Updated: Jun 10
Past CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman is renowned for transforming global consumer brand Unilever into an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) success story over his 10-year tenure (1). In the same period, he delivered a near 300 per cent return to stakeholders. Polman was successful because he managed to shift the corporate culture towards an acceptance of equality between the conflicting interests of ESG focused stakeholders and the financially focused shareholders. Polman reinforced the message by aligning executive remuneration incentives to the delivery of his newly defined definition of purpose. Naturally much of the change was also due to the hidden lever of corporate strategy. Even so, elevating the transformation to that level of success was very difficult Polson suggested.
It is the Strategic Management Institute’s (SMI) view however that if it were only the executives doing the heavy lifting, it may have been made a little easier if he had tapped into a hidden resource that can be found in every organisation. That resource is the group known as high potential employees, or ‘high pots’ for short. These people stand out because they demonstrate a strength in critical thinking and problem-solving, possess an ability to communicate and collaborate with others, and are unafraid to take the initiative. In short, they stand out as future leaders of the corporation.
Finding synergies in high pot development and organisation success
Standing in contrast to the individuals who overtly occupy formal managerial positions, high pots are covertly recognised for their leadership capabilities but have not yet arrived in the overt ranks of authority, and power. More progressive organisations run a high pot development program hoping to retain their high pots loyalty, at least for a while. This facility usually entails the conduct of in-house leadership development programs, subsidies for their attendance in MBA programs or at a higher level, attendance in short term Harvard Business School (or similar) short courses. For any corporation however, such initiatives are excellent for the individual and the firm as separate entities but fall short in delivering synergies for each. That is because the construct of an organisational learning capability is very different to that of an individual. There is however scope to join the dots in two critical ways. First, the high pot development programs can be more closely related to organisational learning. A strength in organisational learning is an essential feature in 1) the design and management of a program of organisational transformation and renewal 2) stimulating the high levels of creativity, imagination and innovation required to support continual regeneration of corporate strategy, and by association, 3) the strengthening of engines for sustainability and growth.
Second, the programs can make a greater contribution to the pioneering strengths of the Senior Leadership Team. As pointed out in a prior SMI paper, (2) the role of the Chief Strategy Officer, a person highly likely to be a high pot individual, will become involved in four key primary activities during their tenure. One of those activities is that of pioneer, an activity where “the spirit of the founding pioneer must be reinvigorated or at least, kept alive. Building on the entrepreneurial spirit and values of the company’s founders, the strategy practitioner is empowered to find new markets for new and existing resources, and/or new resources for existing and new markets, or a combination of both”. Polson’s acknowledgement of Unilever’s pioneers was a primary driver of his organisational transformation program. To ensure he evolved the correct culture for the executive teams, Polson reportedly “immersed himself in the company’s 140-year history and in getting the executives and managerial ranks to think about their own values and purpose”.
Not every high pot will become a CEO. A seat at the Senior Leadership Team table is however a likely proposition for the majority. In an era where continual regeneration is critical to success, there is no room for ignorance, the opposite of organisational learning, or underperforming leadership teams. Controlled exposure and release of high pots to the aspects of leadership experienced by the CSO especially, can only be a positive for the CEO, the Senior Leadership team, and the corporation in general.
Unleashing the hidden enablers of systemic cultural change, and growth: The role of the Strategy Whisperer
To optimise individual development and organisational learning/leadership synergies, the SMI has identified a means to get the best of both worlds. Its implementation requires a leap of faith by Senior Leadership Team members who will need to demonstrate sufficient courage to be open to new ideas, an ability to consider a fresh approach to strategy and leadership and a tolerance for a little naivety, but a lot of energy. It will also require the high pots to step up and stamp out their own ground.
The solution identified by the SMI is to establish a group that can be referred to as Strategy Whisperers. Members will be transient in nature and made up of cross organisational high pots and potentially, external advisors. The upper limits of this team could reach the level of a shadow Senior Leadership Team. Its members will act as background advisers, ideally to the Senior Leadership Team. In that capacity Strategy Whisperers have the wherewithal, but not necessarily the authority to contribute to the creation, invigoration, invention, and enactment of strategy, strategic change, and leadership. In the conduct of that work, no matter how big or small the tasks are, their learning will also be the organisations learning. Put another way, their experiences will become a part of the experience-based knowledge bank of the entire organisation.
