How to Increase Return on Your Strategic Planning

9-July-2010Published in: St. Louis Business Journal Authors: Benjamin Ola. Akande and Chuck Feltz

One of the costliest mistakes leaders make is unknowingly deviating from their core business strategy. Lack of patience, focus and execution create a layering of one strategy atop another before the earlier strategy has proven ineffective. This energy-sapping "Strategic Churn" exhausts organizations, disenfranchises stakeholders and conditions employees to await the next "grand vision" sent down by management.

Many factors derail successful strategy. But the most common are within the control of executive leadership.

Bad Strategy to Begin with

Flawless execution will not overcome flawed strategic assumptions. Underestimating market trends, customer needs or overestimating the organization's abilities to respond to them doom efforts from the start.

Similarly, driving the "old way harder" despite clear evidence of a changing market is a key driver of strategic sub-optimization. Executives must close their planning process by honestly answering the simple question: "What must we believe for this strategy to succeed?"

Confusing Planning With Delivery

Anyone who has experienced the intensity of a strong strategic planning process knows the relief of a successful conclusion. However, in successful organizations, this relief is temporary and management understands that the real work of delivery and execution has just begun. Many organizations mistakenly equate planning with execution and a plan with results. A plan for execution and resource alignment must be the final element to close the loop on a successful strategic planning process. Anything less reduces accountability, focus and success.

It is Disconnected From the Vision

Well-developed strategy answers the question "How will we achieve and monetize our vision?" It is the context for all decision-making and resource allocation. The link between your vision and your strategy must be crystal clear.

Don't have a clear and compelling vision? Get one. There is no more powerful engagement tool to help employees see how their everyday activities connect them to a grander purpose. Vision answers the burning question, "What will it look like when we succeed?" and every employee should expect their leadership to know this answer.

Underestimating the Change Management Aspects of Strategy

Executives are responsible for thinking about the "why and what" of strategy constantly, which is not the case with the rest of the organization whose everyday focus is oriented to how to do the work. As a result, executives are light years ahead of their organizations in understanding what drives the need to change and why the change must occur to remain successful. Ignoring this foundational axiom of change management makes aligning employees and strategy nearly impossible.

Why You Will Win is Implicit; It Must Be Explicit

It's risky to assume employees clairvoyantly understand their leaders' intentions and interpret them clearly. Executives have hundreds of hours of data analysis and knowledge building as a result of the planning process that shapes their understanding of why this strategy is a winner. Employees that are removed from the planning process and don't have this benefit crave their leaders' insight and confidence as to why the company will win.

Strategic Message Dilution

Nothing is more powerful than an organization whose people are laser-focused on driving vision to reality. Unfortunately, leaders assume traditional legacy communication channels are effective in disseminating this critical strategic information.

Every organization has a "strategic dilution point." The Corporate Game of Telephone differs between companies. In our experience it becomes problematic three levels down from the CEO.

The result? More than 80% of employees attempt to carry out strategy with reduced clarity and focus. Companies that avoid this pitfall excel at two things. First, they "empathically engineer" messages to assist managers to deliver communication in their own authentic voices to their audiences while maintaining content integrity and accountability. Second, they create effective channels and venues to deliver this critical communication.

Progress Reviews Are Ineffective and Rare

Effective organizations perform routine strategy self-examinations often in the implementation phase in order to critically assess progress, diagnose issues and make timely adjustments. A strong, ongoing review process is dialog driven and determines: Is accountability in place? Are milestones and metrics being met? Are original assumptions from planning still accurate? What is going well (poorly) and why? How are our competitors reacting to our strategy?

Even a great strategic plan will fail if not implemented as conceived or is not given time to prove its effectiveness. Great leadership devises strategies that are grounded in fact make implementation a priority and inspire confidence in those who carry them out. They put no less priority on execution and alignment than the planning effort itself. In doing so, the plan moves from the theoretical to the practical and from an intensive and resource-consuming event focus to a reflexive and ongoing part of the organizational culture.

Finding Success From Within: #35

by Benjamin Ola. Akande - Dean, School of Business and Technology The Erik L. Bond Lecture Series, MICDS

I grew up in Nigeria, in the town of Ibadan, population about 1 million where one of the school’s traditions was a year-end recognition day. It was the end of my ninth grade year when the head of school invited all the parents to school to celebrate the final day of the semester with their children.

On that fateful day, the teacher made a dramatic entrance into the classroom and announced that she was going to recognize the students in numerical order from the top performer on down. First-place position went to a student named Toun. Hearing Toun’s name called first was really no surprise to any of us because Toun had consistently been the best in our class every year since we were in first grade. She was petite, well-dressed, well-mannered and was an intellectually gifted girl who knew all the answers to all the questions. She even loved doing homework and complained when we didn’t get assigned any to do. After her name was announced, Toun received her certificate, hugged her parents and, in keeping with the usual practice, left the class with her family.

The countdown continued, and as the room emptied out, the applause that followed the reading of each name became quieter. By the time the teacher reached number 20, the classroom was silent. When she got to 30, the remaining students huddled together in the middle of the classroom, supporting each other in our shame.

The teacher, however, continued her announcements – number 31,32, 33 – in the same enthusiastic tone as if the classroom were full. And then the moment that would forever change my life finally arrived. The teacher announced, “the 34th position goes to Tunde.” My classmate standing next to me was so delighted that he let out a loud yell and literally ran out of the classroom overjoyed. Only I remained standing.

