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Good strategy, bad strategy, and learning to tell the difference

As Co-Owner and Co-CEO of Women of Influence, Stephania plays an integral role in defining the strategic direction of the business. In March, she attended the Queen’s Executive Education Strategy Program at Queen’s University, and came away with the tools needed to do a better job of guiding the organization ahead.

By Stephania Varalli


Bad strategy can destroy a business. I know that, you know that, anyone that has run a company—or even just worked for one—knows that. Unfortunately, recognizing that strategy is an important factor for success doesn’t make it any easier to identify whether or not your choice of strategy is a good one.

I know this from experience. When I became co-owner of Women of Influence, my partner and I quickly got to work on developing our strategy. I was confident in the framework we created, and we set about aiming ourselves in this new direction—while simultaneously keeping the day-to-day business running smoothly with the help of our stellar team. A few months after taking over, I had the opportunity to attend the Queen’s Executive Education Strategy Program. After five days of intensive work onsite at Queen’s University, I could confidently identify the shortcomings of our strategic plan.

Discovering that we still had work to do was an uncomfortable feeling, but it was better than the alternative. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The course covered everything from basic fundamentals to specific processes and tactics. Through lectures, case studies, and group work (which was invaluable for the diversity of perspectives it provided), I learned how to properly identify planning issues and needs, develop a strategic plan, and lead change in an organization. Throughout this time, I was having “Aha!” moments—points when I recognized what we had done well, and what we could be improving in our own strategic process and plan.

These represent a small slice of what I learned from the four brilliant professors who led sessions during the course; they may strike a chord as you conduct your own strategic planning:

Strategy defines the what and how of success.

It was quickly impressed upon me just how much strategy is used as a catchall term, making many “strategic plans” not actually strategic. To some extent I had fallen into the trap of letting our annual plan—the details of what we’ll be doing over the course of the year—become blurred with our strategic plan, which should have a big picture focus and no set term. Strategic plans work until they aren’t working anymore. Focusing on the bottom line, aiming for growth, or just trying to keep the lights on is not a strategy—they are outcomes of a good strategic plan.

You can’t know everything before you get started.

Prior to the start of the course, we all took an online assessment called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which measures and describes thinking preferences in people. My HBDI result proved that I like to gather plenty of facts and figures before making an informed and rational decision. There’s nothing wrong with being analytical rather than emotional, but I recognized that my need to know everything was causing me to delay decision making. You won’t have—and you don’t need—all of the information before you build your strategy.

Strategy is a statement of action.

Nothing will come of a strategy that is built without being implemented. This might seem obvious, but many of my classmates agreed that their strategy stalled after the planning stages. I can attest to how easy it is to get caught up in the daily needs of the business rather than attend to the bigger picture. Others get bogged down by the old way of doing things. If you don’t have a clear plan for implementing your strategy as well as the drive to act on it, you’ll never succeed. It’s a dedication to the pursuit of your winning strategy that will get you to where you need to go.

Don’t try to boil the ocean.

My partner and I saw so much potential in Women of Influence, it was easy to come up with a long list of bold, new ideas for evolving and growing the company. We quickly learned that strategy requires choice. Having discovered the hard way that it’s just not possible to do everything, I was glad to hear this being taught by a strategy expert. Change requires full time resources, so if you don’t have the manpower, time, or budget to implement your strategy, you have to scale it back.

No matter what, not everyone is going to get on board.

We all want to believe that if we build a smart new strategy backed by insight and data, everyone in the organization will quickly come on board. In practice, only about 20 per cent of your employees will embrace the change immediately and want to make it happen. Around 10 per cent will actively try to stop the change from happening; they will never be on board. The remaining 70 per cent will sit on the fence until they see results, and you have about three months to show them that it will be a success (so plan for an early win).

If these don’t resonate with your own experience, you might want to check out the course for yourself. With the breadth and depth of material covered, I don’t think anyone would complete it without coming away with their own unique, invaluable lessons. My fellow students worked in varying roles and industries, from human resources to operations, from finance to the public sector. Many of them expressed that they were having their own “Aha!” moments, and often they were different than mine. What did we all have in common? We finished our week with a greater appreciation for the importance of strategy, and the skills and tools we needed to get strategic with our own business.


In today’s ever-changing world, disruption is a fact of life. Unfortunately, much conventional wisdom surrounding strategic planning can result in stale, plodding discussions. Professor Elspeth Murray discusses the practice of agile strategic planning and how to incorporate foresight, innovation, flexibility and speed into your strategic planning process. Sign up now for her free webinar: Disrupt Or Be Disrupted? The Practice of Agile Strategic Planning.


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