HARRUMPH

No one should have the word ‘strategy’ in their job title

When I search LinkedIn for people with the word “strategy” in their job title, it shows me 725,178 listings. My apologies to all of them—including a number of friends and colleagues—in advance for what I’m about to write:

I don’t think anyone should have the word “strategy” in their job title.

There are two central reasons, which I’ve learned over the past 20 years reporting on managers and managing myself. The first is that the distance between strategy and execution is unfathomably wide for most businesses and executives. And the odds are even lower that a business will succeed in covering that distance if separate people are responsible for strategy and for operations.

Strategy people too often have ideas that aren’t rooted in the reality of the operations. And operations people too often aren’t invested in executing the plans that the strategy people craft for them. The best approach is often to focus on execution and view operations as strategy: what can we do better, and how can we do it better? Strategy too often is a noble-seeming exercise that’s little more than a distraction for management—and, worse, like other overvalued executive pursuits such as acquisitions, comes with low odds of success.

“Strategy is overrated, simply doing stuff is underrated. We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things,” Southwest Airlines cofounder Herb Kelleher is widely quoted as saying. He put it slightly differently in a 2004 interview: “What we do by way of strategic planning is we define ourselves and then we redefine ourselves.”

The second, related reason for not having “strategy” in anyone’s job title is that saying a specific individual is responsible for strategy disempowers other people in the organization. I know that adding “strategy” is another way to say “senior” or otherwise festoon a job title with an air of seniority. And I’m sensitive to how that can be useful in roles such as sales where titles can give people an edge in their tough jobs of convincing people to buy. But the price for bestowing the appearance of hierarchy is the false implication that strategizing is more important than doing. Too often that’s wrong. (For a thought-provoking read on how strategy breaks down without execution and vice versa there’s The Goal, a novel set in a manufacturing plant.)

So what’s the alternative to having a job title with “strategy” in it? Empowering people who don’t have the word “strategy” in their job titles to think strategically about what they’re executing on for the business. The best component parts of strategy include approaching a business with a long-term perspective and understanding how its different parts come together to accomplish goals. Providing data analysis and research support for operational managers is one way to empower them to think strategically. Charging them with thinking entrepreneurially and making them responsible for long-term success is important as well. (Andy Grove’s High Output Management is helpfully pragmatic reading here.)

Is it harder to see around corners when you have your head deep in running a business? Perhaps—but that’s as much a question of how closely the incentives and ego of the manager are hitched to a specific, short-term business plan. And I’d argue that the downsides are worse when you don’t set the expectations that managers are responsible for seeing around corners. What about having blue-sky initiatives to pursue opportunities far outside of the current operations, as the tech company Alphabet has done? That’s another sort of execution, just with a longer timeline and different goals—and, in any case, adding “strategy” to job titles is just as meaningless there as well.

What else can you do? Think hard about alternatives to “strategy” in job titles. So far I’ve always managed to come up with something else by focusing on the specific role. And sometimes you should just use the word “senior” when that’s what you really mean.

Disagree? Have suggestions for alternatives to “strategy” in titles? Have other job titles you’d also want to ban? Email me at kevind@qz.com and we’ll publish any creative responses.

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