The economic playing field has gotten complicated enough that it’s foolish to step on the field without some idea of how you’re going to win. In sports, you have a playbook, which lists the plays you can make. In business, we call these “tactics.” You also need a strategy, a way to combine those plays so you win the game. While it’s possible to win without a formal strategy, having a good strategy can often give you a leg up. You’ll form the best strategy by looking both inward and outside.
For example, you may have invented an electric car that you sell to shipping companies. That’s given you expertise in creating electric cars, and you have expertise selling to shipping companies. You can grow your business by concentrating on bringing your technological expertise (electric cars) to new markets. You can also grow your business by developing new products to sell to shipping companies. In the first case, you’re organizing your strategy around your technology. In the second, you’re organizing around a particular set of customers. Which you decide to do is entirely up to you.
When I worked at Babson College in the team formulating the strategy of the school, Babson was ranked the #1 school for entrepreneurship, world-wide. This gave us an explicit decision: do we ignore the ranking, and (try to) build some other brand for the school, or do we concentrate in entrepreneurship. Babson chose to continue building on entrepreneurship. It didn’t have to, however. Making the choice explicit led to initiatives that would never have happened without that self-examination.
Look outwards to the environment
Great resources aren’t enough. You might have the biggest bank account in your industry, but if your competitor also owns your industry’s largest distributor, you’re going to get creamed. Your landscape determines which (if any) of your resources can help you win.
The most famous model for understanding the strategy landscape for crafting your business strategy is Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” model. My favorite is a later extension of Porter’s model, the “value net,” presented in the excellent book Co-opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. With a value net, you look at the world around you: competitors, substitutes, suppliers, customers, complementors, and barriers to entry. You design your strategy taking into account what each part of your value net brings to the table, and how that meshes with your business goals.
For example, your industry might be dominated by two or three suppliers. That gives the suppliers tremendous negotiating leverage, and the ability to cut you out of the market if you don’t agree to their demands. Furthermore, it makes your business vulnerable if one of the suppliers encounters a disruption, since you don’t have many alternatives.
Good business strategy sometimes happens by magic, but you don’t want to bet the farm on Tinkerbell being in the right place, at the right time. Formulate your strategy by deciding how you can best deploy your internal resources given how your industry’s value net looks today. Times change quickly these days, and an integrated approach to keeping your strategy current will keep you at the top of your game.
My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Capital allocation is the CEO’s fourth main duty.
Allocating capital is the ultimate expression of strategic priorities.
Trump manages money
So far Trump has shown that he takes money very seriously. His position on many international bodies and on America’s role in the world is that all countries should help foot the bill for international costs. His stance so far has, indeed, prompted some countries to step up and contribute more to the U.N.
Domestically, Trump has instituted a hiring freeze on the Government and is presumably going to look at spending within the government.
Like everything else, this is more complicated than it seems. Government spending is a huge driver of the economy, and the government is the largest employer in the country. A business certainly wants to lay off as many employees as it possible can and still keep functioning. That’s how we boost profits.
A government, however, is walking a trickier line. A business is generally not affected by the employees it lays off, or by any reduction in its own spending. But not so, a government. Stop spending too quickly and lay too many people off and it simply drives up unemployment and slows down the economy.
Will spending cuts be done wisely?
In companies, spending cuts can be done by declaration: “cut 30% costs across the board.” This is an attractive way to do things. It’s easy to understand and easy to calculate. But it’s a bad way.
This kind of cutting assumes that there’s 30% waste across the board, and it assumes that all cuts are equal. All cuts are not equal. If you consider a company like Microsoft, cutting 30% of their administrative expenses might be a reasonable goal. But cutting 30% of their programming staff would boost their quarterly earnings while probably destroying their ability to fix bugs and develop products to stay competitive.
Spending cuts + process improvement = win?
The fundamental way to reduce costs in an ongoing business is through process improvement, finding ways to do existing things better.
While the stereotype of the Government is that it is extremely wasteful, that is an oversimplification. Some Government programs (e.g. Medicare) are extremely efficient, much moreso than their private counterparts. Other Government programs (e.g. famously, the Defense Department) have huge amounts of waste.
What matters isn’t whether or not the Government runs a program. What matters is whether there are incentives and structures in place that encourage people to work smarter, work better, and improve continuously.
What gets measured gets … measured
George W. Bush was a Harvard MBA who famously was going to bring business principles to the Government. It’s not clear he did much of that. No Child Left Behind introduced measurement into the educational system, but did so in a way that many teachers view as hindering education, not helping it. The Total Quality movement of the 1970s and 1980s showed that simply setting numeric goals without adding process improvements to reach those goals isn’t, in practice, particularly effective.
The business practices that might help the government use its money more efficiently are those of aligning incentives, re-engineering processes, tying employee pay and promotions to customer feedback, and so on. If Trump implements this kind of thinking in the government, it could, indeed, signal a major shift in how efficiently we use our money.
Big allocations reveal priorities
The capital allocation I was referring to in the CEO job duties article weren’t just cost efficiency. The most important capital allocation decisions are the ones that decide which strategic initiatives stay, and which go.
