Craig Long: SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!

Here’s a link to a great post on LinkedIn Pulse by a former colleague and all around great guy, Craig Long.


Craig provides some great insight into what it takes for operational programs to bridge the gap from operational impact to financial impact.

Good reading for all!


The Worst Strategy Metaphor in Use Today

Choose your business metaphors wisely, because they say a lot about how you view the world.



One of the minor annoyances present in the business world is the use of metaphors that are resoundingly misfit.

How often do we talk about “blocking and tackling,” or “moving the ball down the field,” or “hitting singles and doubles,” or going for the “Hail Mary” in our everyday professional lives?

How many times have you heard even these simple ones mixed up, as in “I think it’ll be a home run, but the boss keeps moving the goal posts…”

Often. Right?

But every now and then, a metaphor is used so often it becomes a paradigm that is dangerous.

The metaphor of business as a “chess match” is one of them; and I’ll tell you why.

Chess and chess matches, when viewed in the light of the complexity and ambiguity of the business environment, are purely tactical. Chess is tactics. I write this despite the existence of a body of literature suggesting that the preparation, staging, execution, and ultimately winning of chess matches amounts to exacting preparation for business leaders…Strategic nirvana.

I’d argue it’s analytic nirvana–necessary but insufficient for a strategic metaphor.

Alas, chess as strategy is a bad metaphor for business mortals. While chess allows us to illustrate the depth of analytic thought on an issue (the best masters of chess can see deeply into a match to judge moves and patterns); it lacks the breadth of conceptual thought necessary to be an active analog for business strategy.

Mastery of tactical depth counts for something, to be sure. But mastery of strategic breadth, on the other hand, counts for everything.

The issue is that we conflate the two…Badly.

The most magnificent Chess minds spend thousands and thousands of hours mastering tactics. They learn every potential combination of openings and defenses. They spend their lives immersed within the very box of patterns and potential moves that, for some reason, has become synonymous with “strategy.”

They do this, and yet they have been mastered by machines. Think about that for a moment, and you can start to see why the game is based on patterns and repetition vs. intuitive, virtuosic strategic brilliance. The mechanistic logic of chess is its own prison, and thus is the reason chess is a bad metaphor for business.

Allow me to create the mental image of business as a chess match, then you be the judge of whether it rises to the level of a sufficient strategic paradigm:

Imagine that you and I both agree to play in a business arena where we:

  • Start with the same resources
  • Agree to the same set of moves
  • Operate on the exact same game board
  • Disregard comparative advantage
  • Agree not to move pieces in any innovative manner
  • Operate in a purely zero sum environment
  • Keep all moves open and transparent
  • Avoid arbitrarily upgrading or switching out pieces for pieces with more power
  • Prevent the lowly from ruling the mighty (as in the illustration above)
  • Avoid outside sources of power, resupply, or leverage (i.e., capital, partnerships, brand equity)
  • Will on average play to a draw if we both play the game as well as it can be played (“…chess is a draw” according to famous grandmaster Gary Kasparov)

…and so on.

Are we now engaged in a strategic struggle for the ages?


We’ve chopped all the degrees of strategic freedom save two: Our experience and our intellect. All the real world strategic levers I’ve outlined above lie in the negative space of a chess match.

In short, once you’ve taken nearly every strategic variable off the table, you are left with a chess match. It’s two people matching wits. That, folks, isn’t strategy, it’s a contest. It’s a highly regulated, constrained caricature of real world strategy.

Chess is a closed system. Real world strategy is an open system.

Strategy is about exploiting means to achieve ends. The first means anyone exploits in a strategic contest is whether to play on the terms available. While chess matches do offer the option of a “surrender,” to do so is to incur a loss and to provide a massive advantage to one’s adversary.

A second, and very important means, is the means of overinvestment. Overloading a single point of weakness (or strength) at a single point in time is a key real world capability. Put a team together to go after a single customer? Go ahead, it’s the real world. Overload on a chess board is a sequential thing, not an instantaneous one.

Other strategy games offer exit and overload options (like folding or going “all in” in the game of poker)–limiting losses or allowing asymmetric bets based on early indications that the game is or isn’t worth playing.

These moves are analogous to real world actions. But, they aren’t really an option in Chess.

If business were such that one could simply study all the moves in history and play the next match, it wouldn’t be all that tough, would it? That is essentially what has happened in chess. If it were so in business, IBM would have developed the Deep Blue machine for business back in the 1990’s and we would all be working for IBM at this point.

That, my friends, may be the best evidence for the misfit metaphor: If a computer can outwit a grandmaster (and they pretty much all can at this point), the game is one of logic and pure horsepower; not one of strategy.

