We are living in vulnerable times as leaders strive to get their businesses back to normal in an environment that is anything but ordinary. For leaders whose previous business trajectory was less than ideal, today’s uncertainty only magnifies their concerns.

In my experience, the most pervasive cause of ongoing business underperformance is leaders driving hard and demanding more on a strategy that is no longer differentiated enough. The fact that a strategy produced success in the past doesn’t mean it will continue to provide. Instead, changes that push the organization to deliver greater customer impact are required to compete in the fastest, most technologically advanced markets in history.

While talk of “strategy” abounds, few leaders appreciate its significance. If we asked ten leaders to define their business strategy, their answers would illustrate the concept’s elusiveness. The lack of organizational clarity regarding what makes their business truly unique represents a significant business risk. It also suggests their team’s day-to-day work may be diluting rather than enhancing the business’s competitiveness.

Unpacking Strategy

An appreciation of how layers of strategy work individually and align collectively is essential for leaders seeking consistent growth. Think of strategy in three layers:

  • Business strategy outlines where you compete, and your advantage relative to competitors. It articulates the capability differences you believe best support achieving your long-term objectives.
  • Operational strategy outlines the initiatives that maintain or build the capabilities required to deliver the promise of your business strategy.
  • Tactical strategy outlines the ways functional teams will deliver on the operational strategy (e.g., sales growth, acquisitions, etc.)

When your business is underperforming, your attachment to how things should be done — including your unconscious assumptions and decisions — can operate as powerful forces that can hinder you or propel you to new levels of performance. Developing the flexibility of mind to move with what’s needed is essential.

How Inadequate Strategy Compromises Performance

Success in competitive markets requires designing and delivering outcomes that are more impactful than those produced by competitors. While leaders invest an enormous amount of time narrowly focused on where their teams are over- and under-performing expectations, they rarely objectively examine if their chosen business, operational, and tactical strategies are the most relevant or effectively coordinated.

Here are four signs that current assumptions and choices are unlikely to fulfill your ambitions:

  • Directives of “more” or “faster” are leading to the same, undesired results
  • Meetings are overly task-oriented, lacking balance
  • Crisis and drama rule the day
  • Low energy, exhausted teams

Regardless of your team’s determination, hard work, and smarts, the failure to properly channel daily work to advance a differentiated business strategy undermines business performance while simultaneously eroding your future ability to compete. Early recognition that underperformance could be flawed assumptions and choices or pursuing too much rather than insufficient effort can bring more balance to team dialogue.

Does Your Strategy Statement Clear This Bar?

Your business strategy statement must define why you are relevant in the marketplace—the customer needs you will meet and how you uniquely meet them. It requires meaningful reflection on two questions:

  • Scope – Where will and won’t we compete? 
  • Differentiation – How do/will we add value in a way that others don’t?
Source: Harvard Business Review, Collis & Rukstad

While how to answer these questions is beyond the scope of this article, ongoing reflection on these questions is paramount in today’s dynamic markets. Investing time in improving your ability to perceive and accurately interpret market drift is critical to surfacing new possibilities as well as identifying what decisions to make and actions to take. Failure to choose wisely or adequately direct the organization’s time, attention, and energy to extend competitive advantage is more than a lost opportunity.

How will you know if your answers are adequate? You know when your business is growing, and customers perceive your organization’s current promise and delivery as more competitive than the alternatives. On the other hand, when your business begins to plateau or decline, you need to objectively assess whether your company’s promise is both worthy of prospects’ attention and perceived as more valuable than competitors’. The way to know for certain is to ask prospective customers. 


In a world that is meaningfully different today than it was just six months ago, leaders who don’t act to replace an obsolete business strategy with a more competitive one will struggle to compete. That’s because, without a clear, meaningfully differentiated strategy, you have no basis for focusing your organizational resources in areas the market deems most impactful. The more you concentrate your people and resources in the most impactful areas, the sooner results will improve.

There is no business investment more important than improving your ability to compete. Whether it’s working side-by-side or plugging you into a community of CEO peers reinventing their businesses, an advisor with deep business acumen can accelerate results by bringing more certainty to navigating this uncertain period and raising your standards as you execute.

If you are serious about transforming your results, I’d love to connect!

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