In a series of interviews, I explore the approaches of different business leaders (all chartered accountants) to strategy. This month I was in conversation with Akash Singh, CEO of Sigma International, a global management consultancy busines.
Tapping into his extensive experience in business strategy and strategic plan development, Akash shared some valuable insights on strategy which he had gained from the firms he has been part of and firms and organisations he has consulted to.
His opening remarks sketched a picture of how he frames the importance of having a sound business strategy: ‘It is like standing at a bus stop and making sure you are taking the right bus. If you don’t have a strategy, you can stand at the bus stop and take any bus, but you probably won’t get to your desired destination. You are still moving, still travelling, and probably thinking you are getting somewhere, but you are going to be disappointed because you are probably going to end in the wrong place. Having a strategy is critical to set you on the path you want.’
During the interview, Akash touched on various aspects relating to strategy:
Strategy is part and parcel of your daily activities
‘One of the fatal flaws in strategy is when you remove it out of your day-to-day activities.’
Akash mentioned that he has come across numerous CEOs who view strategy as something separate from their day-to-day operations. They tend to see it as an annual process − to go through the classic steps, come up with plans and KPAs, and then revisit it only when it is performance appraisal time.
‘Generally, people don’t dedicate enough time to focusing on strategy and the identification of opportunities. Strategy needs to be top of mind. Strategic thinking needs to be infused in operations so that it is not a separate process from running the business or organisation.’
Keep your strategy simple
‘Make the strategy as simple and understandable as possible. A lot of organisations wrongly tries to make it very complicated when developing their strategy, focusing on the bulkiness of the document and what is attached to it.’
He referenced the YPO organisation members using the principle of a one-page strategy and a one-page business plan, and also mentioned the usage of a dashboard approach as an option.
‘Most strategies are influenced by the specific environments relating to the organisation. There are different models, approaches and frameworks that can be applied depending on your environment, but in applying any one of them, ensure that you get the right input.’
The list of sources to get input from also depends on the organisation − examples include historical performance/ratios, literature reviews, management and staff engagements, stakeholder engagements, information from sector-related organisation and competitor analysis.
Akash further emphases the power of consulting the ‘people working on the coal face’ as a means of obtaining the required input: ‘The people on the ground know a lot. You can analyse paper and figures as much as you can, but you will get better quality input by talking to people working with it from a day-to-day perspective.’
He realised that as you go from organisation to organisation, not every staff member is going to be proactive in participating and that every employee can attend strategy workshops. But the key is to create platforms to allow people to contribute within the space they find themselves (on an ongoing basis).
He gave a wonderful example to elaborate: ‘Many years ago we spun up a loans origination business for Nedcor. One of the main offices was in the Durban CBD and our processing centre was in the Morningside area. So, typically, six times a day we sent an outsourced delivery service to pick up the loan applications, six days a week, the expense equalling around half a million rand a year. Our office cleaner, Thembi, approach us and said she sees the delivery person coming six times each day, couldn’t she take a taxi at R2,50 a trip and fetch the documentation needed as well as do other chores that needs to be done. In the end Thembi saved the organisation nearly R500 000 a year.’
Transcend your strategy to a micro level
‘Make sure you transcend the strategy so that it can be understood even at a micro level. You need to capture it in a manner that can be translated to any person in the organisation.’
He added: ‘You’ve got to create a culture, create a day-to-day perspective, cascade it down of where are you going with the strategy and encouraging people to start thinking in that manner.’
Akash highlighted another illustrative example from the banking sector: ‘On an elementary level, a bank brings in money and it sells out money. It takes deposits and lend it out at a margin, measured by basis points. One of the best ways to teach the strategy is by cascading everything into margins. For instance, if you want to buy a cash card machine, it can be measured in margin – for this cash card machine we need R5 000 worth of deposits. To open a new branch we need XX days of margin.’
He re-emphasised: ‘Strategy must be part of everyday operations and demystified so that it is easily applied.’
On sustainability and ESG
‘One of the key trends that comes out over and over in my own readings and research is that the environmental environment is critical and as we go into the future, our collective world focus on environment is going to be incredibly important. The quicker organisations start aligning, even at a metric level, the better for the organisation.’
He referenced ACSA’s scorecard as an example of how an organisation’s alignment to sustainability can be visually portrayed.
Advice for young professionals
Akash covered his advice for young professionals wishing to follow a career in strategy in three broad areas:
Experience ‘Experience is very important.’ He mentioned that there are many ways to get ‘on the job experience’ and recommends treating each assignment as a case study: ‘At the moment, in our business, we treat each engagement as an MBA case study to strengthen the mind for all of us. Fortunately we have about a hundred of these internal case studies each year.’ That is one way of gaining knowledge.
Learn from other people ‘To quicken growth I would recommend a coach, an outside sounding board.’ He elaborated on this point by again referring to their own business: ‘We had a coach coming from Europe spending 10 days with us, an ex-MIT professor who talked about our business and about strategy. I learned more in that 10 days than any other education I have been on − including my MBA.’ Continuing on this point: ‘We bring about 100 experts per year from the Netherlands to South African companies. Continue to learn from other people.’
Be open, strategy is everywhere ‘You find strategy not just in business books but all around you. For example, I am reading an ancient piece of literature at the moment, and if you understand the intention of that script, you will find that strategy is also there.’
We ended the conversation with interesting management insights relating to strategy that Akash picked up over the years. ‘You get procedural work and brain work. More time should be spent by senior management on brain work and less time on procedural work.’ Something we all should migrate to as our careers progress.
Christiaan Vorster CA(SA), SAICA Regional Executive