In that role or similar, Strategy Whisperers can act as a soundboard for decision making, a source of fresh ideas and a resource ready to conduct important analysis and research into specific strategic problems, and opportunities. With, or without ties to a formal Organisation Learning and Development function or the Senior Leadership Team, the Strategy Whisperer’s will always be available to:
contribute to the organic evolution of the organisation,
obtain first-hand experience in strategically focused team membership, management, and stakeholder engagement,
provide a sounding board resource to senior leader decisions, and a platform upon which initiatives can be developed, trialled, and tested,
provide a formal platform for the operation of an organisational learning capability,
contribute to the strategy and thereby, the future direction of the business and ultimately,
provide a substantive medium from which emerging senior leaders can evolve and grow.
Unencumbered by entrenched operating procedures, systems and processes, embedded traditions, accepted norms, and the unseen, but ever-present ‘dominant logic’ of Senior Leadership Teams, Strategy Whisperers can also be the drivers of, and future leaders in their interpretation of the corporation of the future.
Chief Strategy Officer (CSO)sandbox, the glue that binds the Strategy Whisperers to effective strategy practice
One of the reasons the lack of synergies between the High Pot individual and the corporates best interests has been a lack of infrastructure. In recognition of this shortcoming, the SMI has developed a platform upon which Strategy Whisperers can standardise the corporate strategy system, focus their attention, be assessed, and grow. As illustrated in Figure 2, that platform is named the CSOsandbox. Perhaps one of the most important roles of the CSOsandbox will be the role it plays in evolving an organisational learning capability. As a web based, platform the CSOsandbox provides visibility and structure to strategy and a platform from which Strategy Whisperers can strengthen a corporate wide focus on strategy and thereby, enhance the act of strategic thinking across the board.
Figure 2: Screen shot of CSOsandbox front page
Third Wave Strategy: the foundation of the CSOsandbox
Advanced strategy and leadership practices presented and deployed to the CSOsandbox are based on the notion of Third Wave Strategy. Elements of Third Wave Strategy are demonstrated in Figure 3 and explained in the books:
Corporate Strategy (Remastered) I: High Performance Strategy and Leadership in a Volatile, Disrupted World, (3) and the case study-oriented content contained in;
Corporate Strategy (Remastered) II: A Fieldbook Implementing High Performance Strategy and Leadership. (4)
Figure 3: Elements of Third Wave Strategy
The stories explored in the books and the CSOsandbox are based on the third element of Third Wave Strategy, the fully integrated, system based Third Wave Strategy framework, illustrated in Figure 3. Fundamental to the management of the Third Wave Strategy framework is its treatment as a system. There is a natural flow of content that will be evident from the framework illustrated in Figure 3. It starts with Purpose, Mission, Vision, Long term Strategy and proceeds through to implementation and alignment. Users of the framework however can enter the system at any point.
One of the most likely starting points in formulating and/or renewing corporate strategy is Strategy Evaluation. It is the place where long term strategy is reviewed and if necessary renewed. It is also the place where Short Term Strategy is articulated in the context of a Strategy Narrative, a story of corporate specific strategy, and the structure of a Strategy Blueprint – the construct within which Long Term Strategy is implemented in the short term. In another stage of the strategy framework, it is the place where the Program of Continual Strategy Renewal is defined, and Alignment maintained. The value of the framework to strategy practitioners is its integrated construct, its mapping, and the simple fact that it is a dynamic system, not a static plan.
Figure 4: Fully integrated, system based Third Wave Strategy framework
Systemic Cognitive Strategy Practice; The intelligence that operates the CSOsandbox
The second element of Third Wave Strategy is Systemic Cognitive Strategy Practice (SCSP). At the whole of organisation level SCSP reflects the evolution of an organisational learning function that is an outcome from a core capability unique to humans, a capability in prospective strategic thinking. Prospection describes a human’s ability to not only picture images of the future, but to also imagine what would be entailed in the design of the journey to get there. As illustrated in Figure 5, SCSP is powered by a capacity for critical, design oriented and systemic strategic thinking. (2) Strategy in this context will be informed by powerful data analytics and Artificial Intelligence capabilities.
