How Steve Bowman defines being strategic

9 min read
May 8, 2023 8:51:56 PM

Recently, BoardPro had the opportunity to speak with Steve Bowman, the managing director at Conscious Governance. Bowman is well-known in the governance industry, having worked internationally across a variety of sectors Steven Bowman-1throughout his career. Having stepped back from his previous senior executive roles, Bowman now works from an advisory angle, offering consulting and insight with particular emphasis on strategic awareness. Conscious Governance is community-focused, working with executives and Boards to define their visions and promote sustainable growth through strategic leadership.

Previously, Bowman was the CEO of the Australasian Institute of Banking and Finance, the Finance and Treasury Association and Assistant Director of CPA Australia. He also served as a director of the American College of Health Care Administrators and as managing director for both the Expo Hire (Australia) Pty Ltd and Lifemastery. Bowman's diverse range of business experience gives him unique insight into the strategic side of the business, allowing him to parlay his skills into consultancy work.

BoardPro sat down with Bowman to discuss all things strategic awareness. He shared with us his thoughts on how companies can increase their strategic thinking and what changes they can make to become more strategic, both on an individual level and as organisations. 

Read on to delve into his unique insight on this pressing governance issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you define strategic thinking?

Rather than strategic thinking, I prefer to think of it as “being strategic”. When people talk about strategic thinking, it's something that you feel that you should be turning on, whereas my view is, 'What if we were actually being strategic in everything that we do?' 

I prefer to look at something as more about having the willingness to actually be strategic as an individual or as a group, and if we're willing to be strategic, we're aware of everything, and we're judging nothing.

If we're actually truly going to be strategic, we need to understand that every choice that we make creates the future. Understand the difference we want to make to the communities that we serve and how we are going to get there in the next two or three years.

Being strategic is always both now and into the future; what are the implications for us? And, what do we need to put in place now, which would make sense if this were to occur in three or four or five years' time? So always looking at it from that perspective, rather than taking a particular episode and saying, 'Let's think strategically about this.' There is a difference between being tactical and being strategic.

Q: So you said, be aware of everything and judge nothing. But how do you do that? How does an organisation, a team, or an individual make sure that it's actually a long-term solution that they're implementing or that they're thinking about and that it's not a short-term tactical one?

The origin of the word 'strategy' comes from an ancient Greek word ‘strategos,' which means 'general on the hill.' Tactical comes from the ancient Greek word ‘takticos’ that meant ‘the art of arranging.’ So the General on the hill identifies where things should be in advance of needing them (Strategy), and then as things occur, arranges them so they support the strategy (Tactics).

Looking at 'tactical,' a very good example has been the relatively recent COVID experiences, where Boards typically would meet more often, talking about tactics, what we do in the next month, and what we would do in the next week. The really good Boards never lost sight of their reason for being as an organisation, and the strategies required to get there, even when they were more focused on tactics.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders and managers really to keep everything in sync and also have that organisation and that leadership in order to shift between the two? I know it's not really a mode, necessarily, but two different ways of thinking.

To keep the leadership team and the Board really focused on the strategic side of things without losing sight of the day-to-day and the historical, there are two enormously powerful tools that everyone can and should use. And the first tool is the actual vision statement itself. It provides you with an indication of the future that you want to create.

Ensure that everyone in the organisation uses the vision statement to help keep them grounded about what's really important, from the receptionist right up to the chief executive. So what that means is that everyone then becomes aligned about why we're doing this. But they can also use their own talents and ability as individuals who are skilled in areas to actually look at the tactics of how we're going to get there.

There are only two types of vision statements. There are those that work and those that don't. How do we know ours works? Because we use it in everything, it provides us with a hugely powerful strategic focus in all that we do, whilst giving us immense flexibility in how we go about doing it.

The second tool to keep ourselves both strategic and make sure that we're doing the right sorts of things is a strategic plan. Now, most strategic plans are useless because they are a wishlist of all the great ideas that people have had; there's no rigour that has gone into asking, 'Are these the top three or four key things we've got to get right in the next two or three years that will bring us closer to this vision, to this outcome, to this difference that we want to make?'

And then the last thing is the outcome measures. 'Has this been worthwhile? Has it moved us closer to where we want to be?' And the whole notion of having your vision as your key strategic filter.

Q; Can you talk to me about being strategic at a personal level?

Being strategic as an individual is about being in the question, about everything functioning from a sense of curiosity, about 'What if?' and 'What have we missed?', 'What are the other ways?' and 'What's happening out there, into the future?' What if it has created real opportunities and advantages for us in ways we haven't even considered?

So this notion of individually being strategic is: your Board may be very unstrategic, but for the individuals that doesn't mean you can't be strategic as an individual, and you do that best by the questions that you ask and the points of view that you take. 

