Strategy and the West Point Way

In an article in Inc. Magazine (October 2013), Jim Collins (leadership guru and author of Good to Great, Built to Last, and his latest book Great by Choice) described his experience teaching leadership at West Point. As seen through his eyes, West Point cadets are cut from a different cloth than other college students. Reflecting on Collin’s experience, we could not help but think how the leadership lessons he uncovered at West Point can apply directly to how organizations succeed in developing and executing strategy.

Collins states that, if you want to build a culture of engaged leaders and a great place to work, you need to spend time thinking about three things:

SERVICE to “a cause or purpose we are passionately dedicated to and are willing to suffer and sacrifice for.”

One benefit of the strategic development process is the heightened awareness of why a business is in business. A collaborative approach to development and execution can result in a greater understanding and support for the organization’s vision or purpose. Engaging managers and employees in that discussion will cause them to see the vision or purpose as their own. What we strive for in our work with clients is to help employees understand how the strategy will not only better their own life, but the lives of everyone else both inside and outside the organization.

CHALLENGE AND GROWTH, or, “What huge and audacious challenges should we give people that will push them hard and make them grow?”

At West Point, failure is an integral part of the learning and growing experience. As the cadets see it, failure makes them stronger. Consider a quote from Dr. Robert Schuller, “Failure is never final and success is never ending.” In the same way, managing strategy execution is about challenging the organization, with the understanding that failure is unavoidable when trying new things and taking calculated risk. Employees need to be challenged in order to achieve new heights, and they cannot be afraid to fail. Rather, when they embrace failure as a learning experience, they grow.

COMMUNAL SUCCESS, or, “What can we do to reinforce the idea that we succeed only by helping each other?”

No cadet at West Point is a loner. Although each cadet is highly competitive, they understand that by helping each other, they themselves will be successful. In our work with leadership teams it is not uncommon to have a discussion about functions working in silos. The strategy development process can help individuals and functions better understand how their actions and decisions impact others. The result is greater communal sharing of ideas and working together on problems that result in greater success. Creating a culture where employees want to help others prosper is a formula for success.

Collins says he has observed these principles in a number of companies, and we have experienced the same. When the three elements of service, growth and success are put into action, good things happen to individuals and organizations. Let us know if you have experienced any of these principles in action, or give us a call to talk about how we can help your organization become more like West Point.