Because my entire career has been in the professional services environment, I have always been a big fan of David Maister and his work. David Maister, now retired, was a Harvard Business School professor who dedicated his research and work to the field of professional services. Right around the same time we founded our consulting firm, Maister published an article called The Courage to Have a Strategy (now re-titled to The Courage to Manage), which had a profound impact on our thinking and continues to be a topic that comes up many times a year as we consult with others 

At its core, the Courage to Have a Strategy is about sticking to your convictions, which sometimes means saying “No” to short-term gains to achieve long-term goals. For example, in the article, Maister recounts the story of how he set out to be a strategic advisor to firms but along the way was offered a lucrative assignment to teach marketing and sales training courses for a client – something he could easily do.

However, he recognized the choice to take the assignment would mean he would divert time, attention, and resources from his most important strategic goal – becoming a strategic advisor. Thus, he passed on the “easy money” and stuck to the more challenging path.

It’s likely we’ve all faced decisions that are similar in nature, but have we had the courage to make a similar choice? 

Executing strategy is all about choices – not just one, but a series of choices to produce the desired results and outcomes of your stated strategy. It’s narrowing your focus and implementing actions that pull toward those results while eliminating those that don’t. And, therein lies the rub.  

Leaders and team members are often on board with strategic ideas and a strategic vision, until implementation of that strategy requires them to make tough choices. Those choices often include saying No, eliminating something that is easy, parting ways, or simply making a hard decision. Let’s consider some common examples we have seen in our own diverse work experiences:  

  • Similar to Maister, saying no to a project that can be easily sold and executed but might not be consistent with the long-term vision for the practice or organization.
  • “Firing” a client that is growing with the firm and is profitable but is not in a service area that fits the firm’s strategy.
  • Parting ways with the employee or manager who is a big producer but consistently demonstrates a misalignment with firm values.
  • Letting go of a job or task that isn’t our highest and best use or doesn’t move us closer to strategic results.
  • Passing on a candidate that has strong expertise and would add immediate capacity to the team but might not be a great fit for long term needs.
  • Transitioning significant relationships to others to free up space and time to bring on new tasks or develop new relationships.
  • Not making someone a manager who is not well suited to being a manager of others or a business unit.

Each of these choices includes some type of short-term trade-off or sacrifice, and when you are trying to grow a successful business in today’s dynamic environment that can be hard. BUT if we flip the lens and look at the opportunity these choices create, it can also be invigorating! Consider this example: We recently caught up with a solopreneur whose company has not even reached its first anniversary. In telling us how it was going, she shared that even though she had capacity she had turned down two or three prospects that openly wanted to work with her. Say What? We were surprised to say the least. However, what might have been most surprising was the enthusiasm and excitement with which she said it. In further exploring it, she shared that her first six months taught her two things: 1) that she could successfully and profitably serve different types of businesses with her offering and 2) that she was particularly drawn to one type of business. Thus, she narrowed her vision of success, said no to prospects outside of that industry, and had started focusing on how to generate more work in that industry. In addition, part of her enthusiasm and energy stemmed from the momentum she was already starting to gain from initial connections in that industry – connections she would not have made if she hadn’t turned down the projects from other businesses. 

Saying No to something that is not in alignment with your strategy, goals, values, or priorities means you are saying YES to your vision of success. You are saying Yes to freeing up the time and space to invest. You are saying Yes to bringing the best of you and your organization to those who can benefit most. It demonstrates a belief and confidence in the potential you see in your organization and your team, and a dedication and commitment to the hard work that it will take to get there.  

Challenge yourself today by revisiting your strategy and some of your recent strategic choices (e.g., staffing, pursuit of prospects or customers, client acceptance, service offerings, depth and breadth of resources, manager selection, where to invest, etc.). How do those choices stack up against the vision you have for your future or for the future of the organization? How do they align with your long-term strategy and priorities? Are your choices pulling you closer to your strategic outcomes and/or eliminating things that might get in the way?

By reflecting on these questions, we can gain a clearer picture of our own courage not just to have a strategy but also to execute it. And, it’s the courage to execute strategy that makes the biggest difference.