Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Being Strategic - a visit with noted consultant Erika Andersen

Being Strategic is a book that will reside front and centre on my book shelf. Written by Erika Andersen, it's probably the most practical approach I've ever come across on how to both plan out your personal success, as well as how to get a group aligned around a vision and strategy.

What I like about Erica's approach is that she provides a clear framework and excellent examples that help you visualize the learning. She then provides exercises at the end of each chapter to put your knowledge into action.

As part of Idea Sandbox's Post2Post Book Tour, I had the chance to ask Erica about the genesis of her approach and how it might be put to brand and marketing strategy development. Enjoy!

p.s. if you haven't visited Idea Sandbox yet, check it out. You'll find inspirational ideas and more interesting books that have been reviewed by Post2Post participants like me.

My Conversation with Erika:

Me: Most courses on strategy focus on solving a business issue. You start by focusing on the reader - helping them think through their personal goals or challenges strategically in order to build strategic thinking as a skill. How/why did you develop this approach?

Erika: I wanted people to know they can apply the skills and mindset of being strategic to any aspect of their lives. I’ve seen that the more traditional “case study” approach tends not to accomplish this; it implies that strategy is something that only applies to business – and often, only to large complex business. I feel strongly that being strategic is an important capability that can be applied almost universally – to businesses, careers and lives.

Me: Your book seems very timely. Many people are re-evaluating their priorities and goals due to lost jobs and diminished investment portfolios. How have individuals or families used your approach to face these new challenges?

Erika: Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have helped many people – from mid-level folks who’ve been laid-off, to high-potential young women leaders wanting to create a great career, to senior executives re-thinking (as you say) their life priorities – to use this approach to create a vision of the future they most want for themselves.

I was honored that one of our clients, Bonnie Hammer, who runs the USA Networks, ScyFy, and the Universal Cable Production Studios, has said of this work that, “it’s a clear, powerful, practical approach for navigating through tough times.” I truly hope that individuals and families who read my book will be able to apply the skills and process to navigate through these times and create the lives they most want. That was an important reason for writing the book – to make this approach available to a larger audience

Me: The readers of the Essential Orange are interested in how brands come to life. Do you have an example of how you’ve used your approach to develop a brand strategy?

We often work with clients around brand (although we certainly don’t consider ourselves brand strategists) using the being strategic approach. First we help them define their challenge - which usually sounds something like: “How can we establish a brand that expresses our unique value and is truly compelling for our core customer?”

Then we help them clarify their current reality relative to their challenge. After that, we help them focus on two aspects of “what’s the hope,” that is, of their hoped-for future relative to the challenge: 1) who do you hope to have as core customers, and 2) what 3-4 brand attributes best express the experience you want your brand to promise to those core customers? Once they’ve defined their core customer and selected their brand attributes, we generally hand off the client to a branding consultancy to create the “path” – the strategies and tactics to build and implement the brand.

Me: Getting a group of people with competing agendas to agree on a marketing strategy is like herding cats. What advice would you give to a marketing leader faced with this challenge?

Erica: That’s why I wrote the second half of the book! Getting a group to agree to approach their challenge strategically, and then actually to work together to craft good, solid vision and strategy, requires some specific skills and understanding. So, my overall advice is – read the book.

But seriously, one tip; defining the challenge first is a huge step in the right direction. “Competing agendas” often simply means that people are trying to solve different problems, and so will simply devolve into “dueling solutions.” If you can get the whole team to a shared understanding of the key problem they’re trying to solve, then they’re at least at the same starting point.

In the book, I use the example of the marketing group at a mythical company called “” Their challenge in the book is, “How can we define ourselves as the primary authority on “greenness” for parents of young children?” starting with that clarity is hugely helpful – even for made-up marketing people. ;-)

Me: When developing a strategy with a group, it’s hard to be a facilitator while having a stake in the outcome. What tips do you have for managing this process without appearing to have “an agenda”?

I agree that’s difficult. I have two ideas to offer, one more strategic, and one more tactical. On the strategic level, it’s important to enter into the facilitator role only if you are truly open to the group’s conclusion. If you as the leader enter into the process pre-committed to a particular outcome, it will be disastrous. I feel very strongly about this: if someone is pretending to facilitate a group process while trying to move the group toward a pre-determined outcome, he or she will completely lose credibility and forfeit the group’s passion and commitment to the outcome. So, if you as the leader are going to attempt to facilitate this process, reflect deeply beforehand to decide whether you’re going to be able to be a true facilitator for the group.

Now on the tactical level. It’s completely legitimate, as the leader, to go back and forth between the facilitator role and the participant role. The key is letting people know which role you’re playing at any given moment. For instance, during a discussion you’re facilitating, when you believe you have something of value to add as a participant, you might say, “I’d like to take off my facilitator hat for a minute here, if that’s OK with everyone: I have a comment to make from my own perspective.” Once you’ve gotten the group’s OK, say what you have to say and then note that you’re returning to the facilitator’s role. By doing this, you can maintain the integrity of the facilitator’s role and still participate in the discussion.

Thanks Erika. If you want to read more reviews on Erika's book, check out:

Thomas H. Magness, Leader Business

Phil Gerbyshak, Slacker Manager


  1. Karin -

    Thanks so much for being a part of the "tour," and for your great, strategy-focused questions!


  2. Karin,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog and I enjoyed reading your review as well. Great to meet you via the P2P book tour.