The strategic executive’s enduring dilemma

The hardest part about giving excellent advice is the hardest part about being an executive.

Geoff Wilson

One of the real disasters of the consulting profession is the consultant who really, sincerely, thinks he has it all figured out.  He’s the guy for whom no problem is unsolvable.  Usually, the advice on complex topics is distilled into “just” statements, like “just automate that process,” or “just downsize that organization.”

I have seen many, many seemingly impractical and amoral nuggets of advice emerge from otherwise smart, sincere people advising clients.  They often are packaged as “best practices” but ignore practicality.  In the worst of cases, they come from individuals who wouldn’t take the same risk with their own capital or reputations.  You know them…they are the consultants who give advice that looks like “acquire your way out of problems.” They like the big, provocative recommendation, but don’t appreciate the nitty gritty difficulty or bold-faced risk that their recommendations come with.  They just arm wave the risk away.

In forming a practical approach to strategic planning, I have found that the biggest challenge to strategic planning itself is the acknowledgement of the unknown or the un-experienced.  It is far, far easier to pose hypothetical assumptions about the world and then to claim them as true than it is to deal with the difficulties of reality as they are today.  What this challenge usually boils down to is lack of experience.  All too often, strategic advisors are brought in as a source of insight from a different perspective, and they end up marginalized (or, worse, cloistered with the CEO) because they simply don’t take the time to understand reality before pronouncing “solutions.”

This is where you end up with big but unworkable solutions to problems that genuinely require knowledge and care.  “Acquire your way out of the problem” is a great example.  It sounds great, but often ignores the compounded risks of acquisitions–valuation, integration, customer attrition, etc.  Once those risks are taken into account, an acquisition often looks like a roll of the dice; and it has to be more than that.  It has to be grounded in some amount of understanding of how the acquiring company will “money out” the deal.  This usually requires more than a passing understanding of the acquiror and the target.  And still, the advice is often given with neither.

So what?  Well, the answer is simple, but hard:  Experience bases take time to develop, both in employees and in advisors.  Build them, and then don’t forget them when forming big, audacious plans. Moreover, the tagline of this post is perhaps the most important one:  Executives suffer from the “big and easy” disease at a rate that is nearly as high as top consulting strategists.  From the cloister of the c-suite, it can be easy to gloss over real practical issues.

So, before making that next big pronouncement about your company’s strategy, or before taking action on the logically founded but inexperienced advice of a consultant, just remember this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing:

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

It’s a great, distilled “what just a minute” for any advisor or executive. Let us all acknowledge where our experience is lacking before we make drastic proclamations.  That is the hardest part of giving excellent advice.  And, it’s one of the harder parts of being an executive.

What do you think?