Over the years I’ve discovered that nonprofit executives and board members typically fall into two main categories: those who are boldly aspirational and those who are decidedly tactical. The first focuses on the big idea and its power to move people. They are lofty, passionate and effervescent. To the operationally-focused person they appear to dodge the important nuts and bolts. On the other hand, the executive whose natural talents lie in operations and the ability to get things done (often in spite of their visionary peers), are naturally challenged to let go and dream big. They seek the known. Their tendency to quickly dive into the weedy details is off-putting to the visionary.

Unfortunately there can be little in common between these divergent thinking styles and they often frustrate the heck out of each other. They use different language, or interpret a common term in opposite ways, and don’t know how to create the connective tissue that binds the two important orientations together.

BridgeWhat is the bridge? Strategy. The essence of strategy lies in charting the unknowns – where the industry is going to be, what customers will need (and demand) in the future, what donors will expect, and how the community will be doing. It also rests in a clear articulation of how the organization uniquely meets its customers’ needs in ways that rivals can’t or don’t. The strategist navigates unknowns and uncertainties. S/he keeps her eye on the 3-5 year horizon as she leads the development of a clear strategy – an articulation of what the organization will focus on over the next 3-5 years based upon well-founded decisions about the objective to be achieved, the scope within which it will work, and the competitive advantage to be leveraged.

I’m a big believer in the power of a strategy statement as described in the classic Harvard Business Review article from 2008 – Can you say what your strategy is? – by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad. It is my go-to resource in this work and cannot recommend it strongly enough.

As a consultant I’m often the bridge builder – the strategy seeker – bringing together the operationally- and aspirationally-oriented executives. This bridge building is iterative. It takes time to spark a ha’s, establish common language, and build a team of executives focused on the same thing – future strategy.