. But what’s the thing that most leaders maybe get wrong or perhaps overlook about strategy?

I would say there’s two big things. The first is recognizing that strategy is a position, a destination in the future, and that really all our actions are just geared towards getting there. And that position and market that you’re seeking, that’s really your strategy. Who are we? Why are we different? What value do we bring to our customer? 

Then everything else has to fold in behind that. We often think of strategy as a set of actions, and in fact, if you google strategy, it’s going to give you the boring definition of, you know, a set of actions. But when it comes to business and marketing and strategy, strategy isn’t that; strategy is a position we want to hold in the market, so that all our growth actions fall in context in and around that. And I’d say that’s the first thing.

The second thing that I think we get wrong in strategic thinking, and let me put on to the end of that strategic execution, is that we almost always try and do too many things. And focus is the lost art of strategy. And ultimately organizations that can be clear in how they are going to grow their business and build a better business and organizations that do only one or two things a quarter or a half to improve that business, which sounds totally counterintuitive, they tend to be the ones that win over the long term.

I definitely agree about focus. To get that focus, what type of insights or information are many enterprise leaders either lacking access to or perhaps not relying on as heavily as they should in order to have more strategic success?

I think the enterprise leader today is a big ship in a rapidly changing storm, I think, is a probably good way of putting that. And big ships are really hard to change course quickly. So enterprise leaders have real challenges on their hands. It means that much of their work is reactive because it’s not being proactive to drive forward movement. And so there has to be a mindset shift to go, “We may be a big ship, but how can we think like a little ship and how can we start to operate like a little ship? How can we find the changes in the marketplace and respond to them, if appropriate” – and I’m not suggesting you respond to everything. But we are in a marketplace where things are moving quickly and things can move very quickly in and around your organization. And traditionally we haven’t had a language around that for enterprise. And it’s only really very recent in startup and emerging businesses that a language has emerged around that, and even then it’s really only on execution. 

I think there’s a huge gap that we’ve absolutely found and are pressing in on to give leaders a language around continuous improvement and agile thinking in their strategic decision-making, not just in their strategic execution. And I think that’s two big points, or a big point I want to make, two big areas of focus here, one, how do we continuously improve the insights coming in that we’ve got to make decisions off? And, two, how do we stay focused on the one, two or three things that we need to deliver?

That language we’ve had traditionally has been tied up in lots of traditional frameworks and tools like balance scorecard and others. And in reality, something like a balanced scorecard – and I’ll go out on a limb here – is not that practical when you’re a big ship in a rapidly changing storm. You actually need to create some unbalance quickly, in different areas, in order to respond. And how we do that is something we learned out of the military, which I’m happy to talk to, if you want to go there.

I definitely want to get to what the process you’ve developed and, kind of, the role of the planning and everything like that. So why don’t you talk a little bit about what you’ve developed at Waymaker in order to enable this?

One of the key insights we learned actually came out of the British military, when they were trying to transition their operational forces in the theater of war from very traditional, structured environments into this new world that was very agile and dynamic. And this perhaps is only ever more present today, in the world we live in. And the reality was that the strategic planning and strategic decision processes were very cumbersome, very traditional. By the late eighties, early 90s, it was starting to get full of big PowerPoint decks, and quite cumbersome. And there needed to be a complete shift in order to allow teams to be incredibly effective in the field of operations. And that required a step back to say, “How do we do what’s known as a combat estimate or a battle planning process? How do we do that faster, with more accuracy and with value? How can we have teams on the ground identify the highest value course of action and execute that in a very agile manner?”

And so at the time, when I was reading about this, I was coming out of corporate life and I was fascinated because corporates can move slowly. They have immense market power, but they can move very slowly, and that can be the death of them. And so the way the British military did this in the late 80s, early 90s, into the early 2000s, before it really became a core practice of their leadership training, was they stepped back and they taught each leader to ask and answer a small number of questions – it happened to be seven, seven questions – and that, if you asked and answered these questions, you would develop the highest-value course of action on the battlefield. You would clarify the situation around you. You would align the team to the most important activities. And you would have planned the most effective course of action to achieve that highest-value course of action.

Reading about this, I was like, wow, you know, if one of the world’s stuffiest, most traditional – nothing against my Commonwealth neighbors in in England, but, you know, tradition is one thing they’re well known for – if one of the most traditional fighting forces in the world can create enormous agility on the battlefield and be incredibly successful, how can you bring that into a business environment? And so, strangely enough, in our little consulting business we had at the time, I think I spent the next five, six, seven, eight years trying to write five or six or seven questions, which sounds bizarre, but we really did step back and go, “Actually, there’s something here. If you step back and ask a small number of questions every quarter and you identify the continuous improvement opportunities to clarify a line and focus, then you can actually be agile no matter what size you are, in a very dynamic environment.”