Whether Trump’s spending will be thoughtful or abrupt remains to be seen. He has already declared his intent to increase military spending, while freezing other budgets. He has given directions for us to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has stated we will increase infrastructure spending, while possibly withdrawing from international bodies (such as the U.N.) to which we pay dues.
The President doesn’t control the budget
Though Trump can control how capital is allocated within the Executive branch, it’s Congress that sets the overall budget (or often doesn’t, in the cases where we’ve had a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled legislature). Trump can fund or defund the efforts to implement programs created by Congress, but there are limits to how much control he has over the national budget.
At this point, it’s too early to tell how Trump will allocate capital. If his skills match his claims as a successful businessman, he may well find ways to steamline the government and put it on a path to being more efficient. His larger capital allocation decisions remain to be seen, however.
My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Setting culture is the CEO’s third main duty.
The CEO sets culture by modeling behavior and by the policies they set. The behavior of a CEO has a profound effect throughout an organization. Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely’s (Dis)Honesty Project shows that when a cultural norm of dishonesty sets in, everyone jumps on board.
Some people speculate that this will bite Trump, and ultimately discredit him. Others think we will simply normalize to the lies. If so, given Ariely’s research, that could pose a real danger for America as a culture to begin to see lying as a perfectly fine way to interact.
While I was writing this post, Trump forbid all government agencies from talking with the press. This level of government secrecy is unprecedented in a democratic government. Culturally, the message being sent is one of a change to a command-and-control style of governance, rather than a culture of government accountability to the people.
The command-and-control messages Trump is sending are very worrisome. They constitute not just a cultural shift from Obama, but a cultural shift for America as a country. A major goal of the Constitution was to create a government with checks and balances that could be accountable to the citizens. While the last several Presidents have moved increasingly in the direction of low transparency and accountability, Trump is taking this so far and so hard in the direction of non-democracy that it’s scary.
In terms of the cultural messages he’s sending on the social and immigration front, he is clearly not trying to send a message that all are welcome in America. With his cabinet picks, the executive orders he has chosen to sign in his first couple of days, and so on, he is sending a clear message that he will act in the interests of only specific groups in his policy-making. People who can’t afford healthcare or education, and women, are already getting the message that they can’t look to the government for help.
My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Leading the top team is the CEO’s second main duty.
In the case of the President, the top team means the Cabinet. Most CEOs don’t immediately replace the top team of a company without seeking to understand something about who’s best for the job. Not so, the President. The President replaces the Cabinet immediately.
Most people talk about elections as if it’s a middle school popularity contest. “My candidate won! Neener, neener, neener.” “My candidate lost, I hate you forever!!!” Let me be tasteful and diplomatic in saying that this is idiotic beyond belief (trust me, you don’t want to hear the non-diplomatic version).
Elections are a job interview. We may not like the slate of candidates we’re given, but they’re the candidates we have, and we have to choose one to fill the job.
I’ve heard it said that Trump was elected on the “pass it down” theory of competence: he doesn’t have to have great solutions, he just has to put the right people in place who have solutions.
Has he done that?
From his Cabinet picks, I don’t believe so. When hiring for a job, you generally look for relevant past experience, or a highly transferable skill set (e.g. general management).
A Cabinet pick oversees a multibillion-dollar organization. Not necessarily a business, an organization. Governmental bottom lines aren’t measured in dollars, but in civic terms.
Several appointees don’t necessarily know the playing field of the post they’ve been appointed to. That means that if they can get up to speed in any meaningful way, they have the same learning curve as someone just entering the field. I’m not sure that hiring candidates with the equivalent experience of a new college grad is the way to go.
In short, viewed solely through the lens of hiring the right person for the right job, it appears to me that Trump is not doing a good job.
Leading the team
Once he’s hired the team, he has to lead them. It’s too early to tell how he’ll do in that regard. Stay tuned.
Trump has appointed a top team whose qualifications for their specific roles are seriously in doubts. Many of his picks have no background in the areas they’ve been chosen to lead, no established reputations and connections in those areas, and no evidence in their backgrounds that they’ve managed similar efforts.
If I were an investor in a company whose CEO had just made these picks for leaders of the company, I would sell my stock.
UPDATE Jan 27, 2017:The entire senior administrative staff of the State Department just resigned. Good CEOs put proper succession planning in place for themselves, and understand the need for orderly transitions to keep things from spiraling out of control. Most institutional memory resides in the employees, not in the policies and procedures manuals. I’m extremely puzzled as to why Trump would allow something like this to happen, and not work harder to keep his senior team. This is a troublesome development, to say the least.
Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.
My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Setting strategy is one of a CEO’s main duties.
The CEO ultimately sets the strategy for a company. For a company, that means external, competitive strategy (how do we win in the marketplace against competitors) and internal strategy—how do we best use our internal resources in pursuit of success.
Strategic decisions generally have huge implications for a company or country. They involve moving time, effort, and money from one set of goals to another. They usually represent a multi-year commitment, whose effects won’t be seen until substantial investment is made. So strategic decisions are usually given a lot of thought and analysis.
Unlike businesses, countries don’t use economics as the only measuring stick. The goal isn’t to win against the competition. The goal is to provide a safe environment for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the residents. The outward-looking strategy certainly has economic components (e.g. tariffs, trade agreements, tax treatment of overseas corporations), but it also involves strategy around war and conflict, around global resource allocation, and around solving global problems that require cooperation between nations.
External strategy is complicated for a country
President Trump has made it clear that we will no longer be the world’s policeman, without compensation. That’s taking an economic approach to strategy.
That’s one piece of the puzzle. Unlike in business, however, countries deal in currencies other than money. Global problems affect us whether we want them to or not. China’s coal-fired power plants cause atmospheric pollution whose effects we feel. Power vacuums in the Middle East gave rise to terrorist groups like ISIS (ironically in response to our leaving Iraq too soon).
That’s what foreign policy is all about. It’s how we relate to the world stage vis-a-vis world problems. In America, the buck stops with the President when it comes to foreign policy.
There are a lot more moving parts when it comes to a country’s external strategy. External strategy needs to blend economics, diplomacy, war, foreign aid, and probably other things as well, if we’re to maximize our country’s well-being.
Between the time I wrote the last paragraph and this one, Trump has also actually given orders to build a wall with Mexico, and has discussed pulling out of NAFTA. The speed of these orders and lack of discussion given to the implications suggest to me that these strategic-level decisions are being made dangerously quickly.
Non-economic issues matter to a country’s external strategy
So far, the non-economic elements of Trump’s strategy are a mixed bag. He’s done some things that have horrified career diplomats, such as hinting that the US will pull out of NATO. That may be a negotiating strategy designed to get other countries to foot their part of the bill (an economic strategy). And at the same time, the rest of the world is looking at the non-economic elements (their own safety) of that statement.
His foreign policy might be brilliant. It might encourage other countries to fall in line behind us. Or it might scare others into shifting alliances and finding ways to need the United States less, which ultimately gives us less power in the world and less influence in world events that may affect us.
If it’s true that Trump is actually being manipulated by Russia, presumably Putin is doing so to the advantage of Russia, and not to the advantage of the U.S. But that’s probably a determination that will have to be made in hindsight.
There is already a motion on the house floor for America to pull out of the United Nations. That’s the kind of move that has huge potential repercussions. Some of those are psychological, but some are quite concrete. If we leave the U.N., and the remaining countries in the U.N. remain and act as a single body, we’ve just given up any sway we had as part of any issues the organization addresses.
I don’t think we can draw any conclusions, yet. He’s pulling a lot of levers very quickly, and we haven’t yet seen how the effects ripple through the world.
What he’s doing on the non-economic dimensions seems scary to me, but … he could be right. What he’s doing is drastic. Strategically? Just as we can’t know what the final benefits of his strategy will be, we also don’t know what unintended consequences such a strategy might have.
Internal strategy is determining how best to use the resources of the country to increase overall well-being.
This one’s tricky; I don’t understand even a small number of the issues myself. As for national building blocks of well-being, here are some of the ones I am thinking of:
a population of 300 million
a public school system
certain publicly owned natural resources
an electrical grid
a market-based economic system
The question is whether our CEO has any strategy that explores the interdependencies between these things over the next several decades, and whether our CEO has any strategy for how to combine them to help our country succeed.
Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. I haven’t been convinced that any President in my lifetime has had much of an overall strategy. They all seem to have fragments of strategies for each area, largely disconnected from one another. Since all of those things influence each other, the one approach we know is probably wrong is to treat them as silos.
From what little I’ve heard Trump say, I don’t think he has any kind of sophisticated strategy for best using our internal resources. This does not make him unusual, however. If any other candidate, or any President I’ve heard in my lifetime, has had such a strategy, they’ve never talked about it in public.
Trump’s appointment of non-scientists to posts which require scientific knowledge (or at least the understanding of what science is and how it works) is worrisome. America’s strength over the last century and a half has come from our technological progress, on which we’ve built our economic and business progress.
We’ve already ceded several important industries to other countries: manufacturing, computer hardware and electronics fabrication, etc. Now’s the time to be doubling down on education and scientific infrastructure that can form the basis for American and world prosperity for the next century. My impression is that Trump is going in exactly the opposite direction.
Trump is making rapid-fire strategic decisions that have global and local implications for the economy, for the environment, for the future of our national competitiveness, and for our safety. On the surface, his policy decisions seem to be made as a hodge podge of campaign promises, not as part of an integrated strategy that takes into account the multiple dimensions of his actions.
While it’s too early to tell how his strategies will play out, I’m pessimistic. In my experience, big, complex decisions made hastily don’t often lead to success.
Stever Robbins is an extremely dynamic speaker. He doesn’t just talk about the “standard” topics, but strives to give a perceptive and entertaining insight into how things really work. His presentation at Wharton covered a wealth of topics, which kept the audience engaged and wanting more. If you need a speaker on business, technology, or entrepreneurship topics, Stever’s your man.
— Steve Ludmer, Wharton Undergraduate Class of 2001, President of the Wharton Undergraduate Entrepreneurial Group, founder and CEO of Seedling Ventures