Be Your Own Strategic Consultant

By Amy Radishofski, Features Editor, Manufacturing.netTraining programs can help you revamp your workforce and improve your business, even if the economy is dragging down your bottom line.

While just about every company can benefit from the input of a strategic consultant, not all companies can afford to pay for one. What if you could be your own strategic consultant? Training can help you or your staff develop the skills necessary to improve your company.

The economy is generating a high degree of uncertainty for managers. It’s difficult to know what the next few weeks will look like, let alone trying to forecast for the next six months. And some industries, such as the auto industry, are facing market shifts. They have to plan to survive and thrive in an extremely difficult environment.

“Companies today need a robust plan that can take them from something like an incremental growth plan to more strategic thinking,” said Associate Professor of Professional Practice Hitendra Wadhwa of the Columbia Business School.

To serve as their company’s own strategic consultant, Wadhwa says managers must be able to define a particular business problem, and be able to structure it and break it down into key issues that can be prioritized. Then they must be able to collect and analyze data before generating recommendations. They also must be able to get the rest of their team onboard with their ideas.

He identifies three areas where educational training can be beneficial to strategic planning and to a company’s overall health:

  • Looking at logic -- Decisions must be based on facts, and not just opinions or emotions. Managers can learn how to observe a problem, mitigate the negative consequences of being opinion-driven, and evaluate the options.
  • Handling complexity -- Managers are often faced with complex problems that must be solved in a short period of time. They must be able to research and cut to the core of the issue quickly and be able to balance their efforts with overall efficiency.
  • Dealing with conflict -- There will always be different points of view, whether it’s between a manufacturer and a retailer, or members of the same team. Managers need to know how to navigate through those kinds of conflicts and come up with strategies that can gain support from diverse groups. They need to be persuasive and be able to build trust among those diverse groups.

“The economic downturn is highlighting the necessity for companies to be as strategic and efficient as possible, but these are ‘evergreen skills’ for managers that can be beneficial in both good times and bad,” Wadhwa said.

In his Strategic Problem Solving course, Wadhwa presents the class with business scenarios and asks how they would approach and solve a particular problem. The class discussion leads to best practices that they can apply to real problems in their companies using their tool kit -- which includes a reference binder and other tools that students can use in their companies.

And students aren’t just focusing on analytical skills. Wadhwa says math and logic are important, but they won’t get you far if you can’t work with your team.

“Managers should focus on interpersonal skills and effective communication,” he advised. “Coming up with a plan is only half the solution. You need the support of your team and others within the company in order to implement it.”

Wadhwa notes that companies should avoid having a myopic view and should not be so quick to cut training budgets. He says companies need to focus on the bigger picture instead of relying solely on immediate returns from budget cuts.

“Training can lead to long-term success, while cutting training budgets can provide only a short-term boost,” he said.

“Downturns provide an opportunity for companies to take advantage of training programs,” added Troy Eggers, Associate Dean, Columbia Business School Executive Education. “You still have to manage your operations in both good times and bad.”

According to Eggers, training is particularly useful for companies that have had to downsize.

“You have employees that are taking on extra responsibilities and duties as a result of losing other personnel,” he said. “You could turn training into best practices in that sort of situation, and you have employees that are ready to learn.”

Moreover, training fits in with the lean and continuous improvement mindset that companies rely on regardless of the economy. You focus on improving the efficiency of your operations, so why not work on the efficiency of your workforce?

Columbia Business School’s Executive Education nondegree open-enrollment programs address individual development needs in leadership, strategy, marketing, and finance. For more information, visit http://www4.gsb.columbia.edu/execed

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