Picture of executive with pen and blank paper - Headline "The power of an executive with a blank sheet of paper"

The Power of an Executive with a Blank Sheet of Paper

Many years ago, I was working with the accounts team of a mid-size corporate client to develop a Strategic Chart of Accounts.  Having collated all the inputs, I was sitting with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) who was my client when he said in a very embarrassed tone “I do not understand – maybe I am stupid” – a comment I have heard from many executives who are afraid that admitting a lack of comprehension is in some way a declaration of incompetence.

I pressed in on this because after all this was his Chart of Accounts; if he did not understand it then we were embarked on a pointless exercise. In the past when encountering this sentiment, I had pressed on and, looking back, generally achieved a sub-optimal outcome. Thus, I have learned that if a solution concept does not make sense today it is not likely to make sense tomorrow. If the person it does not make sense to is sponsoring a key project, we have a recipe for executive opt-out (as opposed to executive custody) and that is a road to disaster.

So I suggested we open a clean
spreadsheet and start from scratch

So this time, I did something different. I said “this is important, I need to understand why you say that, and we are not moving forward until I’ve grasped your concern and we have a solution you entirely understand and are satisfied with“.

So I suggested we open a clean spreadsheet and start from scratch.

The power of an executive with a blank sheet of paper

It was an interesting experience.

The CFO pushed back hard. He was concerned he was wasting time and, by implication, money.

I pointed out that the work we had already done served as a brainstorm list, and that we would go through the whole list in due course to make sure that all the information we had gathered was retained in the final Chart of Accounts design.

Finally, I managed to persuade him to start with a clean slate.

We examined the principles of taxonomy design, the emphasis on strategic (thrive) decision support, putting the most strategically important information at the top of the list, aiming for about seven items at any level in the hierarchy.

In one day, we captured the entire high-level structure of the key elements of the Chart of Accounts design and, most importantly, the client was enthusiastic about what we were creating. The CFO could now see how what we were creating would support executive information and decision-making.  His view of the business and its strategic priorities were being accurately reflected.

The CFO was excited!

Over the years I have learned that this principle of an executive with a blank sheet of paper applies to a diverse range of topics from architecting a new piece of software to developing a comprehensive long term strategic plan. The art is to harness the combined wisdom (knowledge and experience) of the people on the team – to co-create something that is the integrated, holistic synthesis of their collective knowledge and experience of the subject matter.

Executives are the custodians of the thrive (strategic) view of the business

Executives hold the integrated holistic view of the business, its customers and markets, its suppliers, its personnel, its future direction. Consequently, it is the executive team that are the custodians of the strategic executive (thrive) view of the business and they are the stakeholders who should define how the business is modelled strategically.

Empowering and equipping executives to craft the high-level definition of the strategic plan is of cardinal importance. Learn more about our strategy workshops where we facilitate you to do just that.

The CFO could now see how what we were creating would support executive information and decision making

In part 2 of this article, I will outline the approach that we use in strategic planning and tactical analysis that is based on the principles above and which you can apply in your planning.  In fact, this approach is valid in a wide variety of organizational endeavors.

In the meantime, we welcome an opportunity to get on a Zoom call with you to discuss how we can assist you. Contact me at james@the-strategy-doctor.com to arrange a time that suits you.


Dr James A Robertson

James A Robertson and Associates