What Skills Do the Next Generation of Leaders Need? 

What Skills Do the Next Generation of Leaders Need? 

Creativity and the ability to imagine are essential skills for strategic leaders in the next normal. We cannot invent the new within old constraints, routine habits, or outdated assumptions. Leaders with the courage to embrace intuition, imagination, and creativity will have the edge over those who shy away.  

Your success will be more closely tied to strategic prowess than in years past as you seek an edge over the competition. Experience has taught me that original thinking is essential to strategy development, especially when life is uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. We are talking about more than a one-time brainstorming activity, visioning session, or design thinking workshop. Without creativity, it is more challenging to recognize the distinctive and convert differentiation into a competitive advantage. All the data in the world won’t get you there. Just ask Steve Jobs.  

Collectively, we are emerging from a past defined by benchmarks against the comparable, your company vying for a decimal point spread on Net Promoter (NPS), knowing a “10” is the only acceptable answer. Differentiation is paramount when products are essentially equivalent in quality and customer service. Imagination gives you an edge.  

Artists and creatives see what others cannot. That is your aim too. My advice? Embrace an artistic practice such as painting, writing, acting, or dancing. Lean into something you’ve never done before and give yourself wholehearted permission to experiment, fail, and feel the immense joy of original expression. Select an art form that gets you out of your head and into your emotions. Stick with it and see where it takes you.  

I began painting almost a decade ago, and my strategic skills are forever changed. Art-making taught me to get out of my way, not to tell myself no, and be open to the power of flow. I am more keenly able to see beyond the obvious, a skill that helped me anticipate opportunity amidst the pandemic’s swirl.  

Are you ready to lead in the post-pandemic rush for growth? There’s never been a more critical time for intuition, imagination, and creativity. Please take my advice, don’t tell yourself no.  

Power Your Purpose – Three Steps to Success

Power Your Purpose – Three Steps to Success

Your team craves it. New hires wonder about it. But, truth be told, so do your customers, board members, and investors.  

What’s your organization’s purpose? What’s your why?  

Psst CEO. Each person is looking to you for the answer. Quit bungling the reply. Go from fumble to flawless in three simple steps. 

Step 1 – Clarify 

Your mission or purpose statement expresses your reason for being. This question cuts through the clutter. “What difference do you make in the lives of those you serve?” Plan on a few rounds of iteration as you strive to clarify your customer and your intended impact. Chapter One of Differentiated is a great place to start. After all, it’s all about the customer, as we learn in Guiding Principle One.  

Step 2 – Simplify 

Now that customer clarity has revealed the answer to your why it’s time to simplify your response for ease of use. After all, you’ll use this statement and a few key messages daily as you interact with your team and spread the word to new audiences.  

Strive for a simple statement of five to seven words with a compelling action verb to hook your listener. Plan to iterate a few times as you home-in on the optimal language. Along the way, you’ll likely discover two to three key messages to share with stakeholders and customers. Those statements are the cornerstone of your purposeful campaign. Next up, it’s time to practice.  

Step 3 – Amplify 

Get ready to share your purpose and key messages. Consistently matters a lot. Your customers and stakeholders are looking to you to “talk the talk” and “walk the talk.” Repetition is your friend across all platforms, including the internal company hub, website, social media, and marketing materials. 

 

The trend line is clear. Purpose is a must-have to attract the resources you seek and create a culture that attracts and retains talent. Your brand can’t carry the banner by itself. Your organization needs to live its purpose. Walking the talk? That starts with you. 

Feeling a bit unsure about this call to action? Here’s a final motivator for the reluctant leader. You can’t afford to purpose-wash. People can sniff out a poser in a nano-second today.  

Let me know how it goes. I’m happy to provide a quick review and feedback on your handiwork. 

ICYMI. Put down the mirror. It’s time to let go of the same old SWOT.

ICYMI. Put down the mirror. It’s time to let go of the same old SWOT.

This month I celebrate the first anniversary of my “Goodbye SWOT” webinar for alumni of the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. The messages bear repeating as I nudge you to form new habits.  

