While I was working on my Master's of Business Administration at Harvard University in the '70s, I remember my second year Business Policy professor saying, "Strategy is developed from the top down, and implementation is developed from the bottom up."
While working in the high-tech industry for 20 years and the education business for 20 years, I encountered many situations where organizations implemented strategy from the top down; I saw few instances where the organizations developed an implementation process from the bottom up. When I was beginning my career, I did something very unusual for a Harvard Business School graduate: I decided to spend my career in sales and operations in the lower half of the organizations where I worked. It was empowering to have excellent business training in strategy and to be able to connect the operations people with the executives who developed strategy for the company.
Serving in the United States Army National Guard, where I was a Sergeant and 2nd Lieutenant, also influenced my passion for implementation. I learned very quickly that even in simulated battles there are a lot of moving parts that go into a "Battle Campaign." For those of you who are not familiar with the armed services, a 2nd lieutenant is not considered a senior officer. As I learned the concepts of what made an excellent infantry officer, I was surprised to find that it was the infantry officers and the sergeants that coordinated all the "assets" that were used in battle. Of particular interest to me was the role of the forward observers and the reconnaissance "recon" units. They get very close to enemy camps and then call back to the officers who controlled the infantry personnel and the "assets" that supported the infantry. The better the information from the forward observers and reconnaissance units, the better the support units could hit enemy targets. You may not have heard a lot about these units because the Navy Seals, Marines, Black Ops, and Air Borne Rangers got most of the press. Nevertheless, in my training at officer candidate school I was amazed to learn that no country was ever defeated because it was bombed. To win a war you have to put troops "on the ground."
These concepts made me curious about why businesses today do not have more comprehensive strategies for getting information about their customers from their operations and their sales and marketing people. There will be those who will note that they have extensive Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and all sorts of data that flow from the bottom up. CRM systems are great, however, how many companies actually allow their sales people to go out into the field and work with the company's customers on strategy? How many allow them to write the implementation portion of the sales/operations strategies and then bring them to the executive strategy meetings to work with senior officers of the company?
Some people have informed me that the days of the former "Military Industrial Complex" have long past and have lost their useful application in modern day business. I would be the first to agree. However, the idea of taking a fresh look at who should be in sales / operations at the ground level is something that I would like the business community to think about.
Specifically, I think some MBAs should be given incentives to spend their careers on the front lines of the businesses. Not every MBA should aspire to be the CEO of a company. There should be sales / operations roles at "the ground" level that reward people who are willing to serve in the field. They should be rewarded by being able to come back to the executive offices and help participate in designing the implementation portion of an organization's strategy.
During my career in high technology and educational administration at Bentley University, I have been invited to collaborate with senior management on implementation strategies while working in sales and sales management positions. When some of the senior managers in one company that I worked for found out I had an MBA and that I taught Sales and Marketing courses at Northeastern University Graduate School of Business, they were deeply concerned because it appeared that I had no desire to trade in my sales/operations credentials to be a strategist in upper management. However, they were very creative and devised other ways to use me effectively. One of the Senior Vice Presidents at a well known high technology company allowed me to participate in his bi-weekly conference call with his senior staff. Another company, where I was a Regional Sales Manager, allowed me to write the sales strategy plan for the entire company. Not all people who are excellent in operations have MBAs but I think more MBAs should consider making a career in sales/operations.
The young professor who told me "strategy is developed from the top down, and implementation is developed from the bottom up," went on to become a world renowned, tenured professor at Harvard Business School with a specialty in competitive strategies. His name is Michael Porter.
John A. Sims Jr. is a Leadership gift officer at Bentley University (
) and President of AJS Consulting Company LLC (