What’s your alpha strategy?

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Alan Kennedy, the co-creator and author of The Alpha Strategies, on Tuesday this week. There’s a wealth of information there for anyone aspiring to a board director’s role, or executive leadership position, or for the budding entrepreneur looking to define their idea as a venture that can be sustained.

But since my afternoon with him, I’ve been thinking about how Kennedy’s thinking could be applied to individuals. After all, if you’re undertaking your own Personal Due Diligence about your life and career, you’re already half the way toward admitting you have a strategy you’re trying to follow.

One of the things we do at PDD is actually try to apply ideas from one domain to another. So let’s do a little freewheeling play here, and see what happens.

Kennedy’s thesis is that there are eight — and only eight — strategies for any venture, be that a for-profit company, a government agency, or a not-for-profit organization. What’s more, all eight are in play, but they play different roles. One will be the “alpha strategy”, or, if you like, what you lead with; two to three influence that deeply and coordinate the work of the rest, and the four to five others enable the whole effort.

Where organizations get into trouble is when their alpha strategy changes, either by design (but with insufficient attention to the work of the enabler and influencer strategies) or by inattention (when the alpha is supplanted without noticing, such as when the world’s “too big to fail” banks actually made growth the alpha strategy without considering the consequences).

Kennedy also notes that any venture can change the relative priorities of the strategies, and even change its alpha, although only a for-profit company can handle having the business definition/mandate strategy as alpha (since not-for-profits and government agencies are chartered to fulfil a particular mandate and they’d have to cease to exist to change mandates).

So how are you approaching your own career and life? What matters to you?

In no particular order, here are the eight strategies you might be following:

If you put definition/mandate first, you look forward to life as a chameleon, changing from one type of work to another. You’d concentrate on transportable skills, and opportunities to demonstrate those skills in action. You’d slide from industry to industry, size to size, for-profit to government to not-for-profit, and from organizational life to self-managed life (as an entrepreneur or consultant) not just easily, but as part of your plan.

If you put risk/sustainability first, you’d be seeking security for years to come. You might well take lateral transfers rather than promotions, recognizing that as you move up there are fewer landing places. You might have a strong preference for stable large organizations — or be willing to commit to years in a small venture (likely in a not-for-profit setting) where you could be assured of a sustained run.

If you put finance first, you’d be seeking particular opportunities to demonstrate your ability to put tangible results on the board. You’d avoid work that couldn’t be easily quantified in favour of items that can be as unambiguously measured as possible. (Don’t assume this means “working in finance”, because an archivist or librarian, to take one example, can measure information requests, their fulfilment, and the impact of doing so quite precisely.)

If you put service delivery/production first, you’d come at things from the point of view of flow — think of the difference between “I stamped out 50 widgets today, a new record” and “I took the plant from 6 per hour to 7 per hour”. Another way to think of it is that the first is more project-oriented in its thinking, while the second is more process-oriented.

If you put marketing/communications first, you’d be more concerned with who you serve or reach out to. You might also be more focused on sales (with its pipelines and funnels of activity) here. This, unlike the last two, is going to have its qualitative and narrative elements to look for in building a portfolio or résumé over time, rather than simply be about what could be measured.

If you put organization/people first, you’re going to want to be in a position where helping others do better matters to you. That would make for a decent manager’s life, in addition to the obvious “helping professions” in or out of organizations. In both this and the communications as alpha strategy, you might be looking to create a career as an influencer, whether through social media, vendor forums and user groups, or by becoming a recognized expert — the only difference is whether you’re selling ideas, or developing people, when you do it.

If you put R&D/technology first, you’ll be looking for opportunities to be on the cutting edge constantly, taking part in delivering on the promise of ideas. Your future security will be found in always striving to be on the A-team in the right place at the right time, shifting as needed to stay on the front lines.

Growth is the one strategy that doesn’t seem to fit as well, unless we’re talking about personal growth (always learning, always expanding your horizons) or a simple strategy to make X amount in Y period of time no matter what you have to do to accomplish that. But a closer look shows that this is the motivator for the person who chooses a life of deal-making: the sort of person who is constantly seeking the opportunity in everything they see.

Now look what this says: you can have a fulfilling and secure career by following any of these. On the other hand, they require radically different approaches, and different methods of enabling them. (You might, for instance, become a key communicator and developer of people and technology in support of a deal-making life: Marketing, People and R&D become the influencers to your alpha strategy of growth, while your ability to deliver service, manage finance, handle risk and define yourself are enabler elements in this mix.)

While Kennedy’s work really is for organizations (large and small) to help them chart their strategies for the future, the ideas can be applied by those who are personally diligent to shape their own futures, and to help judge their employer, industry, and the opportunities they may look at. It’s worth your time to think about these, and to discuss them in your own personal context with one of PDD‘s advisors.

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