President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 1

President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 1

President Trump CEO, part 1: Setting Strategy

 

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.

Setting strategy

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.

On his first weekday in office, today, he has already pulled out of the Asian-Pacific Trade Pact and the TPP. He is clearly sending strategic signals, that America will be withdrawing from free trade deals, with the hope that it will bring jobs back to America. Whether it does or not remains to be seen.

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

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
  • physical infrastructure
  • farmland
  • a market-based economic system
  • financial markets

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.

Summary

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.

 

Part 2 of President Trump CEO, continued…

Punt resolutions; use strategy, instead!

It’s January, and we all know what that means: time to set New Years resolutions that we’re going to break! The main things resolutions are good for is causing the gym to get way too crowded for the first six weeks of the year. You have a tool at your finger tips that will do far more for you than simply setting resolutions.

Skip your resolutions and set strategy, instead.

A strategy is a 50,000-foot view of your life or business. A good strategic plan gives you a roadmap for where to put your time and effort this year. It tells you what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.

As you know from my article on how vision and mission relate to strategy, your strategy for a year answers the question, “How can we further the company vision, given the realities of the markets, customers, and resources under our control right now?” Strategy is how vision plays out in today’s real world context.

But when you’re setting your strategy, make sure to approach it from both the outside and the inside.

Look Outside to Set Strategy

Your strategy depends on what’s going on outside your company walls. You need to develop a plan that makes you more desirable to customers than any of your competitors. That means knowing:

  • How do your customers think of you? What product category do they put you in? (Don’t assume you know. A yacht isn’t necessarily a vehicle. Rather, it may be a status symbol.)
  • Who else is in that product category? If you’re a yacht, are you competing against Toyota and JetBlue (transportation) or are you competing against Jetstream and Sotheby’s (status symbols)?
  • What advantage do you have over your competitors?
  • How can you best communicate that advantage to the market?
  • Who has the power in your ecosystem, and how can you increase your power?

One of my favorite books on external strategy is Co-opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. If you’ve ever heard of Michael Porter’s “Five Forces,” Co-opetition goes one step further and deepens the model. Just the way Brandenburger and Nalebuff define competitive and complementary relationships is worth the cost of the book.

Strategy Looks Inside

Looking outside is only half of the equation. You also need to look inside when you formulate your strategy. If strategy is vision made real now, part of “now” is the resources you have under your control. You need to take stock of your resources and decide which resources will form the foundation of your strategy.

When you make ultra-yachts, two of your assets are your customer list (oodles and oodles of rich people), and your yacht design capabilities. If you base your strategy off your customer list, you will expand into other products and services that your current customers might want. Like platinum dinner place settings. If, however, you base your strategy off your design capabilities, you might instead expand into other kinds of yachts, or other sea-faring vessels.

My favorite book on internal strategy is Top Management Strategy by Tregoe et al. The book is 30 years old, but is pretty much just as relevant today as when it was written.

Treat yourself to a 3-martini lunch

If you don’t have a formal strategy session planned, then at least take a long lunch. And over lunch, review the vision/mission for your venture. Why are you in the game in the first place? Then ask yourself how that gets expressed in the world of 2017. Review your external factors—competitors, customers, suppliers, and so on. Review your internal resources, and decide which you plan to base your strategy on.

Then go for it. Give shape to your plans for the next year. Make sure to build in time to review and course correct, and get your year off to a good start. A New Years resolution might only last a couple of weeks, but a good strategy will support you for a year.

More than one strategy is actually… no strategy at all.

Creating a strategy

My friend Carey’s business had stalled. Since I’m one of those people who loves to offer unasked-for advice (knowing the recipient will be eternally grateful), I offered some. “You need an overarching strategy,” I intoned, sagely. The unfathomable response, “Thanks, but no thanks. I already have lots of strategies.”

Lots of strategies? Hmm. You can’t have multiple overarching strategies at once. But Carey wouldn’t know that, because we’re never taught what a strategy is, or how to make sure you have a good one.

Do you have a strategy? For business? For life? Do you even need one? What is one?