Ultimately, we took across that inspired idea of asking and answering a small number of questions. We obviously had to rewrite them for business. You can go and google the British military. It’s designed to, you know, blow something up or blow someone up. You know, we’re not in the business of blowing things up. Sometimes you want to do that to your competitors, sure. You know, we’re actually interested in building businesses up. And so that takes on a different context. And so, on that journey, kind of just like the military when they’re hunkered down behind some humvees in the desert, you know, putting their battle plan together, they’ve got some software in their hands with some data and some insights helping them ask and answer those small number of questions with greater accuracy, with greater efficiency, greater speed, and so that your planning process is rapidly improved.

So we went away and built that for the business world. We said, “OK, how can you engage your entire business, or the vast majority of the business, however many you’d like, from 10 to 10,000, and how, in a few minutes, could we gather insights across that network of people, bring those insights back in, and through some smart algorithms, in real time plot and identify maturity levels across, and growth actions across vision, market focus, strategic growth, your business model, your customer experience in terms of sales and marketing and service, your employee experience and culture? And then, when you go and execute on those goals, how can we create the feedback loops, through some smart algorithms, to identify across your team where goals may be at risk or weak, so that you can actually have really smart predictive intelligence, not about just where the opportunities are to build your business but, actually, are we going to get to the end of this quarter and hit that goal that we wanted to hit?

And so we’ve brought together this kind of thinking of seven questions with some software. The software empowers leadership teams of any rank or size across the organization to ask and answer a small number of questions – it happens to be seven questions as well – and, using the software, ask and answer those seven strategic questions with greater accuracy, faster, more effectively, and identify the real growth opportunities sitting inside their organization. And so it’s bringing together a method that was pulled out of, you know, one of the best fighting forces, agile fighting forces in the world today, rebuilt completely for the modern enterprise, and baked into some SaaS software so that you can walk into any boardroom with your iPad or your laptop or your smartphone, and you can be a strategic thinker, participant and leader.

Yeah, that’s great, and to follow on that, you mentioned continuous improvement earlier, at the top of the show, so I want to kind of talk about that, and the concept of resilience. So let’s just say the leader has the information that they need. They’re able to set the strategy in motion. I think, for a lot of leaders, unfortunately, it’s kind of the “Set it and forget it,” you know? “OK, we figured that out. We figured out what our strategy is, so let’s not rethink it and second-guess ourselves and stuff like that.” But, obviously, we know things are moving too quickly to really think like that, and that’s where agile certainly comes in, just continuous improvement in general. 

So how does a leader kind of balance that? Leaders don’t want to be perceived as needing to be second-guessed and changing their minds on things, and yet the world’s changing. You know, how do you balance all of those things? Your description of Waymaker provides continuous updates, but how do you implement those continuous improvements in a way that’s sustainable and achieves morale and all those things?

Yeah, you’ve just touched on some of the biggest issues and challenges in this world. And, look, as I was growing up in corporate world, the reality is you come across agile thinking. And one of the first things you discover is, gosh, it just doesn’t pay credit to the past. You know, it says, “Well, if the past no longer works, bin it, and just do this.” And that comes from our Lean methodologies. And that’s not wrong, at a certain point in the organization. And I think that’s the key point I want to make here. Classic Lean methodology is designed to help you find a market fit. And the goal of Lean methodology is to find that market fit and then to hold it and sustain it. And so, once you’ve got that market fit, two things can happen to lose it. One, the marketplace can change around you. So the fit that you had across your organization is now no longer relevant to the situation around you; or, two, you’ve grown so fast, so far, that you’ve gone from a startup of 30, 40, 50 people now to a startup of 500 people, and 450 people have diluted the average level of clarity. And this is not an uncommon problem. Suddenly the business actually doesn’t know who it is, what it was that got the market fit, and how to sustain and hold that which was the market fit that was important, you know, the things that you don’t want to throw away from the past. 

The idea of resilience is really important in organizational growth and reinvention. And I want to just posit, maybe, a definition of resilience to your listeners that maybe they haven’t heard before, and this is really important. Resilience is the ability to undergo significant change with no loss to identity. I’ll say that again because it’s quite important. Resilience is the ability to undergo significant change with no loss to identity. And I think, as organizational brand leaders and people responsible for the “who we are” conversation inside organizations, we can’t fall into the trap of killing the core identity for that which made the organization great. Now, there may come a time when that possibly needs to happen. But I’d almost argue that, if that’s happening, it’s kind of like a full clean canvas moment. You know, it’s a Kodak moment, if I could put it like that. And if you’re managing your organization well, in an agile, dynamic state, you’re maturing your identity. And I want you to think about identity in a human context. You’re maturing the young teenager that’s now a startup, growing into a young adult that’s becoming a young enterprise, into a strong, strapping, you know, 20, 30-something that’s top of their game. 

