Iesha Small

writing, career pivots, side hustles

Build you career like an entrepreneur.

Lessons in strategy

Credit. Ylanite Koppens.

A few years ago I was through to the final stage of a job interview. I was down to the final two and got asked to provide a draft strategy overview to achieve a particular aim for the organisation. After my answer, the interviewer was silent. He looked at me, blinked, then said, in a cutting tone, “Do you understand what a strategy is?” I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

I didn’t get the job.

Several years later I reflect that I’ve been involved in strategy writing for a few different organisations since that embarrassing moment and have learnt lots that may be useful to others. I’ve even been made a Head of Strategy after initially applying for a different role.

What is my definition of a strategy?

In my view, a strategy is a set of broad principles to drive action towards your mission and vision.
The principles provide a decision making framework to assess ongoing opportunity, risk and provide accountability.

A strategy is a set of broad principles to drive action towards your mission and vision.

The principles provide a decision making framework to assess ongoing opportunity, risk and provide accountability.

Here are my reflections on creating a strategy that leads to change.

Why this strategy? Why now?

These are two key questions to ask at the start of any strategy writing process. It could be that the aims of the previous strategy have been achieved. Perhaps something has shifted in the organisation’s thinking or wider sector landscape that means a new strategy is required. Or, most obviously, maybe the organisation is new so there hasn’t been a previous strategy to follow.

Start with the charitable objects, mission and vision. Then reverse-engineer

The most successful strategies I’ve been involved in have started with the charitable objective, vision (the world you will see if successful) and mission (broadly how you’ll achieve the mission) of the organisation. They have then considered what it would look like if these were achieved in a set period of time (for example 5- 10 years) and considered on a broad scale what would need to happen for that to be achieved. This is the backbone of many strategies. For Example at The Youth Endowment Fund,
Vision: prevent children and young people becoming involved in violence
Mission: find out what works and build a movement to put this knowledge into practice

Test out draft strategy with the executive team and board

A strategy can only work if people believe in it. That belief can then be used to drive long term action. It has to be tested at all levels of the organisation. The first stage is the key decision makers who will ultimately be accountable. This must happen first so that there is unity when presenting to others internally and externally. It’s important to get this right and not rush it.

Be aware of wider factors

A strategy considers the organisation’s aims but it also needs to be underpinned by knowledge of the sector and wider system. For example, the launch of the  YHA 10 year strategy coincided with sector interest in the Glover Landscape Review. We were able to capitalise on Julian Glover’s vision of “Landscapes for Everyone” to tie in with our top strategic impact priority of “all means all, increasing the scale and breadth of our reach and ensuring that YHA is for everyone”

Test draft strategy with wider organisation

Once the executive team and board are united on the strategy, the rest of the organisation has to be convinced. Ultimately they are the people who will be delivering the aims of the strategy in their daily work for months and years to come. It needs to be communicated in a clear way, relevant to their roles and there should be an opportunity for them to identify any risks and opportunities that may have been missed. This process will take more than one team day or meeting and needs to be iterative.

***A note of caution at this stage, sometimes within an organisation, feedback on a strategy can get too much into the detail and become very tactical. That sort of thinking can be done in shorter or medium-term business/operational planning. As the person or team responsible for strategy setting, your job is to remind people of the overarching aims and bigger picture thinking. On reflection – being too tactical and operational was probably my mistake in the unsuccessful job interview, I mentioned earlier. ****

Test the strategy externally

Once your organisation is on board, external partners who may be impacted by the strategy or who may be able to play a significant part in delivering the aims of your strategy need to be consulted. In my roles this has included, potential major co-funders, potential collaborators or partners with overlapping missions/visions, relevant government departments and people we hope to be ultimately impacted by the aims of the strategy. At YEF, when testing elements of our Change strategy we had a series of meetings to get feedback from key partners. At YHA, an external conversation document was published and we targeted different key groups for feedback. Government departments do something similar, when they produce public consultations for white papers.

Finalise the strategy

After internal and external testing and consultation your draft can be finalised and approved at executive team and board level.

Ensure the strategy drives EVERYTHING

When I was an assistant headteacher, any paper we presented at Senior Leadership Team meetings had to start with how the proposal linked to our strategy. This was sometimes a pain but it made sure that the strategy was a living document that constantly drove all major decisions. Occasionally, the process of writing how your proposal linked to the overall strategy would make you realise that the proposal didn’t really link to the strategy so it needed to be scrapped.

Make the strategy clear, concise, and visible.

Strategy documents can often be several pages long. That’s fine but the reality is that nobody is going to read that day to day. The strategy needs to be a living document that’s easily summarised. I was in a hospital waiting room recently and noticed the hospital trust had summarised their strategy on one page and left it on a patient notice board.

I’ve worked in organisations where the CEO (or equivalent) kicks off every staff meeting or team day with a reminder of the strategy in summary. At YEF, I regularly started presentations with new partners with our vision, mission and strategy summary on one clear slide.

Ensure people can be empowered to use the strategy to make decisions and see how their day to day work fits

A good strategy should allow people at all levels to know what the organisation is working towards, identify opportunities, be proactive and see how their roles and daily actions contribute to achieving the organisation’s mission. A clear strategy also allows partners to see where there is potential for collaboration and alignment with their own goals. Finally, a clear strategy can be used by critical friends such as board members and beneficiaries to ensure accountability in moving towards the overall mission.

Enjoyed reading this blog post or found it useful or interesting? Share it with somebody else who you think will too. 

You can also subscribe for future blog posts  


Lessons in strategy