Apply business strategy concepts to your career path
by Henry J. Lindborg
The quality profession has been most successful when its work has been seen as strategic. When TQM became a strategic imperative for competitive advantage, for example, celebrity CEOs became cheerleaders, quality maturity was measured by more vice presidents for quality at the corporate table, and academics such as David Garvin traced quality’s history from inspection to customer-focused strategy.
To revisit strategy in a time of greater uncertainty, I recently interviewed Walter Kiechel, formerly the editorial director and senior vice president of Harvard Business School Publishing, and managing editor of Fortune. He is the author of The Lords of Strategy,1 a meticulously researched analysis of how key figures in consulting and academia shaped thinking and practices in business strategy. In my interview with him, Kiechel shared important insights and good advice on career strategy.
Henry Lindborg: To what degree were the "lords of strategy" influenced by the quality movement? How is it now seen by strategists?
Walter Kiechel: While most of the early lords had been trained as engineers—Bruce Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group; Fred Gluck, who brought strategy to McKinsey and Co.; and Michael Porter, a reknowned Harvard Business School professor—much of their early work and thinking really got going in the late 1960s. A lot of the most important thinking was pretty well developed by the early 1980s, when the quality movement really got cranking. They were aware of the work of [W. Edwards] Deming and [Joseph M.] Juran, but they thought of themselves as concentrated on the microeconomics of their clients.
In the mainstream until the 1990s, a lot of the strategy firms didn’t think of themselves as performing operations management or consulting to improve factory efficiency or quality. And the firms that did weren’t considered top-drawer thinkers on strategy. These days, [major] players are doing much more operations work, and I think they’re quite willing to pick up insights from the quality movement, if still with a bit of condescension.
I think that mirrors the practice within a lot of companies in which the people making strategy—while intellectually acknowledging the importance of quality even as a factor in successful strategy—still tend to view quality specialists as just that—specialists—and not necessarily representing a function that needs to be at the top management table.
HL: Some of my colleagues have proposed that the future of quality is enterprise risk management (ERM). How do you see ERM fitting into future strategic thinking?
WK: Every firm caught up in the global financial crisis—as well as the strategy consultants who advised them—seems to agree they all did a lousy job of risk management. But while there’s more appreciation of the need for risk management—just as there was after 9/11 at many companies—I’m not sure that many companies have yet found a way to organize around that need. Some have a chief risk officer. My impression is that many of these people come from finance backgrounds, while others consign it to functional specialists, such as the folks in charge of managing supply chains.
HL: With the advent of the ISO 26000 standard on social responsibility, quality professionals have taken notice. What priority are strategists giving to corporate social responsibility (CSR)?
WK: I think strategists give an occasional tug of the forelock toward CSR, but mostly they’re concerned with how to develop or maintain competitive advantage in a world that seems to them increasingly competitive with new players coming in from countries far and wide and cutting prices like crazy. A few companies want to talk about what they’re doing about CSR, but I’ve yet to see more than one or two that publicly talk about giving it priority over increasing returns to shareholders.
HL: Because you’ve traced the "big ideas" in strategy, do you have any advice for those of us trying to understand the value and practicality of new approaches to business thinking?
WK: I think companies ought to be scanning all the time for new ideas these days—just as they should be looking for new market opportunities—because the days of lasting competitive advantages, or being able to thrive by just doing what you used to do, are gone for most enterprises.
What has happened in the last 20 years is that there seem to be fewer big ideas in the sense of ideas that apply to all industries and all companies. Similar to consulting firms or business school faculty, ideas have become more industry or function-specific—the notion of which I think many quality specialists would find completely understandable and congenial. It’s at the frontiers of your own industry or function that you should be concentrating your efforts to monitor the traffic in ideas.
HL: What reading materials do you suggest to someone trying to grasp strategy?
WK: In strategy + business magazine, I wrote a piece on seven chapters of strategic wisdom to introduce the topic.2 A recent book on strategy that has some powerful insight is Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy,3 which provides useful distinctions between the two, plus some fascinating points of leverage to think about while forging good strategy.
HL: Many quality professionals see consulting as a career path when they’ve retired or been downsized. What advice can you offer would-be consultants?
WK: Here are three main pieces of advice:
- Think hard about what your distinctive offering is going to be, what kind of consulting help you can provide that others can’t, and how you can sharpen that offering as much as you can on the way to retirement.
- Figure out if there’s a way you can consult part time while still holding your full-time job—even if it’s just consulting on a nonprofit basis as a volunteer or as part of a community activity. If you’re trying to transition to a new kind of full-time activity, it really helps to have tried it out and dipped your toe in the water before taking the full plunge.
- The most important asset you can bring to a new career as a consultant is a list of clients all lined up and ready to go. This can be tough to develop while you’re still working for someone else, but if you’re above board about it, particularly with your employer—who just might want to be a client—there’s no better launching pad.
HL: Is there a useful approach for applying strategy to careers that’s good for personal and organizational thinking?
WK: Some of the best strategy—personal and corporate—comes from figuring out what you do well, your "distinctive competence" to be highfalutin about it and then looking for situations in which you can put that competence to work.
Discovering your special gift is usually a matter of much trial and error, at least from what I’ve seen. Very, very few people know in their teens or 20s what they’re particularly good at or what they most enjoy doing that can earn them a living. But with any good corporate strategy, you need to be willing to experiment, try what might seem to be wild possibilities and possibly fail without beating yourself over the head. It’s empiricism—seeing what actually works—which I would think would appeal to quality specialists.
HL: Is there anything else you’d like to add from a career perspective?
WK: Much research indicates that probably the No. 1 predictor of job satisfaction is whether you like the people you work with. I’d add to that: Do you respect them?
It helps if you can find one mentor—or a dozen of them—along the way, some of them with expertise concentrated in a particular area. If you’re smart about it, your mentor may be 20 years younger than you are and of a different gender.
One good test of your progress through your career, or lack thereof, is asking yourself at the end of every working day: "What did I learn today that’s new?"
- Walter Kiechel, The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, Harvard Business School Press, 2010.
- Walter Kiechel, "Seven Chapters of Strategic Wisdom: A Shortcut to the Big Themes in the Conversation About Corporate Strategy," strategy + business, Spring 2010, Issue 58, Feb. 23, 2010, www.strategy-business.com/article/10109?gko=70983.
- Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters, Crown Business, 2011.
Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.