Strategies Aren’t Tactics

People use “strategy” to mean a to-do item, but that’s not a strategy. That’s a tactic. Carey has 16 different products under development at once. Those aren’t 16 strategies; they’re 16 tactics.

A strategy is a directed plan you use to commit your time and action in a single direction. By aligning how you spend your time, your money, your resources, and your communication, you greatly increase your chances for success.

If Carey’s projects include designing a high-fashion clothing line for the Milan runway and opening a Veterinary Pet Grooming franchise, those will compete for time, attention, and dollars. When the clothing line needs another 5-gallon tub of sequins (I never said Carey had taste), that’s money that could have been spent on tick sponge-on. Neither business gets the full resources needed to insure success.

Set a Vision that Drives Your Work

Before you can create your strategy, you need to know where you want to end up. What’s the result the strategy is designed to produce? That’s the vision that drives your work.

Start your strategy by setting a compelling, substantive vision. A vision needs to be specific enough to use to make decisions. It needs to be general enough to allow flexibility in what you choose to do.

My friend Rowan’s vision is “to build a business.” That’s so vague that it could cover everything from fashion design to tick removal… and so it does.

But make it more specific, and it becomes a powerful guide. In an alternate universe where Rowan is capable of focus, the vision could become:

A business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy 365 days a year[1].

This vision can be used to decide which product lines to enter, and to allow a range of options: tick treatment and nutritional consultation both fit. It can also be used to decide which product lines notto enter: high fashion that features too many sequins[2]. It’s just specific enough to guide a good strategy.

Create a Strategy Linking Your Goal to Your Reality

Now you have a vision. But while visions are great, they’re still too abstract for action. If a new Puppies R Us (We Sell ‘Em, You Care For ‘Em™) opened down the street from Rowan’s storefront, concentrating the business on dog care could be Rowan’s ticket to mansions and private planes. But if the new store is Spiders Galore: Unusual Pets for Unusual People, concentrating on the care and grooming of Brachypelma emilia might make the most sense.

Begin crafting your strategy by linking the vision to your current reality. Assess your resources — what you have a lot of, and what you’re short on. Assess your situation — outside forces that might help or hinder different courses of action. Create a high-level plan that uses your resources to move towards some way to realize your vision, given your current environment.

Rowan can take the pet health business vision, and link it to the things in real life that will make it happen.

Point tactics towards a vision to get the job done right. Then link it to reality.

If Rowan has home office space, an email list of pet owners, and a vast network of veterinarians, Rowan’s strategy could be to form an online pet care referral network. There could be an app, and a website, and a huge campaign to sign up hundreds of veterinarians from around the world.

If Rowan has a retail storefront near Puppies R Us, but no mailing list, the strategy could be to create in-person care for dogs and dog-related issues. Rowan could even propose a collaboration with Puppies R Us where Puppies promotes Rowan’s business and gets a referral fee.

These are two different strategies. Both lead towards the vision of “a business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy year-round.”

Being in possession of the retail storefront, Rowan chooses the strategy of providing in-person dog-related care.

Keep Your Strategy Clear

Lastly, keep your chosen strategy clear and singular. You might have many tactics that comprise the strategy. Rowan can get the word out in many different ways: online banner ads, leaflets in the local community, and a Puppies R Us partnership. These are pretty different activities, but make no mistake: these aren’t strategies, they’re separate tactics supporting a single strategy.

By having only this one strategy, Rowan can now concentrate all resources on the storefront. If the opportunity comes up to run a nationwide banner ad, the explicit strategy tells Rowan what to do: say “no” to the ad; advertising a Springfield puppy health service in Skokie makes no sense.

Think Strategically Throughout Your Life

A strategy helps you make decisions about where to put your time, money, and attention. We’ve been exploring strategy in business, but you can apply strategic thinking to other areas of your life.

What is your vision for your life? For your family? Your Career? Spend some time forming your vision. Then look at today’s reality, and choose a strategy that will realize that vision as possible in your life today. You’ll get a lot more of what you want in life, and a lot less of whatever random the world throws at you. Then you can put your efforts into tactics that support your strategy.