For those organisations, for example, start-ups, organisations that don't have a strategic plan, one of the best things you can do is to actually sit down as a Board with your senior executives to say, 'Well, here's our vision (or our purpose). What are these top two or three things in the next three years we absolutely have to get right that will enable us to move closer to that vision, that purpose?'

Q: Off the back of that, what do you think are the key characteristics of a strategic organisation?

A strategic organisation is constantly looking into the future, and there are a lot of ways that you can do that. 

You can get specialists coming into your Board meetings once or twice a year and talking about what they see as long-term potential issues in 10 years' time, and then the Board can consider that and look to see what implications, if any, that has on their strategic plan.

'What are the long-term impacts in terms of decision making? What are the long-term impacts in terms of being aware of strategic trends?' A good strategic organisation will constantly be looking for the future as well as keeping its pulse on the finger of how the operations of the organisation are going and able to pivot when they need to pivot and use the skills of their staff and their stakeholders to actually help them.

Q: How does an organisation or Board ensure that they are using the right data and consulting the right people to feed into that strategic thinking?

The data that is actually adding value to the deliberations and the conversations need to have its own voice. The next part is to then say, 'Now what strategic insights do we get from this data that enables us to leverage what it's telling us? Now, what are the strategic implications for us in three to five years? What do we need to start doing about it now?' It's only useful if it provides you insights.

So the best thing to do with that is to understand A) what is it that we have to collect? And then B) useful and interesting insights for us that would provide us with the ability to look into the future. That's all strategic information. So it's always looking at what the purpose of this data is and if it will give us strategic insights that help us create the future.

Q: You mentioned Boards before and how they do not have to wait for a pandemic necessarily to change their mode of thinking. But what role does effective governance play in creating a strategic organisation? And how can Boards and executives align on strategy and operating?

The true role of any Board, is not governance, it's not finance, it's not a strategy, it's not risk, it's not fiduciary oversight – they are all tools – the true role of the Board is to make the choices that create the future for the communities that we serve. 

Its reason for being is to make choices. How are those choices going to create the future? And then let's take into account the communities that we serve, our key stakeholders, whoever that might be.

Every Board that has that mindset can't help but be strategic. That then cascades through to the staff. The questions and the insights just cascade from that very simple [act of] making the choices that create the future for the communities we serve.

Q: You've obviously encountered a lot of organisations, for-profit, not-for-profit, start-ups, listed, all of it, internationally and at home. Can you provide some of your own examples of organisations that have successfully implemented a strategic approach? And what outcomes have they achieved as a result?

The Rural Workforce Agency Victoria's job is to promote, support and enhance the workforce in the health sector in rural and regional Victoria. 

They've had many decades of doing this and have been, until recently, unable to show any major change in the rural and regional workforce in health. And so what they did is they decided to change the question, asking, 'What can we do differently?' 

So they set up a separate Board committee called the Strategy and Stakeholder Engagement Committee of the Board. This Strategy and Stakeholder Engagement Committee has taken a long-term view, not a 3-year Strategic Plan. 

Now that to me is incredibly strategic, they're not necessarily expecting short wins, but they do have plans in place for what we're gonna do this year and next year. But they're also looking at, 'How do we change the mindset around this rather than doing what we've always done?' That has created a different mindset in the Boardroom.

Q: You said that the Board wanted to be strategic but that they didn't quite know how to. What is it that usually acts as the hurdle between someone wanting to be strategic but not knowing how to and someone being strategic?

So the single biggest obstacle to not knowing how to be more strategic is actually asking the question, 'How can we be more strategic?' 

Coming out of that, [recommendations to the] Board about how to be more strategic include things such as having external thought leaders coming once or twice a year to lead deep-dive sessions on strategic issues, things like getting your key staff in the organisation to a short 20 min presentation to the Board. What do they see as the top strategic implications In the next 10 years in their area of responsibility? That forces that staff member to start to think outside their day to day responsibilities and to start bringing some of their input. It is also very helpful to make sure that directors know how to ask strategic questions.

Q: Off the back of being strategic, how can organisations measure the success of their strategic initiatives? And what metrics should they be focusing on?

The first thing I would say is to make sure your senior executives have done some sort of training on impact measures. It's very easy to measure activity. It's also very easy to measure impact; it's different, though.

The second step would be to look particularly at the strategic plan and look to see the key performance indicators or the key measures of the activities in the strategic plan. So each of those activities should be aimed at creating the strategy itself, and the best way of creating a strategic measure is very simply to run through an iterative three-stage process. 

Stage 1: Describe what a great job would look like. 
Stage 2: How would we measure that. 
Stage 3: At what level would we be happy? 

And iterate these 3 stages until you get a success measure that shows you are starting to create the impact you wish.

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