Using SWOT Analysis for strategic planning is a bit like binge-watching your favorite series for the umpteenth time. Even Harvard Business Review can’t get enough of it.  It seems satisfying at first but leaves you wondering if the easy choice was the best use of your time. SWOT is shorthand for “let’s scan the environment with its bracketing of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, SWOT is shorthand for “let’s scan the environment.” Completing the analysis is more important than the conclusions, as the findings are crafted from ready evidence. The result is a four-quadrant matrix that can be condensed into two columns. Opportunities are synonymous with strengths, and threats sound a lot like strengths, too, come to think of it. Thank goodness we don’t have many weaknesses. 

You hope SWOT can account for your competition. But it won’t. You wish SWOT prompted you to think about your company’s context, the trends with power to drive your future. But it doesn’t. You expect SWOT to spark conversations about your competitive advantage. Now, you are asking way too much. SWOT was never designed with that in mind.  

What can you count on? First, you can be sure SWOT will distract you with bright, shiny objects. It draws the eye to the issue of the day. (Psst, it has fun doing that.) But rest assured, SWOT will engage you in a bit of navel-gazing. You were seeking solace in a long list of strengths, weren’t you?  

Here is an example. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen “We are the best-kept secret” listed as a threat and an opportunity. That framing shifts your thinking from “Our competitors are encroaching on our market” and “Our customers can’t tell us apart” to “We’re great” and “Let’s strengthen our social media.” You’ve just reduced a potential aha moment to a list of tactics. Say goodbye to fresh insights. 

Created more than fifty years ago when Encyclopedia Britannica presented the world’s knowledge in a set of printed books, SWOT’s simple framework was attuned to the times. Back then, the shelf life for information was ten years or more. Today, data has the shelf life of a day, month, or year at best. Google is your connection to the world’s ever-expanding body of knowledge.  

SWOT’s simplicity underestimates external forces with the potential to alter your customer’s choices. Let me be clear. Your customer will discover unexpected competitors in a day or a week at most. Categorizing external conditions as merely positive or negative misses the game-changer, the new product or service that swooped in from a player in another industry. It happens routinely today.  

Here’s what I’ve learned. First, you want to focus on the trends with the potential to influence your customer’s preferences and determine their decisions. After all, that’s what your competitors are after. Second, for example, keep an eye on broad societal trends, such as non-binary gender identification and new family structures. Finally, don’t forget sweeping consumer behaviors like mobile payments as digital wallets influence purchasing behaviors.  

What is SWOT’s most significant drawback? It lulls you into thinking that your company has done everything necessary to set its future strategy. Repeated autopilot use has conditioned you to believe that a mere summary suffices for a robust understanding of the ever-changing external environment.  

From one strategist to another, I would avoid: 

  • The risk of being left behind as your competitors adapt to changing customer preferences.

  • The risk of undervaluing your customer’s power to determine the rules of engagement.

     

  • The risk of underestimating the threat of new entrants to your market.
     
  • The risk of overestimating your organization’s ability to navigate complex and rapid changes. 

SWOT was made for a simpler time; 2021 wasn’t simple, and 2022 won’t be either.  

Disruption Personified

Disruption Personified

Hello Strategy Studio. CEOWorld Magazine asked me to share my tips for navigating and maximizing disruptions.  

What are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.  

  1. Adopt a customer mindset. It isn’t enough to understand your customer or their journey. Embrace their head and heart and consider choice from their perspective. For example, a family with young children looking for something fun might consider their local children’s museum or park or new offerings from around the globe.

     

  2. Recognize that competition is morphing all the time. Your competitors aren’t bound by industry or market. To my example above, a children’s museum competes with parks, recreation centers, streaming services, and a host of other offerings that families might enjoy.

     

  3. Look for the shapers and drivers. I’m referring to the forces and trends with the power to shape your customer’s choices and drive their decisions. For example, will the K-shaped economic recovery go or shape your future? It depends on your mission and your customer. If you are a community college and your students cannot afford to attend college at all, then the economy is a driver. If your customer is a knowledge worker able to work from home, the economy is likely shaping their decisions but may not determine them with the same force.

     

  4. Embrace differentiation. Our companies need to stand out and stand for something. When a company is differentiated, it pursues a strategy based on being distinctive. Think of Patagonia or Apple, for example.

