“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

“I’m in favor of it.”

  • John McKay (1923 – 2001), American football coach, when asked about his team’s “execution”

Strategy and execution are two different things.

I am still open, though, to the idea of using one word to address their relationship.

Many businesses are heading into strategic planning and budget season, when it can be tempting to erase (or at least blur) the line between the two. And, if we break the concept down to adverbs – strategy ultimately is the what, and execution is the how that drives us.

Let’s not forget the why…

Why? (See what I did there…?)

Strategy is almost exclusively about the top line (since that’s where all the math ultimately starts), yet for owner / operators it can’t only be about revenue growth. There needs to be a “true north” steeped in “Why?” Why do we want to grow revenue? Why do we want to become the market leader or move up in market share? What does that mean to our customers, our team, our shareholders? Porter’s concept, (also frequently attributed to Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Jim Collins, etc) is best informed by a “why” that guides us in selecting what not to do. If a strategy runs in conflict to our why, we ought not to pursue it, in other words.

If “what” and “why” are aligned, then the focus turns to the how — execution. Not the kind that Coach McKay joked about when his team played horribly, mind you, rather the kind that determines how much headcount we can keep, how much we charge, how much we discount, how much we return to shareholders.

In budget and planning season, “stratecution” may ultimately be our focus. Let’s just make sure we get the two parts in the correct order, and sandwich a solid “why” in there to balance the two.


“Get your a** around behind you!”

  • Dick Heston (1933 – 2002), circa 1970-ish, trying to teach his 9-year-old son to use a shovel

Dad’s point, while it didn’t register with me for about eight more years, was that if I’d keep the shovel working around my body, it’d move more grain and I’d look less like a bag full of squirrels trying to fight over the last acorn of the season.

But that’s not my point.

My point is that we ought to put our “but’s” behind us. As in “leave them permanently in a closet, behind something heavy.”

If you’ll forgive me for going all English major on you, unless it’s used as an adverb (“There is but one God…”) it’s argumentative. You’re a great kid, but… I love you, but… That’s a fair offer, but…

Even if we argue that our intent isn’t to be contrarian, the word has come to erase whatever came before it in the sentence.

Arguments that contain “but” are only as productive, but way less funny than Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live in “Point / Counterpoint.”

So, let’s put our but’s behind us. Permanently, perhaps.

“You’re a great kid, and I can sense how frustrated you are. Let’s try to figure that out together.”

“I love you, and I believe your intentions are good. I think there’s common ground for us if we’ll focus on it as a starting point.”

“That’s a fair offer, and I think I have an idea based on your offer that might work even better for both of us. Would you like to hear it?”

Yes, making the bt-to-and shift might be even more difficult than trying to learn how to use a shovel with your dad barking at you. AND, it’ll dang-sure be more rewarding.

Speaking Truth To Power

“One of the most important things is to have empathy for the people we work for…”

  • Simon Sinek (b. 1973) on the subject of Speaking Truth to Power

I’ve always been willing to speak truth to power, and occasionally without the empathy or compassion that Sinek calls for here. It’s cost me, big time. It’s the reason some of my closest friends love me and the reason that some of my greatest detractors don’t. To that second group, I’m sorry. I wish I’d have been more empathetic.

So, with that said…

We live in a time where it seems like more and more of the Emperors are all nakedy up on the back of their horsies. Yet, before we go all Roseanne Roseannadanna on them (“HEY! You trying to make me sick here?!), it will probably serve us well to consider their stories. Their motivation. Their goals. Their dreams. Their realities. Their fears.

As our economy ebbs, and as the world we’ve known has less and less in common with the world we’ve known — it’s easy to presume that layoffs, price increases, supply chain glitches, disagreements and decisions are simply cases of leadership losing touch with the “little people.”

But here’s the deal. We’re all little people in the big picture. Where can we find common ground?

We see it in politics, and while I hope it’s a passing trend, it alarms me that so few appear to stand for something, perhaps because they’re too wrapped up in being against something. We see it in sports. I sat with 69,000 of my closest friends Saturday and listened to too many of them scream horrible, hurtful things at the storied coach of our favorite team and his 22-year-old quarterback. Things they wouldn’t say to a sworn enemy. Things they certainly wouldn’t say if that coach or quarterback was sitting at the table with them.

