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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Born strategic – Why great strategists are both born and made

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You’ve probably met the sort of people I mean. You might even have had the good fortune to work with them and to learn from them. That person who seems to be instinctively strategic, sees the wood for the trees and, while everyone else is obsessing with the operational detail, sees where and how to focus on what matters. They are rare beasts. I’ve studied many of them and, increasingly, my work involves coaching senior executives to develop this exquisite talent. As with other talents, such as musicality, it seems to have a genetic component, but also requires assiduous development. As usual, bear with me while I elaborate on what makes a great strategist and then get to the practical implications for you.

Nature and nurture
Although laypeople argue over whether nature (ie genes) or nurture (ie upbringing) creates personality traits, experts see it as a settled point. Every psychological trait has a genetic component, the expression of which is influenced by the environment. Moreover, genes and the environment interact. For example, studies have shown how twins that share a genetic predisposition towards musicality express that differently if they are raised in musical homes or not. Further, children’s innate musical ability encourages parents to provide teaching and access to instruments, an example of gene-environment interaction.

Genes, plural
A second point of agreement among geneticists is that most traits are polygenic. We don’t have musical gene; we have a set of genes that predispose us towards musicality. These include those for traits such as rhythm, pitch and melodic perception. In fact, most psychological and personality traits seem to be polygenic and both this and gene-environment interaction make prediction and teaching difficult. We might be able to foretell, with relative accuracy, if our child will have blue eyes or be tall, but it’s much harder to know if he or she will be a strategist or an implementer. The best we can do is look for early signs and then provide the right environment to develop those innate abilities.

Raising strategists
My research has taught me that strategising is much like musicality. Everyone can do it a bit and, with coaching, anyone can improve. Great strategists are born with some ‘genes for strategy’, but even they don’t come out of the womb strategising, and greatness has to be developed. This has important implications for leaders and those in departments, such as Human Resources or Marketing Excellence, whose role is to raise the next generation of strategists.
In particular, it means that good practice is to look out for nascent strategic instincts and to help those who have them to develop them to their full potential. But if rhythm, pitch and melody mark out a musical prodigy, what marks out a potential strategic virtuoso?

It’s a FACT
The traits that separate great strategists from the ordinary are the subject of a longer article I’ve published elsewhere (available on request, email me), but they can be summarised in the acronym FACT. F is for framing. Great strategists tend to ‘frame’ the market in terms of needs and motivations, not products and features. A is for asking and the inherent ability to pose questions inductively, abductively and deductively. C denotes concentration, the strategists’ habit of focusing resources rather than spreading them out. T is for tasking, the way great strategists delegate to the right people to execute each part of the strategy implementation, rather than follow the organisation chart or do everything by committee and compromise. Together, these four traits combine to create strategic ability the same way that pitch, rhythm, melody and other traits add up to something we call musical ability.

Facts can be taught
As an aspiring saxophonist, I know very well the limits placed on me by my lack of musical genes. I’m also envious of how my more naturally talented friends learn faster and achieve more than I ever will. This helps me when I’m coaching executives with responsibility for strategy. If my subject is innately talented as a strategist, then I can stretch them with advanced methods so they can lead their colleagues. If my subject has talents equivalent to my limited musicality, I can help them be an effective supporter of the strategy process. Just like music, everyone has some potential and the trick to realising it in full is to teach to that person’s abilities, rather than strategy by rote. If this sounds analogous to personalised medicine, that’s because it is.

No cookie cutters
This personalised approach may be common sense but it’s not common practice. Most firms use short, standardised strategy courses. To make it worse, those courses are often neither industry specific nor, despite claims, tailored to the company’s business model. This ‘cookie cutter’ approach ignores the differences between individuals, the characteristics of our industry and the dissimilarities between companies within our industry. No wonder they so rarely achieve their goals. Great strategists and their supportive colleagues are born different and should be raised individually.

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at

8th August 2022

From: Research



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