At the beginning of each new quarter and each new year, it’s vital for thought leaders to reevaluate their business.
What goals did you set at the end of the last quarter or year? Are you hitting those goals? What’s prevented you from doing so, and how can you improve your business’s performance next time?
All of these questions are valuable, so we’re taking it back to the basics of business strategy.
Here to lend his expertise and answer the question, “What is a business strategy, anyways?” is business strategist expert, speaker, and coach Alex Brueckmann.
Author of “Secrets of Next Level Entrepreneurs,” Alex stresses that, though many people group “strategic planning” into one term, it’s actually two with “strategy” referring to your vision and long-term thinking and “planning” what you do based on that vision.
With that in mind, this episode is jam-packed with ways you can better strategize and plan in your own thought leadership business.
Let’s get into it!
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Intro: You know those moments when you’re doing what you love in your business, maybe it’s standing onstage or creating content, whatever it is, you’re totally immersed and time just seems to slip by? This is called the Flow State. At Speaker Flow, we’re obsessed with how to get you there more often. Each week we’re joined by a new expert where we share stories, strategies, and systems to help craft a business you love. Welcome to Technically Speaking.
Taylorr: And we made it another episode and a reappearance by a wonderful friend of ours. Alex, thank you for joining us for round two. A glutton for punishment, I see.
Alex: Hope you have your boxing gloves on.
Taylorr: Yeah. All right, throw some fists.
Austin: Let’s go.
Taylorr: Let’s do it. Oh, man, it’s good to see again, I’m glad we could arrange this.
Alex: Absolutely. Thanks for having me back on the show.
Taylorr: Yeah, for sure.
Austin: It’s our privilege. I have to point out the cat, what’s happening with the cat back there? Is it ferocious? Is it a happy cat?
Alex: It’s a yawning cat. It’s actually our cat that we left in Germany when we moved to Canada. It’s one of those short nose cats and flying is not really, you never know whether they make it alive. So, my wife’s sister’s family adopted the cat, but from time to time.
Taylorr: Oh, that’s good to hear.
Alex: Take a look at the picture. Makes me smile.
Taylorr: Yeah, for sure. No, I love it. Good conversation starter too.
Taylorr: Yeah, for sure. So, okay. Alex, super excited to unpack your genius here again today. What’s interesting is you have, not one, but two new books coming out this year. One just launched, it sounds like; now, I can barely manage to brush my teeth every day. So, how in the world did you manage to crank out two books this year, what’s that journey been like?
Alex: Yeah, when someone publishes a book or let alone two, it looks like they’ve been super productive, but that is just not the truth most of the time.
Taylorr: Oh, yeah.
Alex: These books come to life over a long period of time. For example, the book that will come out this fall, I started writing the book in 2020 and it just takes a lot of time to sit with content, to rework it, to find the gold nuggets in it, strip away everything else. A good book takes a long time to write, because it’s not just about writing down what you have in your head, it’s about refining it, reshaping it, and making every page a full meal. If you read a book that is like, oh my gosh, get to the point, then this has not been done.
Every book that you read and you’re like, oh my gosh, I can’t wait, it’s a page turner and you just keep on going; this is a book that has seen a ton of work. So, it’s not that I sit down and crank out one book after the next, the fact that both of them come out in one year is a pure coincidence.
Taylorr: Yeah, great. Wow, that’s a good lesson.
Austin: Yeah, I’m a fan of the way that you think about this. It’s funny too, I feel a sense of humility that comes along with that because there are so many people that write a book and then all they talk about for the next year and a half is how they just slaved away to make that book happen. And the way you just described it was more organic, you know? It happened at the pace that it was supposed to happen, not at the pace of whiplash speed. I feel like that’s how it should be, really.
Alex: I agree.
Austin: Yeah. Plus you have time to think about it at a more refined output than you would get if you were to just try to get it done on a deadline. Anyway. So, look, you’ve been on the show before, so there are some listeners here that already are familiar with you and what you do and the work that you’ve done and so on. So, I’m not going to have you repeat the whole story that you’ve told on this show before about how you’ve come to where you are. Listeners, if you are not familiar with Alex’s work, you should be; definitely go listen to our first episode together, it was glorious. You definitely get to see him be the genius that he is.
