Be the CEO not the COO: finding space for vision-making [Opinion]

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A whopping 70.6 percent of entrepreneurs in MENA say it’s difficult to balance daily operational work and fire-fighting with strategy work - half of whom say it is “very difficult”.

That’s the response I received upon polling the experiences of seasoned (3 years+) entrepreneurs in the region.

Running a company is not for the faint of heart, and although you get sucked into the vortex of day-to-day details you still have an obligation to keep a grip on strategy.

“Operations is what feeds you today and strategy is what will feed you tomorrow; so the key challenge is that you actually need both,” is what Robusta Studio cofounder Hussein Mohieldin Amanallah told me.

The challenges to getting strategy done

The two components of getting strategy work done are dedicating time for it, and isolating yourself to focus on it.

In my talks with 17 seasoned entrepreneurs, I found that ‘time’ was the prevailing challenge.

“Strategic thinking takes a lot of deep focus and reflection as well as time to rationalize and digest available data that would enable me to take the right decisions to move the company forward. Finding time to do all of that and give it the necessary focus is difficult since I always have the day-to-day issues at the back of my mind”, said Cultark founder Moataz Kotb.

Which takes us to the next challenge, finding the right employees to whom you can delegate daily tasks, an issue that was heavily addressed by the entrepreneurs I polled.

The caliber scarcity, talent migration and fluid nature of operations in a startup make it extremely challenging to attract the right people, who are capable and flexible enough to carry your company’s load with you.

Over and above, another more subtle challenge is communication, better explained by Splus Marketing Strategies cofounder Karim Taha as “cascading the strategy [to your team] and making sure [everyone] has a close perception of [it]”.

You must make sure everyone sees eye-to-eye when nurturing and executing your company’s strategy.

As the head of the company it's your job to manage strategy, the creation of and the implementation. (Image via Voofoo Studio)

How to push aside the nitty-gritties and do the vision

There are a few techniques to help overcome these challenges, but none of them is a slam dunk. Use what works for you and drop what doesn’t.

1. Make time for strategy.

Do it on a weekly basis at the office from 7am to 9am or on the weekend, or do all strategy and analysis work at night after the emails and phone calls calm down, or perhaps by taking regular retreats. It really depends on how you approach big issues in your life: fix it within your daily routine, or let it grow organically by contemplating it in your ‘free’ time.

Personally, I have a hybrid method:

  • I let things evolve organically and subconsciously in the back of my mind.

  • When they become vivid enough, I start actively thinking about them and discussing them with others.

  • Once they become actionable, I go into lockdown to focus until I’m done.

2. ‘Projectize’ your strategy work.

“[Break] the strategy into very short term tasks so as to make sure things are being done; and as a mental reward, you [feel good for] accomplishing something and moving forward,” said Mostafa Ashour, cofounder Khayal and Tryvin.

I’ve had more success delivering strategic work by transforming it into projects with distinct deliverables: slides, spreadsheets, designs, etc. In other words, I define certain outputs for said projects. For example, a blog post about my deep dives into product data analysis, like finding the aha-moment of Iqraaly here and here.

3. Present your findings to the team or stakeholders.

Never underestimate the power of social and peer pressure, especially if you are trying to maintain an image of leadership with your team.

If you are deadline oriented or are mostly driven by urgency, holding meetings to present strategy ideas should do it for you. You can also engage other team members with assignments that feed into your deliverables.

4. ‘Sacred’ regular meetings and workshops.

Integreight cofounder Amr Saleh prefers “monthly meetings to focus on the [bigger] pictures, and weekly meetings to see [their] updates”. This is one of the more practical all-in-one ways to manage the development, execution and effective cascading of a live strategy within your team.

Dedicate the longer, less frequent meetings or workshops to ponder and reflect. The shorter, more frequent meetings in between should focus on managing the execution. The weekly operations meeting is an awesome tool everyone should use. Combined with monthly or bi-quarterly meetings to address the big picture makes you quite unstoppable.

5. Do your strategy work offsite.

A hack I always use when I have an overwhelming task ahead of me that requires isolation and concentration, is doing it in a new(ish) place. With the abundance of work-friendly cafes and coworking spaces, these places are easy to find nowadays.

Changing the venue helps get people out of their daily fixations. Just make sure you remove the operational distractions from your offsite work, otherwise you have just changed the scenery for you and your team.

6. Delegating.

Optimally, within a team of cofounders the CEO owns the strategy, its development, refinement and delivery. It is part of being the leader of your company, not just managing it.

“It's a process: start by enhancing the operations through empowering [your] people, then start getting out of operations bit by bit and focus more on [the] strategic,” said Axeer Studio cofounder Abdulrahman Khedr.  

I advise you to look into the age-old art of situational leadership. I’ve tried it many times throughout the years, and it works.

Finally, my friend Ashour at Tryvin said it best: “I have observed that relatively mediocre teams with a solid enforced strategy usually outperform talented teams lead by [strong] but tactical leaders. Understanding where you are going and constantly checking that your direction is correct is of paramount importance.”

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