Figure 5: An illustration of Cognitive Strategy Practice grounded in a natural capability of prospection.
Strengthening organisational learning and leadership development: Establishing a Community of Strategy Practice (COSP)
Further support can be given to the organisational learning and leadership development drive through the establishment of a Community of Practice (COP) with a specialisation in strategy and leadership. A COP is formed by a group of individuals who come together to engage in practices of common interest. In the field of strategy such a group would be referred to as a Community of Strategy Practice (COSP). The work of the COSP is to provide ground cover to the Strategy Whisperer’s, the office of Chief Strategy Officer, the organisational learning function, and the needs of the Senior Leadership Team. In reverse, Strategy Whisperer’s can be involved in the COSP’s, providing them with the skills they have acquired, and through sharing the programs being undertaken at the behest of the Senior Leadership Team. Members of the COSP will be more generalist in makeup than the Strategy Whisperer’s and less endowed with high pot skills. Members will be broad based while individual members will be those interested in contributing to the future of the corporation and its success in a capacity that will likely exceed the role they currently hold.
Optimising the know what: Open Strategy Practice
The above observations have arrived at a time when moves to introduce the notion of ‘open’ strategy, a mechanism that enables all stakeholders in the organisation to contribute to strategy, are at an all-time high. There are many benefits to such a practice as there are with Strategy Whisperers and COSP groups. Such a practice would however be the icing on the cake for those seeking to establish, strengthen or extend an organisational learning capability. The positives of open learning include the observation that many heads are better than a few, especially when it comes to creativity, a skill that lies at the heart of strategy. Similarly, outward facing stakeholders such as customers, operations or administration are outward looking in focus, they will possess far deeper insight into issues associated with those functions than would individual members of a Senior Leadership Team. The same would apply to those stakeholders occupying an outside in focus.
There are also downsides to the practice of Open Strategy. They include a slowing of the process as data collection becomes more complex. Another is the management of shareholder expectations, it is difficult to explain to more powerful contributors especially, why their ideas weren’t taken up. There is also an issue of confidentiality, although it is the SMI’s belief that much of strategy content is not a secret at all. Web sites, analysts research and investigative journalists can readily detect what is really going on in any one organisation. Any anxiety associated with that as an issue will of course be less of a concern to those corporate leaders who engage in the continual renewal of strategy. Under this discipline strategic decisions are being implemented before any inkling of a change is detected beyond those directly involved with the decision-making process. Overall, it can be said that the involvement of a broader base of practitioners is favourable to a narrower base. The task of strategising, learning and being a better leader for all however is made far easier for those with access to the CSOsandbox.
In this paper hidden help is explored and a solution proposed in the form of an ‘opening up’ of previously overt resources that are known to exist in all organisations. It’s a one-sided argument, most high pots, COSP members and other stakeholders would be delighted to be closer to the formulation, evaluation, and articulation of corporate strategy. Few senior leaders however are willing to allow that. What happens therefore is that members of the leadership team hold all the strategy cards in their heads, a place where no one else is granted access. In some cases that act is highly justified. In many cases however there is a lot to be gained from open dialogue where dialogue is defined as “a communication process in which people are encouraged to express their opinions and ideas freely and without fear of reprisal or judgment”. From dialogue comes learning, from learning comes knowledge, from knowledge comes intelligence and from there, a healthy organisation is well positioned to adapt, invent, and thrive.
van Leeuwen, H., Ex Unilever boss on doing the right thing (and making money), The Australian Financial Review, Jun 2, 2023 – 11.11am https://www.afr.com/policy/energy-and-climate/ex-unilever-boss-paul-polman-on-doing-the-right-thing-and-making-money-20230527-p5dbq9, Accessed 4 Jun, 2023.
Strategic management Institute, Making the role of the Chief Strategy Officer Your Own, CSOsandbox, available via subscription at: https://www.csosandbox.com/value-and-pricing
Hunter, P., Corporate Strategy (Remastered) I: High Performance Strategy and Leadership in a Volatile, Disrupted World, Routledge, Oxford, UK, 2020
Hunter, P., Corporate Strategy (Remastered) II: A Fieldbook, Implementing High Performance Strategy and Leadership, Routledge, Oxford, UK, 2020