Finally the teacher said, “the 35th position for this academic year goes to Benjamin Ola. Akande.” I walked briskly to the front of the classroom, received my certificate, then turned and met my dad at the door. His car was parked less than 100 yards from the classroom. It was the longest walk in my life. It felt like eternity. My dad said nothing to me as we made that long silent walk to the car. But then, after we reached the car, he turned and said, “Benjamin, we can only go up from here.” From that day onward my nickname became #35.

My parents never stopped encouraging me, and with their support I successfully left that day behind and turned my academic career around.

Two years ago I was reminded of just how far I had come when while visiting my parents in Nigeria, I decided to take a walk around the old neighborhood. As I walked outside our compound, I heard a familiar voice call out, “Hey, 35, is that you?” Stunned…I didn’t answer, I didn’t look back, I just kept walking. I kept telling myself this person surely isn’t calling to me. After all, I’ve been gone for 30 years. There must be a lot of 35s in the neighborhood by now!

So, I started walking faster trying to run away from my past. But curiosity got the best of me and I finally had the courage to turn around to see who had recognized me after all these years. There stood number one, Toun, a blast from my past.

“What are you doing these days?” she asked and I told her I lived in the United States and was dean of the school of Business and Technology at Webster University. Toun shared her story with me, saying she was now president of one of the top commercial banks in the country. She was the same Toun, inquisitive, smart, successful, always taking charge.

It was then I told Toun what I felt to be true: that I owed a great deal of whatever success I had achieved in life so far to her because she had set the bar for all of us so high. It was a unique meeting between number 1 and number 35, and before we parted ways we promised to stay in touch.

Only a few months later after returning to St. Louis, I received a call from my dad. Toun was sick, he said, and I may want to reach out to her. I called immediately and was told by Toun that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that it had spread to her vital organs. Despite the prognosis, Toun was upbeat with her voice radiating the strength and composure that she had shown since our younger days.

“Toun, you’ve got to be strong,” I said. But then, Toun turned the table on me. “Look 35, I’m going to beat this stuff. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be ok.” As the conversation wound down, Toun told me she was proud of me.

Less than two weeks later on a cold Saturday around 3am, I received a phone call from my dad. He called to tell me that Toun had passed away. I hung up the phone, sat up in bed and cried. I had lost a friend, a childhood mentor who had been blindsided by a disease that takes away so many women in the prime of their life.

Mine is a story that speaks to using one’s strength from within to overcome and to seek success. There are hundreds of 35s in America today. Perhaps you know one of them. Perhaps, like me, you are one of them. This begs the question: what are you willing to do about it?

I want to appeal to you this morning to expect to do better than the world expects of you. Expect to live in a bigger world than the one you see. I challenge you to have a sense of constructive impatience and urge you to dream with your eyes wide open.

My message to everyone here today is that when things don’t work out as they should don’t run away from challenges. Seek alternative avenues. Remember, there are many roads that lead to success. I have learned that it is important that you set goals that are not within easy reach. Find value in focusing on purpose and not on avoiding failure.

My appeal to all of you today is to dream with your eyes wide open and to stay focused on the future.

My prayer for you is that you will all live a meaningful life and become true catalysts in the great drama of life.

“May you have enough happiness to give you satisfaction, enough trials to make you strong, enough hope to give you fulfillment.”

Dream big dreams and prepare yourself to pursue those dreams. I ask that you seize the moment, for it is already later than you think and please, don’t live your life content with being good. Believe me, there is nothing wrong with being good, but your ultimate goal is to be better than good, because in my humble opinion being good is just not good enough anymore; strive for greatness.

And so I end with a poem by Patrick O’Leary that captures the essence of the journey that lies ahead for each and every one of you. The poem is entitled: “Nobody Knows.”

“There’s a place I travel when I want to grow, and nobody knows it but me. The roads don’t go there and the signs stay home, and nobody knows it but me. It’s far, far away, and way, way afar, it’s over the moon and the sea and high atop the mountains, for wherever you’re going that’s wherever you are. And nobody knows it but you.”

Spicy soup is a taste of home


Hot and spicy is nothing new for Benjamin Akande, who cut his teeth on pepper soup.

"They spoon-fed me this soup since as long as I can remember," said Akande, who is from Lagos, Nigeria. "We lived very close to the Atlantic growing up. We'd drive a few miles to pick up fresh seafood every day."

When the Akande family moved to Louisville, pepper soup with fish stayed on the menu, even in landlocked Kentucky.

While his parents pursued graduate degrees, Benjamin studied his favorite subject — history — in elementary school. An economics class in the seventh grade ignited his passion for what he calls the language of business. "I loved economics — I was enamored with the process — how we can elevate and sustain cultures and nations, creating jobs."

His appetite for history and economics dovetailed throughout undergraduate school at Wayland Baptist University in Texas, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. He moved on to the University of Oklahoma, where he earned two master's degrees and a Ph.D. in economics and met his wife, Bola, who was in pharmacy school.

Throughout his college career, he cooked, recalling how his mother had made certain dishes, experimenting and learning. "I'd always watched my mom cook — that was my apprenticeship — and when I went home, I'd watch her more closely, remembering the combinations. But my wife, the ultimate chef — she was my graduate and post-graduate education in cooking," he said.

Their children experiment in the kitchen, too. "My kids are their own individuals — each with different interests. They love music, math, science, theater. They cook, bake cakes. They are finding their own style," he said.

Akande's style includes using combinations of fish such as sea bass, whiting and prawns in his pepper soup.

"The pepper soup — when you first eat it, you eat just the fish, as your mouth gets used to the heat. Then you spoon a little broth with the fish. Soon, you take just the broth — and you enjoy the heat, the taste."