However, let’s definitely get on the same page here, maybe to break the ice and get into the meat and potatoes of this conversation. Tell folks, what is the outcome that you want for the world through your work, and specifically how is that becoming actualized through these two books that, the first one has come out, second one is about to come out.
Alex: That’s a loaded question and a deep question, let me answer it, not in a five minute monologue, but let’s try and make this precise. The impact that I want to have is rooted in my personal experience when my father, in his fifties, lost his job and then later when I was helping to restructure a million dollar company; again, a ton of people lost their jobs. And when you take a look at these cases, the reason for people losing their jobs is often simply strategic mistakes made by management. And I want to avoid that.
People lose their jobs on a large scale. That’s why I do what I do. That’s what made me go into strategy consulting. That’s what made me go into executive education, combining the skills that I honed over the past 15, 20 years with this personal experience of securing jobs, growing businesses, rather than being complacent and letting things go down the drain and then cutting jobs, because if you have to cut jobs, it simply means you’ve done something wrong in the past. And that often is the case when companies don’t have a clear picture about what is it that they want to build; therefore, invest in too many, let’s say uncritical aspects of the business. This then depletes the resources which are not available for the strategically important investments. And then you have to divest. And that often comes with people losing their jobs.
Taylorr: Yeah, for sure. Beautifully said, extremely precise. Do you find with strategic planning, they’re just not clear about the direction they want to head? Or is it there’s just no planning involved at all? The reason why I ask this, especially for larger companies, it seems, to some degree, they’re thinking about their future, their vision a little bit. What goes wrong in that, assuming that strategic planning is already in place, why didn’t it pan out? Is there a common reason you find?
Alex: It’s probably, in the term as such where the issue starts. The term strategic planning does unfortunately not make sense. Because you can either create a strategy or you can plan. Those things are completely different. When you create a strategy, you are opportunity focused, you’re customer focused, you look into the future, you want to build something, and just by the nature of it, you don’t have control over it. The reason that we plan is that we want control over cost. So, it’s a cost focus, it’s a control focus, planning and strategy are completely different things.
So, the term strategic planning is trying to give us a sense of security about what’s going to happen by planning the cost around what we’re trying to invest in. But that is not necessarily how strategy works. Strategy is a way to embrace the uncertainty of the future based on the best possible knowledge that you have about this future. But the fact that you cannot know about the future is kind of, this is where the disconnect happens. This is why you can’t say strategic planning because you can only plan what you know. Does that make sense?
Taylorr: Yeah, perfect sense.
Alex: And I think most companies.
Taylorr: I’ve never had that broken out.
Alex: Don’t do that. They don’t really dare to strategize because that means they need to embrace the unknown, they need to let go of what they grew up in. Meaning a corporate context where you plan cost, that’s what your budgets are, your annual budgets, and they are often derived from what companies call their strategy. But it is not a strategy at all, it is a cost planning, a budget planning, over a year or two or three. It’s not really a strategy that explores opportunity and embraces the unknown.
Austin: I feel like I have just expanded my understanding of how a business can go about creating their future. So, thank you for that. I feel like what you just described leaves a sense of impracticality to be explored because anybody could sit down and dream big, but that’s only useful if we can do something in reality with that. Where’s the bridge between these gaps or where’s the bridge that goes over this gap? However, that gets phrased.
Alex: When you talk strategy, you think about, let’s say a time horizon between something around two to five years, depending on the size of your business, depending on your scope, depending on your maturity. Let’s assume we’re talking five years, then you sit down and create a tangible vision of how the business should look in five years. And that vision needs to be precise, we’re not talking about a marketing claim or something you put on a website, it is something internal that gives you a sense of this is what we want to build. Then you break this down into how do I actually measure that we’re making progress toward that vision.