We see it in our workplaces, and in our homes, sometimes without realizing the toll the past few years may have taken on our clients, our co-workers, our kids, and our spouses. We’d love to speak our truth to power — or anyone else who will hear it — but are we willing to hear their truth, to understand their “why?”

It’s not ironic that Simon Sinek’s best-selling book is “Start With Why.” And it’s not ironic that he leads off today’s post. Because when we focus on someone else’s “why,” we earn our way into their trust, and then, when we help them connect to their why, we earn our way into their hearts — and trusted and loved are two good neighborhoods for us to seek residence in.

It’s extremely important that truth gets spoken to those in power. It’s just as important for empathy to be part of the message.

Change vs Legacy

“In order to bring about meaningful change in a long-standing successful business – step one is to honor the legacy; genuinely and with a keen eye on what made the company great. Step two is to determine how you’ll convince those who built the legacy to invest fully in the decision to update and upgrade it.”

  • A paraphrase of a recent conversation with a CEO

Change ain’t easy but standing still is no option either — so, we’re called to run to the flame.

In a business with a long, positive legacy however, a leader need tread carefully, but not lightly. Especially if he or she is following a legend.

Nebraska football (NCAA FBS Division) was a juggernaut for 20 years. It promoted Fank Solich to replace Tom Osborn (who had just won two national championships). The “Lucky Man” to follow the the legend was the head assistant coach who promptly went 10-2 and 9-3 as a head coach, before being shown the door. Frank should have a statue built in his name, for leading Ohio to its greatest heights ever. Frank will someday have a statue outside Nebraska’ home stadium. Nebraska’s current coach is torn between tanking further to get $8 more in buy-out money, or trying to win consistently to get one more chance.

A few years back, I was hired to change a 40-year-old business that had great bones but needed fresh strategies. They LOVED the idea of being changed — yet they had no appetite to really change things.

I might have been a bull in a china closet. Two members of the executive team fought every change — not face-to-face mind you, but during the meeting after the meeting; passive aggressive at best, intentionally harmful at worst.

When we lean in to the legacy of a firm and we honor it with marketing, with personnel choices with putting the team in a position to decide for the Client, we’ll make a difference.

It’s gotta come in order though. Honor the legacy, THEN bring about the change. Only by beginning in that order will we get the opportunity to move into simultaneous “honor while changing” mode.

All In?

“Does it matter which order?”

  • Unattributed

In a career spanning nearly four decades, it’s easy to lose count of the number of strategic planning sessions that have come and gone. In every one, the exercise has been “Mission, Vision and Values.”

This week, the question has come up, “Does it matter in which order we address these topics?”

One could argue that the Mission is the “true north.” It’s a succinct statement about the purpose of a corporation or an organization. Purpose is important, right? (Duh, Heston!)

One could argue that the Vision is the “true north.” It’s an over-arching statement of what drives a corporation or an organization; a word picture of that thing a founder or leader sees in their mind when they think “big-picture, long-term.”

One could argue that the Values are the “true north.” They guide the behavior, the decision-making and those “ethical intersection” conversations that are going to happen at some point along the way.

The key, I’ve come to believe, and to see played out this week is really two-pronged. First is the alignment of the three. In whatever order. Most importantly is for leadership, staff, customers, constituents — stakeholders, fill in your word of choice here — to be all in on all three.

That’s where the magic happens. Mission and vision may well evolve as markets change and as the execution model of the business change. Competition might impact mission and vision. Values, though, are really hitting home with me this week as being the closest thing I imagine to “true north.”

Whether corporate, departmental or individual — and whatever our mission, vision, and values, are we “all in?” And how does that shape our approach to each day and each task at hand?

Speaking of “all in,” check out this organization, which is an amazing place for all of us to make a difference. A lasting, multiplying difference.

If you feel compelled to support with a tax-deductible gift, let me know, and I’ll put your name in the hat for a gift of appreciation, which I’ll draw on September 1. And look for more news on the Mission, Vision, and Values, (or Values, Mission and Vision) of this amazing cause.