If it were a game of strategy, the grandmaster would unplug the computer first, and then ask it to make its first move–while smiling of course.

Add to all this the cardinal observation that properly played chess will typically result in a draw (as noted above) and you have a very dangerous metaphor for your organization (implicitly, if you play well and lose, you did something wrong…Not always the case in business and life).

So, what?

I write this not to split hairs, but to illustrate the importance of the metaphors we put in front of our organizations–especially during times of change. So many of the metaphors we use are quirky; but some of them are downright dangerous.

If we are to pursue an enlightened approach to strategy, then using metaphors that speak to openness, flexibility, and canniness are much more on point than those that involve pure intellect applied to closed systems that imply no loss as long as strict discipline is maintained.

The metaphors you choose say a lot about how you view the world: Do you view your organization’s business environment as a closed, zero sum game, or something different?

File this one under strategy, change leadership, and perhaps curmudgeonly explication (as if LinkedIn needs more of that).

Note: The current Carlsen – Anand world chess championship match inspired thoughts for this article. Though the game of chess may not be a good business metaphor, the drama of championship chess matches can be quite a thing to behold and study.

Geoff Wilson is a strategy executive focused on the articulation of practical strategic principles for leadership. He also harbors the specific indignity of blundering into a fool’s mate one time in the 7th grade. He has just started a Twitter presence and still isn’t sure what to make of it, so consider following: @GeoffTWilson

Perspective Is The Spice of Strategy

Quick: How many phone calls or conversations did you have last week that dealt purely with understanding how to think about your job, company, or market? I’m betting not many. We get into the drudgery of actually doing work, and that prevents us from considering whether we are doing the right work.

This is visible in sales organizations of all kinds when customer service (fighting fires for existing customers) crowds out new account sales activities. A certain kind of salesperson actually likes that arrangement, but that type should be in customer service, not sales.

The question is, who is thinking about it?

In 15 years of working with companies big and small, I’ve yet to meet a professional–from the shop floor to the boardroom–who goes to work thinking, “I’m going to spend my time on the wrong things today.”

It just doesn’t happen.

Misallocation of resources happens, as the economists say, at the margin. You walk in the office focused on selling that big account today, and you walk out at the end of the day wondering why you never got to it. Your day was filled with urgent distractions that removed your focus from important activities.

Maybe it was more important answer that call from that customer at that time. Maybe it was more important to talk at that time with that particular employee about that pending vacation. Maybe it was more important to answer those emails, make that pot of coffee, catch up with your old college friend, read that newspaper, etc., etc., etc.

Sound familiar yet? That’s why this article is about perspective.

If you find that you’re not focusing on what is strategic, you must bring in other perspectives. You will rarely find the solution by “trying harder” to focus. You know why? Your values are already reflected in where you spend your time. Trust me.

So what do you do?

Well, the solution too many managers come up with is to seek advice from someone who really knows their role well; they seek an expert opinion on how to focus on more strategic things. And this can be good, but it can also fall short. So I’m going to suggest a different approach: Find someone with a wildly different background from yours, and open your books to them.

If you’re a chemist, find a poet. If you’re a senior manager in a public company, find an entrepreneur. If you’re a poet, find a potter. And here’s a good one: If you’re a guy, find a woman’s perspective. You catch my drift?

Why? Well, because hard problems call for varied perspectives. When a team of organic chemists searching for a better way to synthesize a compound reaches a problem-solving roadblock, the answer is rarely to add another organic chemist: It’s to add an engineer of a different type, or even a layperson. That’s how hard problems are solved…through adding orthogonal perspectives.

These perspectives are the spice of life for hard problems, and strategic focus is a hard problem.

So, think about the problem you or your organization face and consider whether it makes sense to bring in a poet or two to help you think different.

What do you think?

Why I Don’t Believe In Recruiters

Recruiters are tools…on every level.


In case you haven’t noticed, I have a modest disdain for consultants and professionals who come from the “say anything” philosophy of life; I wrote on that here. Spin is a bad thing, confronting the elephants in the room is a good thing, and it’s really that simple.  In this case, I’m going to take it to a whole new level of hate, but that’s just in the spirit of keeping it real.

The title of this article is an homage of sorts to an aggressively atheist song by Art Alexakis of the band Everclear titled “Why I Don’t Believe in God.” In that lyric, Alexakis recounts scenes from a troubled childhood that sapped his ability to believe in anything related to God.  It’s one of those challenging thoughts that we all need at times:  Is our hatred of something related to bad people and experiences or related to a really bad game?

In this case, I’m going to hate on the game, and the players get their dose as well–all based on my subjective experience.

Sometime around 1995, I was deeply entrenched in an upper division football program at my university (yes, mine!). For anyone who doesn’t know, college football is all about the ability to recruit top talent.  “It ain’t the x’s and the o’s, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes” is how it’s been put in one form or another for a long time–meaning a great team comprises great players, no matter the scheme.

In that world, recruiting matters deeply.  Finding the right talent and convincing “it” to come to your football program are the two foundational moves of a healthy program.  It’s not the only thing, but it’s close.

So, one evening at dinner with the team, one of the assistant football coaches gets up from the table and says bluntly, “I need to go lie to some kids.”

He meant, of course, that he needed to go make the telephone calls to budding high school stars that assistant coaches were obliged to make. He needed to go “lie to some kids” about their ability to be better than the incumbent players, right away and on their way to stardom right now. Oh, and by the way, we really care about you and would never try to over-recruit your talent while you’re playing for us.  Just sign on the line, and forget about those other programs.

It was a thoroughly funny statement at the time.  After all, we were all elite players in a good program who had made our choices. In that world, it is the rare player who leaves a team.  And we liked this coach.  But, wow, the truth.

Fast forward 15 years, and that same group of budding football stars is now met with a plethora of headhunters.  The interesting part is that the recruiting pitch is hardly any different. “We have opportunities here.” “The career advancement potential is outstanding.” “The prior guys just didn’t have the horsepower.” “The company is on the upswing.” “We have no internal talent to fill this role.” “The prior fella just left to pursue other opportunities.” You know the drill–lie to some kids.  Only, in this case, it’s “stroke seasoned professionals with a shaded version of reality that could be construed as misleading.”

So, what happens?  Well, two things.  First, the headhunter gets paid, and second, you take the role and, as they say in the auto business, your mileage varies.  Recruiters, like stock touts and sports agents, have almost no stake in your success; their stake is in your decision.  Always be careful when dealing with anyone who only cares about your decision and not your health or success.

So, now we are down to it: Why I don’t believe in recruiters and what to do about it.

I don’t believe in recruiters because I believe the agency issues are real.  They have an incentive to lie, distort, and cheat to convince both sides of a transaction that the placement is good.  And they are doing it at the individual level; they are dealing with lives. The worst among them are no better than a Boiler Room broker dialing for dollars, except in this case, it’s dealing with entire livelihoods, not just components of someone’s savings.  The best among them know that score and go to work feeling icky every day.

Oooh, lie, distort, cheat?  Those are big, bad words, aren’t they? Well, yes, but just like Art Alexakis’s lyric on disbelieving, it’s my experience that leads me to the thought.  I have been on the client side, the candidate side, and  the observer side of headhunter transactions.  I have also witnessed the most corrupt personal ethics from individuals steeped in this profession.

That’s why I don’t believe in recruiters.

So, what is a corporate executive to do about it?

Well, the most important thing to know is that your best talent prospects already know everything I just wrote above.  They won’t be fooled by the players or the game.  You need to get ahead of that if you, in fact, have a great opportunity for them. Every recruiter from LA to New York will have already tried to pry them from their current roles with promises of candy canes and jelly beans.  You need to cut the crap and tell them why yours is the place to be.  Stop relying on recruiters; everybody knows they’re salespeople.  Sell the virtues of your company from the inside–don’t outsource it.

The second thing is to use recruiters for what they are: Market makers. They are exceptionally valuable in that role.  They are tools in your toolkit.

The third thing is to be aware of the perverse tendency of really great headhunters to embed and distort talent needs.  I’ve never met a headhunter who was good at assessing whether a company actually needed a certain type of talent.  I’ve also never met a headhunter who really wanted to know the company’s talent landscape; that’s the company’s job. But I have met really great relationship recruiters who convince executives that they are strategic partners. Here’s the test for you: How many times have your recruiters asked you to assess your internal people’s resumes (no ethical recruiter would try to share a client’s talent with their other clients, right?) to compare to the external candidates you are hiring? Very rarely, I’ll bet.

This post is all about the tendency of a certain professional niche to produce people and actions of questionable moral caliber. If you know this, and ensure that you are sufficiently isolated from it, you can make use of professional recruiters in the right way.  If not, you’ll just be another heavily stroked senior executive who was fooled by the game. Use recruiters, but don’t let them represent you.

Recruiters are tools…on every level.

It Ain’t What You Put Into It That Counts

A foolish focus on the inputs can endanger your strategy, company, and career.


Have you ever heard someone say something like,  “I’ve worked 75 hours this week.” (Of course you have.)

Have you ever heard a manager or business leader expound on the dollars spent on something?  “We’ve spent ten million dollars on implementing this effort.”

Have you ever seen an approach to business strategy that focused solely on the available inputs?  “We have two factories, the strategy has to focus on those.”

Worse, have you ever witnessed an approach to strategy that only focused on organization, infrastructure, or edifices?  “Let’s build it and then figure it out.”

I’m betting you’ve seen at least one of these.

And really, what’s wrong with focusing on how much work you’ve done, or the money you’ve spent, or the assets you have in place today, or the capital you could deploy tomorrow? Here’s what:  They are all inputs.

A strategy, whether for wars, countries, companies, or individual careers, is about ends, outcomes, objectives.  A strategy without an objective is a dance.  It can be beautiful, but it is ultimately just a play…kabuki at its finest.

When “being strategic” means focusing on the hours you’ve worked or the dollars you’ve spent, you’ve probably already lost the battle.  Why?

For the professional individual, a focus on how many hours you’ve spent doing your job is frankly just silly.  I have a healthy respect for people who work hard; I really appreciate it.  However, if a person works an 80-hour work week when a smarter person would work only 50 and get the same result, why is the input of 80 hours relevant?  When people start to focus on time, particularly in knowledge work roles (we aren’t talking the factory floor here, folks), the organization will suffer.  It usually signals a transition in the conversation from the “responsibilities” of a role–generate an output that has value–to the “rights” of the individuals–work a reasonable work day.  The conversation for an individual ought to be about the product of the work, not the time spent doing it.

A wise senior leader of a global consultancy I know well once told me, “If you can’t consistently do this job in 60 hours a week, you may not be smart enough for the job in the first place.”  That’s a pretty interesting perspective.  A true pro focuses on the outputs of their work and negotiates the resources to ensure the right output at a reasonable input of their own resources.

For companies and senior leaders, the problem is a little different.  Business strategy is about deploying resources to achieve an objective.  Some senior leaders are exceptionally good at these sorts of things without even thinking about it, but some, frankly, are not.  The ones who are not good at it tend to use strategic planning as a reductionist exercise to meet “non-strategic” objectives–budget numbers, financial incentives, etc.–that in all reality don’t tie to the health of the company as a whole. A focus on inputs at a company level usually comes in the form of binding constraints that aren’t really constraints at all.

Instead of asking the question, “What would it take to win that account from that competitor?”, they say, “How can Ralph from accounting take on this new sales role and try to get some wins?”  When hunting elephants, bring enough gun.

To wit, managers use only the talent and capabilities they have today in thinking about their business strategies.  They focus only on the financial resources they have at this moment to achieve their objectives.  They allow themselves to focus on optimizing their existing pie charts of businesses, assets, resources, talent, etc. vs. thinking about what the future pie can look like.  In other words, they focus on the inputs.

So what?  

For yourself, watch out for a creeping sense of martyrdom about how much you put into your job; instead, focus on what’s coming out of it.  Shift the focus to results attained and only then zoom in on what it would take to sustain them.

For your company?  This is tougher.  First, management teams have to articulate practical business objectives for a strategy to be real.  “Take hill 1221 from the enemy” is a strategic objective; “cover 2500 meters and burn only 5,000 gallons of fuel” is not.  Yet we allow companies to run on goals and metrics (or budgets) that look like the latter, and in some cases, they operate with management not even knowing what hill to take.

All this is to say that it’s healthy to ask yourself whether you are too focused on the inputs of your strategy and not enough on the outputs.  It is not, however, to say that constraints don’t matter; constraints are important, and they should be reflected in any strategy.  To use my analogy above, a strategy that says “Take hill 1221 from the enemy using only a cigarette lighter, five rubber bands, and a Daisy bb gun” is what I would call a good start toward revising your objectives.

On hill 1221, that might get you killed.  In your company, such ignorance of constraints might just get you fired.  It’s the strategist’s job (and we are all strategists at some level) to balance strategic objectives with degree of difficulty and possible resources (not resources on hand…important distinction, that).

A foolish focus on the inputs can endanger your strategy, company, and career.

Now, if you’ve come this far, take a moment to leave a comment.  Hundreds of people read this blog, and your insights matter. 


Where The Money Is Made…

Do you reward those who make the money or those who posture for it?