And once you understand what the measuring criteria are that indicate that you’re making progress, you need to figure out what the big bets are, the priorities, the strategic priorities in your business that will move the needle in the right direction. These are inherently bets because you just don’t know. That’s why you need to revisit your strategy in certain cycles. Some businesses do that every year, others do it more frequently. I strongly recommend to do it more frequently because a year is a long time and things change quickly these days. And then, at some point in time, you understand where you want to invest your resources in.
And based on that, you can create a budget and a cost planning, a cost structure. But you should not approach it from the budget perspective; you need to approach it from a strategic perspective. If you only come from the budget perspective, you’re trying to create the illusion of control over money and spending, which is true. This is how we grow up, right? This is how corporations work. They control spending and thereby create that illusion of control. But when we talk about building something new, we do not have this control. So, the planning comes after the strategizing, but the planning should not be confused with being strategic. The planning is the operational breakdown.
Taylorr: Yeah. Wow. What an interesting point you made with that.
Austin: One clarifying point here. I know you have some thoughts here too, T, but real quick, so, would you say that strategy and vision are somewhat parallel to each other? Or are they synonyms for the same thing?
Alex: In my upcoming book in October, I actually provided glossary because of that. Because these terms are being used interchangeably sometimes, and let’s be honest, there is no one solid definition out there, what things actually are in this context. When I use the terms vision and strategy, they are not interchangeable. Your vision is the definition. Imagine you could time travel five years into the future and you take a look at your business, you describe it, that’s what your vision is, the thing you want to build. And the strategy is your best guess of how prioritizing your resources in a proper way will get you there. So, it’s about ruthless prioritization. It’s about knowing why you do what you do and helping everyone in a business understand how they contribute to it. That is strategy.
Taylorr: Yeah. What a good distinction. So, let’s scale this down for the, a solopreneur, let’s say; or a super small team, let’s say less than five on average here. I think a lot of business owners, especially in our world, speakers, coaches, consultants; they have some degree of a vision in mind. It might not be written down, which we can talk about, but they have an idea of where they want to go. They may do some strategic planning and let’s assume that they’re doing things right, right? Let’s say they got a vision documented, they’re strategizing how to achieve that vision and they’re revisiting everything quarterly, which is kind of, at least from our perspective, pretty good cadence, right?
What we find happens in that scenario is when it comes to implementing that strategy, things can fall apart. The shiny objects happen, creating new things can happen. And I love what you said about ruthlessly prioritizing, I think that’s an important aspect of this. But how can somebody bridge that gap between, okay, I have that strategy and now I have to do the thing? How do people make that happen?
Alex: When you break down your vision into strategic priorities that will get you there, you already know what you need to do. Let’s take that example that you brought up. Let’s say you’re a solopreneur and you want to build a consulting practice or a coaching practice, and people often use numbers to define the size of their business. Let’s say you are somewhere in the high six figure rank and you want to scale it to, let’s say 3, 4, 5 million. You know what will get you there, you know it. It’s inside you. You’ve been in that business for some time.
You know how the business dynamics are in the industry and you know that you need to probably find different types of customers to make that jump from where you are today to where you want to be in the future. And that then means to break this down into actionable steps, and you need to understand what you can do yourself and what you can’t do yourself anymore. So, to grow a coaching practice to a 3 to 5 million business, there is no way you can do this with three or four people. You need a stronger operation, you need a bigger team.
So, that means your money will likely, first of all, go into investing into people, into a team that can make this happen. Tech can support, of course; but it can only bring you to a certain stage. And all of a sudden, we already broke down three priorities. It’s team development. It’s your offering needs to change and you need to invest into finding, let’s say a second or third type of customer that is able to deliver these revenues. When you, then, go into the details each of these streams like, team development, service offering and sales and marketing, you need to break these up and create very specific, smart, goal-specific project plans around these.
Now, planning is, as I already said, it gives you the illusion of control, that things are happening as you then implement. That’s why I need these regular reviews where you ask yourselves, where am I now? And wait a minute, what am I seeing now? What does my past success now enable me to do? There is a high likelihood that once you start planning and implementing that you all of a sudden realize that once you reach a new plateau, things and ideas come up that weren’t possible before, you didn’t even think about them, because it was just not possible to think about them in a realistic way.
So, reshaping as you grow and reshaping and asking yourselves all of the time, and I don’t want to use the term, agility, because it’s so overused, but in the end it is about continuously asking yourselves from where I am today, where can I accelerate the process toward my goal? So, you keep that vision, that goal, front and center. It’s kind of driving with your car on a dirt road and realizing, wait a second, there is a highway next to me. All of a sudden, you realize the highway will get me there probably faster, but how do you get from that dirt road onto the highway?
You need to build that bridge first or that entry point or however you want to call it. And once you’ve done that, all of a sudden, things are possible that weren’t possible before and that accelerates your growth, it accelerates the progress that you make toward that goal of 3 to 5 million for example.
Austin: Yeah. We see this theme arise out of so many different areas of improving a business and it sounds like it’s coming up here to some degree as well, but this idea of iteration. To do anything, to make any progress in any area, in any system, whatever you’re trying to create, it seems like you have to just take some actions and then intentionally pause and look around and they’re like, where the hell am I now? Did we go in the direction we want to? Am I closer to that goal? Am I further away from that goal? And based on that assessment, you make a few minor corrections and then move a little bit further in that direction.
Using your analogy of the highway next to the bumpy dirt road. Imagine the two roads are very different places and they slowly start to intersect and you have to stop and look around and say, oh, well, now I’m closer to that, so I can see over there that would be way easier. And you just have to make progress before that realization can even hit.
Alex: And the second point is that dirt road is likely what you’re familiar with. It feels good. You’re likely scared to even go on the highway. Because the dangers on the highway are different ones and you don’t know them yet. So, it’s not necessarily that you always embrace the opportunities that you see. There is something sometimes holding you back and it’s often fear-based; it’s, am I worthy enough? Am I good enough? Can I really play on that pitch or will I make a fool out of myself? So, there are a lot of saboteurs that can hold you back and can avoid that you do the thing you know you should do.
Austin: Yeah. Wow. Well, repeat that last five minutes everybody. Let’s take a tangent away from just strategy specifically, because I know this book that you’ve come out with, Next-Level Entrepreneurship, covers a few different areas and one of the areas beyond just strategy itself that we, sort of, zeroed in on when we were taking a look at it is this idea of creating profits through clever pricing, I think is what you describe it as.
Austin: So, what do you mean by that and how can it apply to our listeners?
Alex: So, these topics of strategy pricing, and then there’s a third topic of building sustainable businesses. They make up the first theme in the book, which is all around hard skills that you know you need but likely don’t have, because let’s be honest, who is a strategy expert? Who is a pricing expert? It’s not a typical subject that we grow up in and become better and better. But there are people that are, and we should tap-into their knowledge and into the essence of what they do. I’m not an expert in pricing. No way.
But I know people that are, so I brought in Professor Hermann Simon. He taught at the biggest schools and universities around the world, he’s the founder and honorary chairman of Simon-Kutcher & Partners, one of the biggest consulting businesses in the world. And he knows a thing or two about pricing, he’s the pricing guru. And he contributed a chapter around how can you as a small business owner, as an entrepreneur, somewhere in the growth stage, use the same systems and tools and systematic approaches to pricing that the biggest companies in the world use, but you do it in a way that it doesn’t really cost you money.
So, he, basically, explains how conjoint measurement works used by big car companies, for example, before they even launch a product, they know exactly why that product costs x. It’s absolutely clear, but conjoint measurement sounds really great, but if you break it down to a small business owner, it’s really about understanding how the separate aspects of your service and product delivery are seen in comparison to the price of the product compared to your competition. And that is actually really simple if you understand how it works. And he breaks it down beautiful in his chapter and he also contributes his 10 commandments of pricing in times of high inflation, which comes in very handy these days.
I’m super excited about this chapter because it is very, very actionable, it’s hyper-specific and it gives everyone a good understanding of how to use professional pricing approaches, even if you have no clue about strategic pricing.
Taylorr: Yeah. Wow. Man, I’m excited to dive into that a lot. And I think it’s cool that you were able to scale it down to even an individual, a small business can pick up on these what could be seemingly complex pricing models are like, and we don’t have to throw darts at a wall.
Taylorr: Just trying to figure out where the market is willing to pay for our services and we may not even have exposure to the right clientele and we’re not even thinking about the right pricing that could attract the right people, so that’s going to be super valuable. I also like how you bring contributors to the table, as you just said a moment ago, I’m not an expert in pricing strategy, but let’s bring those contributors who can help, I guess, bring entrepreneurs to the next level, hence the title. But I’m curious from your perspective, having so many contributors on the book, was there a specific aha moment you had from one of the contributions? What stands out to you from those contributions that really made you feel it came together, was there one that stands out?
Alex: When you read the book cover to cover, you will realize that it flows from essential hard skills that you’ll likely need as an entrepreneur, at some stage in your career. Well, you definitely need them. To how do you create impactful work cultures? So, the whole topic of leadership through times of disruption plays a role. And then the third theme is really about self-leadership, about self-care, about mindsets, about self-actualization, about achieving life balance. And those three themes, they are universally applicable to every entrepreneur out there, to every business leader out there, whether you work in a big business or in a small business.
So, reading the book from cover to cover could end up for you being, yeah, I get that, but that’s not for me right now. And that’s intentional. The book will probably stand on your shelf for some time and then you will be like, wait a minute, there was something in that book around that topic. And then you will go back to it because, all of a sudden, it matters to you. You’ve come to that point in your career, in your journey as an entrepreneur, as a corporate leader, where this topic, all of a sudden, is important to you. I’ll give you one example, the chapter around using your sustainability efforts to create new touchpoints with your clients and consumers of your services and products.
How do you actually do that? The topic of sustainability, social and environmental sustainability, it’s about to blow up into our faces and yet it’s the same topic, it’s the same with what we’ve seen over a decade now with digital transformation. So few people really understand what it means for their business and how they can use it for creating more business. Often when you talk to corporate leaders around the topic of digital transformation, they see it as a cost. They don’t understand that it’s not about doing digital stuff; it’s about becoming a digital business.
And the same is true for sustainability. It’s not about telling the world one thing and then doing something different. It’s about understanding how your supply chain, upstream and downstream, can either do good or do bad. And then you ask yourself, what can I do? How can I use my purchasing power? How can I use the legacy that I want to create, the impact that I want to have on the world and inform how I conduct business with my suppliers, with my customers? That is a chapter, for example, that will not necessarily be relevant to everyone at that point when they read it first, but it will be something that there’s no way around this topic for no corporate leader.
Taylorr: Yeah. No, what I like about this is it really ties back into the highway dirt road analogy, you know what I mean? I’m on a dirt road, I’m cruising it down, I have my blinders on, I can’t even see the highway, the highway’s a mile away. Eventually, I get down the dirt road, the highway’s a lot closer; I’m like, oh, look at that over there. And now the book is almost behaving as that guide as you reach these different milestones, which is a super unique take and it’s obvious you’ve thought about how this book should be used for the people reading it. And I can only have the highest respect for that, you know exactly how the book should serve your clients, which is super cool.
Austin: Yeah, I agree. We’re getting close here and we can’t finish this episode without talking about the next book that’s going to come out later in the year. So, we’re going to just pause on this book that just came out, everybody go check the description for a link to it. Go buy it. It’s a great book. Alex is awesome, that’s proven itself already. Let’s talk about this one that’s coming out later in the year, which is what, September right?
Alex: September, October, let’s see. Yeah.
Austin: Yeah, somewhere in there. Okay. The Strategy Legacy, I think it’s called. One of the main through lines from the synopsis that we saw of yours is this framework of yours, the nine elements of organizational identity. I had to click on my notes, I’m not going to lie, but, yes; tell us about that framework. What is it? Why does it matter? How does it apply?
Alex: We already talked a bit about it when we touched the topic of what is a vision, what is a strategy. And there are seven more elements that get thrown around all of the time. And most people don’t have the guts to say, wait a second, I have no idea what that means. Can you please tell me what you mean? What do you mean when you talk about targets and goals and where’s the difference? And what is a management system? And when you talk about capability building, are we talking about leadership? Are we talking about soft skills? Are we talking about hard skills? What is that?
So, the reason why I brought this framework of the nine elements to life is that these things only make sense; these topics, these terms, only make sense when you approach them in a close framework, when you understand what they mean in a specific context. I’ll give you an example. I often work with large corporations with boards of directors and they’re sitting 5, 6, 10 people in a room and we start the conversation around a next three to five year strategy. These people have decades of experience. They come from different walks of life, they have seen different industries, they’ve read classic books about strategy, some of them at least.
And, all of a sudden, you try to use the term strategy in a room full of people where everyone has a different understanding about that term. You can probably imagine what that causes. Right from the get-go, people use the term strategy based on their individual understanding of what that is. You need to create a common understanding first, otherwise everyone is talking in their own bubble, and if you’re lucky, these bubbles overlap. But getting rid of these misconceptions and defining what these terms mean in your business, in your small business, in your corporation, is so fundamental. And once you’ve done that, you understand how they connect and how you can bring them to life through one process that touches these points at the right point in time.
So, when we talk about terms like purpose and impact, they have so many meanings, especially the term, purpose, has many layers of meaning for individuals, for corporations. And the question is this isn’t the right term anyway that should guide our thinking and how we work and what we see as our why as a business. Or is there a different concept out there? I’m discussing these questions in the book and give ideas. And then I actually describe the process from start to finish with specific exercises, who should be in there, how long should a workshop be, what are the tangible outcomes. I describe the entire process that I went through with some of my clients from start to end to create these nine elements of organizational identity in your business. So, it’s a framework and a process description of bringing these elements to life.
Austin: Okay, that makes lots of sense and I stand so much behind the idea of just giving people labels that we can all agree on. This is one of the biggest problems, we see this happen in technology, right? Where people describe the very different things with the same words and it can make it impossible to make any progress. When somebody’s asking me for one thing, I understand something completely different, I give them something that wasn’t even helpful, takes way longer to get to any meaningful outcomes and it can cause frustration and people feel like they’re not heard.
Even just the ability to get on the same page as the people that you’re trying to communicate with is so valuable. And especially with these, sort of, buzzwordy terms like strategy, where everybody thinks that we’re on the same page, but I don’t think that that’s the case very often. So valuable and being able to practically tie it in with exercises and stuff too, it’s the complete picture. So, thank you for creating that resource, I think the world needs it outside of anything else.
Alex: There even will be a toolkit available. So, once you’ve read the book, there will be a link in the book that gives you access to the exercises, to the exercise descriptions that I deliver in a toolkit for you. So, it’s something that is just not giving you ideas, it’s something that gives you hands-on advice and exercises that you can run in your business and really create these results that you want so bad. And if you’re not a strategy consultant or a facilitator, then you probably don’t have experience in how to achieve these results, so I think the book is a starting point.
The toolkit that comes at the backend of it is what can really change the game for you, because the process description and how I describe the book and how I wrote the book, my goal is not to give you anxiety about, oh my God, I have no idea how to do that. I want you to be able to run that process without investing in external resources a lot, so that you can actually have ownership from the get-go about these topics, which will give you a sense that it’s yours and, therefore, you will do something with it.
I’ve seen it far too often that when management consultants are done with a project and they hand over a 300 page PowerPoint deck and everyone’s like, yeah, that’s the, I don’t know, McKinsey strategy. They don’t even give that thing the name that it deserves, and that’s the problem. If you bring other people in to tell you what to do, to tell you how your strategy should look, there’s no ownership and that’s what the whole process should create for you.