How to tell if someone’s faking strategy
I made a big mistake as a young professional, and it hurt me a lot. It wasn’t until much later that I fully came to understand what that mistake was.
Like most people new to the workforce, I was idealistic. I totally missed the volume of politics and gesturing that gets people ahead.
This leads into my mistake: I believed that people who said they were doing strategy actually were.
So when a decision came down the pipe that I thought made no sense, I didn’t reject it—I rationalized it. I chose to believe that my boss had information I lacked.
When the “idea people” would get a campaign approved that I had to execute, I didn’t reject it—I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I chose to believe that there was some validity to their idea that I just wasn’t aware of, and it deserved to be executed.
See, I thought that people mostly worked at a company to help make it profitable—but that’s not really how things work. I digress; topic for another time.
Problems this caused
This mistake I made did some really lame things (both to me AND the organization):
- It kept me hierarchically below people less competent than me. Essentially I trusted people who were lying—whether on purpose or not—and it left me holding the bag on mistakes they’d never admit making. Even if they recognized they were the ones who made it (unlikely).
- I enabled lazy people to execute their ideas through me instead of leaving them to do the work themselves.
- It meant that I could rarely execute on my (actually strategic) ideas, because I was always executing on the ideas of people higher up the food chain.
- I wasted countless hours doing work that never should have been done, because I believed what people said about themselves or what their boss said to me about them.
This experience was miserable. It’s had a ripple effect. Now I’m skeptical to my core whenever someone’s introduced to me as a strategist, or as an idea person. The truth is, a lot of people say or believe they are doing strategy, and they are dead wrong.
But it still gets them ahead. Being wrong doesn’t keep them from being put in positions to tell other people what to do.
Not spotting the fakers was my mistake, but it doesn’t have to be yours. There are some key areas I scrutinize when trying to learn if someone really is doing strategy.
I’m going to share them with you, but first, let’s talk a little bit about why people would fake being strategic.
The motives for faking strategy
Why would people fake this? There are three really big reasons. Often it’s a combination of all of them.
To gain or maintain power
People who convince others that they are strategists immediately put themselves in a position of power. Strategy is an ambiguous concept to a lot of people, and this ambiguity can be used to manipulate and control. “The Strategist” is also typically the role of someone who decides what other people do.
To get away with being lazy
In a lot of environments, strategists don’t have to execute. This is another can of worms that I’ll probably rant about in another blog post sometime. See, I love to think. It’s like the dessert of work. When someone says they only think about stuff but never do the executing, that’s like saying “I only eat desserts. I’m going to eat your dessert too because that’s what I do. You eat my vegetables.”
Anyway, in the above point I talked about how “the Strategist” is someone who gets to decide what other people do. Often this also means they aren’t often on the hook for doing the work themselves. If you can get away with not being on the hook for executing any of the stuff you think about, you’ve found the lazy person’s jackpot.
To hide incompetence
As I mentioned above, strategy is an ambiguous concept to a lot of people. Some leverage this ambiguity to control people, but others wield it like a shield. Ambiguity protects them from their work ever being called into question. They can do useless nothings all day and still be some of the highest-paid people in a department.
Now that you know why someone would fake it, you’re probably mad. I’m mad just thinking about it. ;)
So here’s how to keep your eye out so you don’t get burned.
Signs someone’s faking strategy
Keep in mind that sometimes people fake without knowing that they’re faking. They genuinely believe they’re doing strategy; they just don’t know what strategy is. This means a reality check is vital for this person and for anyone they do business with in the future. Holding them accountable is important damage control.
Everything they say is jargon
Often jargon is used as a safety net or power reinforcer. People feel safe or important using smart-sounding words.
If the person “strategizing” at you is using a bunch of terms you don’t know, ask them to explain. Also Google them afterward to make sure their explanation lined up (hint: a lot of times, it won’t).
Good strategy gets executors on board with the reasons behind things. It creates closeness and alignment. Jargon creates distance between the person using words and the person hearing them. It’s a way to avoid questioning … which is a sign of someone with something to hide.
They never choose what not to do
In short, strategy is choice.
—Lafley & Martin, Playing to Win
If someone claiming to be doing strategy comes up with idea after idea, and never cuts them down, this should be a big warning sign. One of the biggest jobs of strategy is choosing what to do, which includes a lot of choosing what not to do.
But people who don’t do this are engaging in a form of self-protection. If you don’t make a choice, you don’t have anything to be accountable to.
Press the self-professed strategist for decisions that involve cutting something. For example, try this:”We can only make one of these two things happen in the time span you proposed. Should it be (a), or (b)?”
If they can’t make a decision like that, it might be a sign that they lack the strategic skills they claim.
They stick to the stratosphere
Real strategy isn’t just casting a high-level vision. Any good strategy leads to real action. You might hear someone throw around great-sounding goals and objectives that should be hit … without ever making plans for how it will happen.
If your so-called strategist isn’t translating their objectives into a clear plan of action, they aren’t really a strategist.
“Big-picture” is synonymous with “vague”
Strategy is disciplined, systematic thought. And vagueness, like jargon, keeps a person from needing to have any substance behind their thoughts.
If someone uses the term “big-picture” a lot to describe their vague thoughts, and say a lot of things that have little tangible meaning and no facts to back them up, take it as a hint to clarify and question. They may be faking strategy.
They use hierarchy instead of facts
This is possibly my-least favorite sign of all of them to have to deal with. Let’s say you ask someone to clarify their strategy or provide more details.
If the answer is something like, “just trust me; I’m your boss,” or “I have 15 years of experience, so I know what I’m talking about,” you might be dealing with a politicker, not a strategist.
To wrap up, you may not be able to get out from under a strategy faker if you’re working in a corporate environment. That’s a big reason why I started my own company.
But being aware of political elements around you—like people who fake strategy to get ahead—can help you stay out of situations where you’re being used for their personal gains. This will make your work life less frustrating, and help you be more valuable to the company you’re in.
Oh, and if you’re faking at strategy and hurting people like young me … stop that.
Have you been stuck lower on the org chart than strategy fakers? (OK, haven’t we all?) I’m curious to hear your stories in the comments.