A scattershot approach to success is a recipe for staying stuck. Avoid this by organizing your tactics and resources using a well-chosen strategy. Align it all in pursuit of the vision that inspires and energizes you, and you’ll soon be enjoying plenty of success, while still having time to stop and pet the puppies.


  1. Closed on February 29th.  ↩
  2. Lack of fit with the vision is only one reason not to enter that particular business.  ↩

The Internet will destroy commerce

Last week I wanted to buy product X, locally. I couldn’t. Every search phrase I could come up with took me to a custom site from a big company. “Widget, Miami, FL” didn’t go me Miami Florida local businesses, it gave me specially crafted, search engine optimized pages from Walmart.com, saying “Miami Widgets” on a domain that redirected to Walmart.com.

I rarely issue proclamations about the future, because I’ve noticed that my ability to predict trends is reasonable, but my ability to pick the timing of those trends sucks eggs. But let’s give it a shot:

Advertising-Supported Business Models Will Decline

The more that media companies and software companies and game companies rely on advertising as their primary revenue base, the more the supply of advertising spots will increase. Eventually, the supply will exceed the demand and, except for a few extremely high-traffic sites, ad prices will be driven down … because ads will become much less effective unless the advertiser has the time, money, and skill to do the detailed analytics needed to find the few venues where they get a positive ROI on their money.

This will drive a lot of the ad-supported businesses out of business, because they just don’t have the reach to be able to be one of the high-value ad space suppliers.

As Will All Businesses That Rely on Ads or Search for Customers

This will drive a lot of smaller businesses out of business, because those smaller businesses don’t have the resources to spend on marketing analytics, which will become necessary for finding the few advertising outlets that actually work for those small businesses. The marketing analytics will become a cost of being in the game.

In other words, the internet will drive us toward a more anemic economy where there are a few big-company winners, and those without the resources will lose.

(Essentially, the internet raises the playing field for everyone to the point where only big companies can survive.)

There will always be exceptions for specialty niches, but not for general commerce.

I hope I’m wrong, but I from what I see on the ground, it looks like a plausible scenario.

JetBlue speeds towards brand destruction

The essence of a strong brand is differentiation in a way that makes customers want to use your product or Service. JetBlue has announced a decrease in legroom and increase in baggage fees in an attempt to boost lagging profits. All I can say is, “idiots.” The entire key to branding is to have strong differentiation from your competitors. In Airlines, the only differentiators are where you fly, your prices, and your service experience.

For JetBlue, service experience has long been a serious differentiator. I would go far out of my way to fly JetBlue instead of other airlines, and I’d pay more, because the experience was just so nice. The fact that the fares were competitive was nice, but I would have paid a premium for the level of service I got.

So now that profitability is lagging, how does JetBlue choose to respond? By attempting to maintain low price position and moving towards a low service position too. Heck, what are commodities for, if not as a dying place for once-strong brands who bow to the short-sighted idiocy that has become the financial markets.

The current JetBlue executives should have their salaries and bonuses clawed back in five years if this does, indeed, herald the beginning of the end of a once-strong brand.

What’s your industry? The answer may surprise you.

The way people define industries is really quite interesting. I’ve once again been asked to be a judge for the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition. They asked what industries I’m comfortable commenting on. It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer, because it’s quite unclear what an “industry” is. Here are a sample of a few things that people call industries:

  • B2C internet
  • B2B internet
  • Health Care
  • Medical Devices
  • Energy
  • Financial Services

What makes these an industry? Is it that all members of the same industry share the same markets? Is it that all members of the same industry share the same employee skill sets? Is it that all members of the same industry produce the same kind of products?

Every definition I’ve tried has glaring exceptions, which makes me wonder whether thinking in terms of “industries” really makes as much sense as I’ve always assumed.

Perhaps it makes more sense to think in terms of:

  • companies/products who serve a given market
  • companies/products that require certain kinds of distribution
  • companies/products that require certain specialized knowledge on the part of employees

What do you think?