“It is in the roots, not the branches that a tree’s greatest strength lies.”

  • Unattributed

Where are your roots? Post-COVID, in the heart of the “great resignation,” it is worth asking, where are your roots?

And, are we taking care of them?

This week I’m sitting down with a room full of amazing people to set strategy for an amazing cause — more on that in the next few days — but our role is to set strategy. To plot a course. To maximize the opportunity and to make a difference for an alarmingly under-served part of our population, one that holds tremendous promise in a tight job market and an evolving work-life-whatever balance challenge.

This week I’m also onboarding a new player to a team. I get to coach, almost full time, and I get to read her pick-up, how she translates the interview process to the game she’ll be playing when the lights come up. I get to draw out her questions and ask mine and we get to lay a foundation together upon which she can do great things.

This week I’m traveling. With my journal. With my Bible. With my Kindle App and four or five books that have the potential to trigger me to be a better advisory board member, a better leader – a better version of me.

It’s over-booked. It’s crazy-stressful-packed-with-potholes and buried treasure. It’s exhausting. It’s also exhilerating.

This week, I’m a little more Blessed than I was last week — and I was pretty Blessed last week. And it’s because my focus is on my roots. Strategic, Coach, Reader, Thinker, Curious, Intentional Difference Maker.

Three Meetings

“A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations; due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers rarely meet.”

  • Truman Capote (1924 – 1984), American novelist, playwright, screenwriter and actor

It wasn’t intentional.

There was no planned theme for communication, dialogue, quality, or closeness. It just evolved.

Capote says that two intelligent talkers rarely meet. Yet this week, I “met” with an exceptional columnist, who re-introduced me to a great comedian and thinker, who reminded me of another one. This week, I met with a couple of Clients who “get it,” and who are transparent, vulnerable, fair-minded and tough — and invested in the business we do together. Finally, I met with a a young leader who let me in, while holding me accountable and inviting my experience and insight into his pressing need and our shared circumstance.

If Capote was right, I’ve had an exceptional week. I guess, even if I leave myself out (seein’s how “intelligent” is the filter he proposes), I’ve been in the company of half a dozen or more people who made a difference for me, by inviting me into a dialogue, an arena to think, and a foundation from which to act.

Decent week. Lucky guy.

Eggshells or Omelettes

“Lack of candor blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got. It’s a killer.”

  • Jack Welch (1935 – 2020), American Executive and long-time CEO at GE

Yesterday, we talked about walking on eggshells, and how it is fundamentally chipping away at the quality of our discourse.

While Welch-bashing has become popular 20 years after his retirement (and two years after his death) as GE deals with the mistakes of his successors (and global market shifts), Welch was a great leader who built companies, careers and strategies for success.

All based on candor.

Instead of walking on eggshells, what if we focused on conversations that drove outcomes? What if we focused on the omelette versus the eggshell?

“Pat, that change you implemented to the proposal made a huge difference! Can you show the rest of the team how you reached that decision?”

“Jim, you’ve tried that three times now, and it’s failed every time. What are we learning? Can we agree that we’re not going to make that choice again?”

“Wow, was THAT a Rule #5 violation! Let’s go back to the moment we made the decision and dissect what we got wrong, and what we might have done better…”

“That deal came in 20% better margin than we expected. Let’s do a win review and see what pieces of it we can take forward to replicate the outcome…”

Direct, precise, actionable dialogue that says, “you / we were right,” or “you / we were wrong.” In either case, “what can we learn? How can we get better every day?”

Better than fretting over feelings and egos, outcome-led discussions — steeped in candor and transparency — will help us get to better destinations more quickly.

Seven Words or Timeless Commentary?

“Now everyone is walking around wondering what they can say and censoring themselves, as a result, lowering the standards of discussion and thought.”

  • George Carlin (1937 – 2008), American comedian, actor and social critic

As Andy Kessler points out in the opening paragraph of “Inside View,” his Op / Ed piece in the July 18th Wall Street Journal, these words were spoken, accurately, fifty years ago this week in one of my favorite cities by one of my favorite thinkers.

In the past four weeks, I’ve intersected with two of my generation’s great thinkers and writers; Carlin and Rick Reilly. Not ironically, they’ve got me thinking and writing again.

Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee 50 years ago this week for his (now legendary) “Seven Dirty Words” riff. I won’t link the text (seein’s how The Diff is at least family-intended, if not always family-friendly) because Carlin’s point is captured in the quote that leads off this post.

It seems we can’t talk about anything with anyone anymore without creating a stir, a ruckus or a stink — if not an outright rift.

If that were true 50 years ago this week, one can’t help but wonder if it might be true 50 years from now, and that makes me wonder, as my grandfather often wondered out loud, “What the hell kind of world are we leaving our kids?”

Kessler’s column, while always a good read, is particularly compelling this week, because it points out that Carlin was often on the “opposite” side of the social commentary — from the perspective of either side of the social commentary, because he was a thinker. He pointed out, as Kessler reminds us, that while we might have unlimited choices at the ice cream store, we’re apparently limited to two in the sociopolitical landscape.

We’re better than that, people! We’re also smarter than that. Yet, in a 280-characters-or-less world, it is clear that we’re not just limiting our letter-count, we’re limiting our thinking. Perhaps we’re actually limiting our capacity for thought. Continuing to quote Carlin (and from Kessler’s column), “Thought and discussion depend on language and, when you decrease its base, then you decrease the base for rational discussion and thought.”

I mention Reilly in the same context as Carlin because I believe this cultural phenomena of walking on eggshells is a pervasive trend even in matters of less magnitude than freedom of speech. Reilly, while also a social commentator, is primarily known as a sportswriter*. Yet, he can tell us why he is still a “Phil fan,” and not yet a “Tiger guy.” He can do it without blindly endorsing one or convicting the other. He tells poignant stories by citing facts in a compelling manner. He can explain why he believes what he believes in a way that draws in readers, even if they don’t share the same perspective.

In other words, he expands the base of our thought by using language to describe, not taint; to tell the story, not shade it so that we lose sight of its core.

Should we speak with forethought? Probably, at least most of the time. Should we limit our first thoughts so that we lose track of what we believe, feel, or are willing to fight for? No. And we shouldn’t judge people whose passion outpaces their word choice. We should engage them in an effort to know and understand “Why?”

Perhaps the second half of the word “forethought” is the key to reversing a trend at least 50 years in the making. Let’s exercise thought. Let’s make room for other perspectives and ideas. Let’s engage in productive candor and consider why we think what we think, why we believe what we believe.

There is only one thing that I truly Believe. There are other beliefs I hold and have held, and those all are, and by definition need to be open to scrutiny, if not by others, at least on my part.

Let’s lead the charge to raise the standard, instead of taking the easier path to hide in the invective-addicted crowd.

*Rick Reilly is so much more than a sportswriter! I use the reference only to cast the perspective that the topic need not be controversial to compel us to think and engage in meaningful dialogue.

The Bus, Art and Science

“The good-to-great leaders understood three simple truths. First, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world… Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away… Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction, you still won’t have a great company.”

  • Jim Collins, in Good To Great; Why Some Companies Make The Leap, and Others Don’t

“But what if you have the bus pointed in the wrong direction?” you might ask.

The right people will figure that out pretty quickly, and as long as the bus driver isn’t tone-deaf or unwilling to listen or collaborate, the team will get it pointed in a better direction, and accelerate it on that new path.

Getting the right people on the bus, then, is critical.

So, is recruiting art, science or somewhere in between?

There is science involved, of course. But if we select for “fit” first, it’s very rare to find someone who’s a great fit, who cares about the others on the bus but is also incapable of learning the skills necessary to contribute.

No, we should not hire people without medical degrees and experience to be surgeons. For most of us, our businesses don’t involve scalpels or risk of paralysis or death, though. No, we should not hire career sales pros to hammer code in a software company, or career coders to carry a bag and make quotas. Conceptually, that essentially covers the a significant part of the “science” piece.

So, if the skills and experience are aligned, how do we decide who to put in the seats on the bus?

Let’s hire for “want to,” and then dig into “can do.” Let’s lead based on creating an environment where success is the most likely outcome, and then coach to the tasks, skills and activities that are part of winning game plans.