And so what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to have a framework, or a set of thinking, that helps us understand how we found market fit and the key to that market fit, and then how to retain the clarity of that market fit so that it can either be tweaked or adjusted as the marketplace changes around you, or it can be clarified and aligned as the organization grows within you. And so I’m a firm believer, and we’ve baked this into our model, that, you know, when we talk about brand, a brand isn’t a logo; a brand isn’t colors, and all those wonderful things, but rather we should think about brand as a set of thoughts and ideas held about an organization, and even better, a set of thoughts and ideas held about an organization that’s clarified with purpose and vision and wrapped in some personality. And what do we have here? Well, this starts to sound like a character, and it starts to sound like a human character. And for all the brand experts out there in the world, they’ll be going, “Yeah, see, we told you.”

When we think about that, an organization that has character, it makes a lot of sense. You know, when we think about great organizations that have really clear characters, you know, if I said – let’s pick a global, well-known brand, Ikea. You know, if I say, tell me about Ikea, what comes to mind?

Ikea in Australia is almost identical to Ikea in the U.S., as it is in Europe and South Africa and Singapore. The reality is that Ikea is one of those organizations that has a really strong, clear character. It’s got an underlying common purpose. It’s got an underlying common positioning. It’s got an underlying common value proposition, an underlying common personality and customer experience, an underlying set of principles and culture that will have slight tweaks based on the local culture it’s in, but it will retain its character, much like a McDonald’s. I love going to McDonald’s in Europe because you can order a beer with your Big Mac in Germany, but that’s unheard of in Australia, but it’s still a drink, fries and a burger. It’s just that the local European context takes over.

And so I think there are elements that we’ve got to think about that retain our core character. And I think that’s around clarity of purpose, clarity of the perceptions that need to be held in the marketplace, clarity of positioning, clarity of the value proposition and the core practices that support that, clarity of the personality and the expression of that organization, and clarity of the principles and culture. And I’m a firm believer that, when you’re building an organization, think about a radial dial or a spider graph or something, and you plot those six or seven characteristics around that, at some point the volume will be up on enough of those things that the market says, “Ah, we get you. Yeah, you are who you say you are. You do what you say you do. I experience what you say I’ll experience. And I get the value you say I’ll get.” And suddenly there’s this fit. There’s like a key that unlocks into the market. And as enterprise organizations, we have to carry that key with us. And I think character is the key that unlocks organizational growth. We have to learn how to be ambassadors of that character, if I can use that term, as employees. And we have to build that character up from, you know, young teenager to mature 20-something to the ultimate wise 50, 60, 70-year-old whatever, pick your gender; pick your identity; pick your character that fits in your marketplace.

When we think in an agile and dynamic way, we have to practice resilience. And resilience is the ability to undergo significant change with no loss to identity. We have to come through change with identity strengthened and matured, not damaged and broken down. And so we have to give organizational leaders a key to understanding identity. And so, when we ask and answer our seven questions and teach people to do that, without them ever realizing it, they’re actually asking and answering, you know, “What is our purpose? What is our positioning?” They’re moving through those underlying elements of identity, kind of without knowing. And they’re affirming and confirming and aligning and clarifying, “This is who we are. This is what the market wants. This is the problem we solve. This is what we’re doing. If there’s a tweak or a change to that because the market’s changed, that’s OK, but we’re not throwing away who we are just to make a dollar today.” And when organizations practice that kind of agility, they become prostitutes to the dollar. And when enterprises do that, that’s when you see corporate failures, because that starts a death spiral. It starts this pursuit of the dollar because that’s all that matters. And it will be wrapped up in, “Hey, we’re an agile organization, and we’re going to excuse character flaws – and let me use that term, i.e. what we said yesterday we wouldn’t do, we’re going to do today. Why? Because the market’s changed. We’re an agile organization.” And, no, people look at that; the customer looks at that and says, “No, that’s just hypocritical.” And they will vote with their feet. And you’ll go, “Hang on a minute. That big consultant that came in and charged us $100,000 said we could do this.” No, they just taught you how to lie without feeling bad. 

And so we’ve got to be agile. We’ve got to be dynamic. But we’ve got to retain the integrity and character of that which made us great and build on that. We can’t stay there, because markets do change.  That’s really important. You can’t be a six-year-old in a grown-up marketplace. You’re going to get your butt kicked. But you cannot, in the other sense, have split personalities and split characters, because you’ll get massacred in the marketplace by the customer.

About the Guest

Stuart Leo is the founder and CEO of – an intelligent business management platform that helps leaders build a better business in 30 days.

Stuart is a global thinker in strategy, systems, and leadership development. As the founder of he has led the creation of Waymaker’s Leadership Curve – a revolutionary way of building clarity, alignment and remarkable results for any organisation.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host of The Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on customer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist at GK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF. 


Posted by Greg Kihlström

Best-selling author, speaker, consultant and advisor. Principal at GK5A.

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