     

  5. Remain loyal to your brand. Today’s consumer expects to engage with brands that authentically deliver. That’s true across industries and verticals. Increasingly we see companies double down on brand and strategic differentiation as they find ways to solve the significant issues of our day. Cotopaxi, an outdoor company, is taking bold steps to address global warming throughout its supply chain and retail operation. 
Invitation to My Creative Salon and August News

Invitation to My Creative Salon and August News

As a creative strategist, I’m compelled to feed the artist within. When I get too busy to paint, I feel that my professional work starts to suffer. Painting fuels me. Releasing my creative drive leads me to new ideas and frees me from outdated modes of thinking. That’s why I’ve set aside even more time to create this summer. I encourage you to make space for your creativity, too.

In celebration of art and creativity, I invite you to a Creative Salon. Like the French salons of centuries past, this will be an evening of conversation, creativity, and cocktails. Leave inspired to lead more boldly and strategically.

The Creative Salon will be hosted at my home in Denver (pictured below). Please email me your interest so I can set a date that works for everyone.

Insights


I spend my days tracking trends with the power to shape or drive an organization’s future. Purpose-driven organizations looking to stand out in the marketplace are navigating several notable shifts, courtesy of the customer zeitgeist and pandemic. Here are four field-tested insights to achieve strategic success. Keep these handy as your plan your retreat and set your sights on 2022 and beyond.

My Work in Progress


Get to know James Holmes and Cherokee Ranch & Castle Foundation on September 16. James is committed to making bold decisions in service to mission and community. Cherokee Ranch & Castle Foundation is a historic Colorado landmark offering stunning views alongside a powerful mission to enhance cultural life throughout the state.

James and Karla discuss your customer’s desire for strong leadership. Plus, abstract painting fuels James’s soul.

ICYMI


Adrian Miller, our recent Creative in Residence, is on fire! His Instagram following exploded to 28,600 based on his recent book, Black Smoke, and his appearance on Netflix’s High on the Hog. Whet your appetite with his five creative tips by visiting the link below as a Strategy Studio member.

The Passion-Driven Pivot

The Passion-Driven Pivot

“What? You’re a Stanford-educated man. You should do something more noteworthy!” That’s the reaction I got from someone whom I told about my pivot to becoming a self-described “Soul Food Scholar.” Many others reacted similarly, especially women that I tried to date. Up until that time, I was a pretty risk-averse person. No longer. After a decade in Colorado politics, I cashed in my modest retirement savings, and lived on that sum to write a book on the history of soul food. I had no idea if the book would be well-received and what kind of job I would get afterwards. Here’s why that financially unsound choice was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.

My interest in the subject was piqued in 2001 when I read a sentence that the late John Egerton wrote in his classic book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History: “But the comprehensive history of black achievement in American cookery still waits to be written.” With no prior experience writing a book, but extensive experience eating soul food, I said to myself, “I can do that.” That’s what launched my wondrous journey! Researching African American culinary history is a passion, but it’s always been a side hustle. I could never figure out how to make it lucrative enough to support me.

Once my stint in the Clinton White House was over, I moved back to Colorado with a plan to run for office and eventually represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate. Sticking with my career goals, I worked at the Bell Policy Center for six years, and then another four years for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. Like an earnest graduate student, I spent hours online and at libraries finding out everything that I could about food and African Americans. I read more than 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people, thousands of digitized magazine and newspaper articles, spoke to hundreds of people about culinary traditions, and then ate my way through the country for the sake of “research.” What drives me is a desire to tell untold stories, and revive previously told stories, about the contributions that African Americans have made to our nation’s cuisine. Fortunately, and unfortunately in a sense, there’s plenty of these stories to tell because mainstream media has continually overlooked African Americans.

Things have turned out pretty well thus far. My first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. My second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas was nominated for several awards. My third and latest book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, is off to a roaring start. The books led to more financial opportunities. I get many opportunities to speak and write freelance articles for a decent amount of pay. Oh, and that person who was critical of my creative pivot. She now holds me up as an example to her children of how anything is possible if you pursue your passion!

Adrian Miller is a critically-acclaimed food writer, former politico, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado.