Can you imagine a football game where there is no playbook and the quarterback doesn’t call plays? Wide receivers and running backs would be running chaotic routes, the quarterback wouldn’t know where to throw and linemen wouldn’t know where to block. Or imagine a construction site—with all the building supplies, the electricians, plumbers, and carpenters on site—but no blueprint or general contractor. It’s pretty easy to see in these scenarios the turmoil that would result—and how the odds of success would be greatly challenged. These scenarios illustrate the paramount importance for companies to have a solid strategic plan in place to run operations, coordinate performance and enable success.

After getting my MBA with an emphasis in marketing, the first 15 years of my career were spent in Fortune 500 companies (Frito-Lay/PepsiCo, Quaker Oats, and Cadbury Schweppes). These companies are known for exceptional management and outperforming their peers. They teach and preach strategic planning, with a laser focus on measuring against goals, as their competitive advantage. The proof is in the pudding! Over time, these companies’ performance, market share and growth all testify to the importance of strategic planning to drive performance. My tenure with these companies afforded me an exceptional opportunity to learn, observe, participate and lead “best practices” in strategic planning.

Over the next 14 years of my career, I left Big Corporate and started my own consulting company. I worked for a diverse group of clients including Fortune 100 companies, smaller companies, privately-held companies and start-ups across a broad range of industries. In particular, it’s been very rewarding to apply the best practices I learned in strategic planning to help smaller companies and start-ups upgrade their formal strategic planning processes, accelerate teamwork and markedly drive performance.

As a consultant, I love working with small companies and entrepreneurs. When I get a call to work with one, I get pretty fired up. But with introspection, perhaps my passion in working with small companies is rooted in a bit of selfishness. First, the unbridled passion, optimism and grit/determination you find are contagious. It’s like a shot of adrenal! And secondly, I believe it’s here where I’ve really made some of the biggest contributions and made a real difference.

Most entrepreneurs and small company CEOs are among the most passionate—and busy– people you’ll find. They eat, sleep and breathe their vision. They are involved in every aspect of the company and are subject matter experts on their product, the customer, the competition. They are dizzyingly agile, having to pivot quickly throughout the day, wearing countless hats to get the job done.

But the urgent demands on their time, from needing to be in the marketplace to “make something happen,” to their need to handle non-stop problems du jour, makes it nearly impossible for them to get “offline” to do serious strategic planning. As a client once explained it to me: “It’s hard to think long-term and strategically when you’re constantly on the front line, with bullets being fired at you!” That’s a great analogy. In warfare (and bigger companies) there usually is a separation between the generals and the foot soldiers, the executives from the front-line employees. But when there isn’t a delineation—when the same person or team has to execute and plan at the same time—the urgent and tactical usually trumps the long-term and strategic.

“It’s hard to think long-term and strategically when you’re constantly on the front line, with bullets being fired at you!

The end result is some form of hybridized strategic planning. In my experience, this hybrid “plan” varies from a half-done formal plan (there just hasn’t been the time to complete it and disseminate it throughout the organization), to a “to do” list of important, longer-term tactics, to a “mental plan” in the CEO’s head that he/she just hasn’t had the time to formalize on paper.

But as illustrated in our opening examples, the odds of long-term success will be vastly improved with a formal strategic plan in place to synchronize priorities, goals, communication, performance and resources across CEO and managers.

So what to do? The CEO wants a solid plan in place, but just can’t carve out the time. Nor can he/she afford to hire another full-time manager. The solution is OUTSOURCE the planning in the short run—and work mid/long term to get the strategic planning process wired into the standard operating procedures and culture of your company as soon as possible.

In selecting a consultant to help, CEOs and senior leaders should keep these things in mind when selecting the right consultant:

Solid leadership experience in strategic planning. Make sure the consultant has actually done and led the strategic planning process at a senior level. They should be subject matter experts that have a proven track record in comprehensive planning (across sales/marketing, supply chain, operations, finance, etc.) and achieving business results. There’s a big difference in someone who has set sales quotas, qualified target customer lists to exceed sales goals and someone who has led cross-functional strategic planning.

Strategic planning experience at a company your size. Sometimes, experience doesn’t necessarily translate. Strategic planning at a Fortune 100 company is a very different exercise than at a company with 15 employees and under $5M in sales. While the overall thought process in strategic planning is a discipline, there is a big difference in the complexity and resources available between corporations and small companies. Choose a consultant that has done planning at your level.

Hire someone you’re comfortable with personally. There will need to be a lot of candid and transparent conversations. You need to hire a consultant that you feel comfortable with and that you “sync up with.” Ask for referrals to ensure others can attest to the consultant’s effectiveness and integrity.

Hire a consultant that can “teach you to fish.” Find a consultant that has the experience and bandwidth to help you through the entire process—from writing a formal plan, to using it as a “compass” to make decisions and measure performance, to developing your company’s own strategic planning process and helping get it integrated and “wired” it into your standard operating procedure and culture. Consultants should work with you to understand your needs and recommend a customized process that solves your specific strategic planning needs. These services should include workshops with leadership teams to finalize/write a plan, quarterly checkpoints with the management team to monitor progress against the strategic imperatives and goals, and workshops with management to help revise the plan based upon changing market conditions.

Blue Skies Strategy Coaching welcomes the opportunity to discuss your strategic planning needs—and to see if we’re the right solution for your team.