Operation Red Wings was a not-so-obscure military operation in the mountains of Afghanistan.  It started on June 27th, 2005 with the insertion of a SEAL reconnaissance team onto the side of a mountain near the suspected location of an Afghan insurgent leader. After circumstances that were made famous in a book and by Hollywood, 3 of the 4 SEALs were killed, along with 8 SEALs and 8 Special Operations aviation team members who were sent to rescue the original SEAL team when their helicopter was shot down. Marcus Luttrell became the famous Lone Survivor of the original 4 SEALs in this episode, as documented in his book and in the subsequent movie.

And yet…

In late June and early July 2005, I was completing a particularly challenging consulting engagement and then taking two weeks off to enjoy some paternity leave surrounding the birth of our second child.  I bet I complained about the long hours and the hardships I had to endure with a newborn in the house while I padded around in sock feet and drank the coffee of my choice while enjoying my air-conditioned house in Dallas, TX and my paid leave from a challenging but all-in-all cushy job as a consultant at a global firm.

Anybody see the irony, yet?

Somewhere, there is a fight going on.  You might be in the middle of it, and you might not.  It’s being carried out on your behalf, and you might not even know it.

In a recent conversation with a finance lead of a very strong business I work with, we came to an agreement on something.  The money isn’t made by the spreadsheet jockeys or the executives: It’s made by the gang who’s making product on the shop floor and the salespeople who are making sure the customer is happy and buying.

In other words, there’s a fight going on.  Somebody is out there sacrificing their own time and talent on behalf of the company, just like you, except if they don’t do their work today, there is no tomorrow. Perhaps we ought to acknowledge that.

What’s the implication here?  It’s nothing new really, but it is important. For all of us who live our lives off of the derivatives and commissions of real value, it’s important to stop and ask whether we are enabling value creation or hindering it.

I can hear it now:  “Oh, silly consultant… how could I as an executive be hindering value creation?  Look how much they pay me!”

Well maybe, just maybe, you are being paid for what you positioned for, not what you’re worth; it happens.  Usually it happens to other people, not to you (that is, I’ve never met someone who would admit they are overpaid–only a few people who admit their jobs were easy).

Yet there are innumerable vain corporate initiatives that create ungodly productivity taxes for organizations without really creating any value. I’m looking at you, activity-based accountants and demanders of the 90-page board report that nobody reads; they are everywhere.  Often, they are directed by people who enjoy plenty of time in their sock feet drinking the coffee of their choice while those who are in the fight struggle a world away. Except that a world away in instances like this could be just on the other side of the wall on the shop floor, or around the corner in the sales office.

I recognize that it’s a little bit strained to compare people who are struggling to get product off the dock or to make the next sale to Navy SEALs fighting in Afghanistan, but the imperative is the same.  Whether we’re talking about citizenship in a free society or our own work as executives, managers, and analysts, somebody out there is fighting on your behalf, and you’ll be a better pro if you recognize it.

So, do you reward those who make the money or those who posture for it?



The Force of Fewer in Strategy

Fewer words, initiatives, metrics, and complexities just might unlock your strategy.


Did you know that Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat using only 236 different words?

Amazing, isn’t it?

But, there’s more to the story. Dr. Seuss’s publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words.

Seuss’s response?

Green Eggs and Ham. That’s one of the best-known children’s books of all time.

The moral to the story is that few can be good, and fewer can be masterful. This applies to our professional lives as well. How?

Well, if you read my stuff, you already know that I have a healthy skepticism for what I’ll call “one thingism.”  In an earlier post linked here, I used an old movie scene to set off the notion that strategies formed around “one thing” like earnings growth or engaged culture fall short of the richness needed.

But holy cow, how often we over-complicate things.  To wit:

I know professionals who have more than 15 direct reports. It’s a striking executive who can care for and nourish 15 people who all look to her for guidance.  In fact, I have still not met one.

I know people who go through every day with meetings non-stop. I’m one of them. Even when I have days without meetings, I feel naked and go schedule a few. That’s not all bad, but fewer meetings would still work.

I know of strategists who build strategies with more than 20 “key” initiatives.

I know of boards who try to manage 20 “key” metrics.

I know of CEOs who believe that the obfuscation of reporting on many business lines is superior to the clarity of a few themes.

I know of managers who write job descriptions with so many “prime” directives as to be unintelligible.

We can go on and on about fewer when it comes to professional life and strategy. While some of us are sitting around thinking about our professional lives as a massive, thousand-page tome like Atlas Shrugged, others of us are thinking The Cat in the Hat.

Me? I prefer Green Eggs and Ham, and a relentless drive for fewer.

The answer is not “one thing,” but it just might be only a few.

If I were to write a strategy for the world, a few words would work.  Why won’t only a few work for your business strategy? Fewer words, initiatives, metrics, and complexities just might unlock your strategy.