“Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War


The history of strategy and strategic thinking has ancient roots. In its infancy, it was applied to war – as exemplified by Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Genghis Khan. Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general, penned The Art of War at least as early as the 5th century BC to document his war strategies for the king. Some 1,000 years later, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, often referred to as the ultimate treatise on power politics, as a strategic guide for rulers. The insights contained in these writings still form the basic primers for contemporary students of strategy as applied to war and politics.

Strategic management in business and commerce is a more recent study, and has become more critical as a formal organizational discipline, as both local and global competition intensify.

The 20th century witnessed a dramatic investment in research and studies by universities, foundations and corporations in developing strategic management models for business applications. Emerging from this period were well-known strategy gurus such as Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, Ram Charan and Jim Collins.

CAs in public practice have often provided clients with business advisory services that are strategic in nature. CAs in industry are increasingly asked for strategic input. Being a strategic advisor has become more of a necessity than something that is ‘nice to have’. Are CAs up for the expectations of the marketplace?

Understanding strategy

So what is strategy? Henry Mintzberg, who developed the ‘5 Ps for Strategy’, notes that strategy is simply planning a consciously intended course of action. Michael Porter says ‘Strategy 101’ is about choices: you can’t be all things to all people. He argues that you should focus on your uniqueness and how you position this uniqueness vis-à-vis pricing, your product or service and your (niche) markets. ‘Who we are’ and ‘What we do’ are the basic questions an organization must answer in order to determine its highest level strategic directions. The importance of the resulting vision and mission statements is often underestimated.

From these, all other decisions, policies, practices and tactics take their cue. For some organizations, these statements are vague or even nonsensical in a strategic context, leaving employees wandering in a tactical vacuum. These mission statements are often distilled into slogans reflecting the corporate vision such as GE’s ‘We Bring Good Things To Life’ or one of my own favourites – the ‘We Get It’ statement of White Oaks Conference Resort & Spa. Is there likely any equivocation from employees and staff with a statement of purpose like this?

Larry Ginsberg, FCA, has a consultancy practice which focuses on strategic advisory services. When asked why strategy fails, he says: “The most common mistake that is made when creating strategy is not involving as many people as possible in the process. This leads to not receiving input from those closest to the customer and ultimately to a lack of commitment from all those individuals not involved in the actual setting of the strategic direction. Intelligent senior managers know when decisions have already been made and they are just being asked to follow.”

Clearly, employee buy-in is critical and difficult HR decisions are often required. Other reasons on Ginsberg’s list for why strategy fails include:

  • Ineffective communication throughout the organization
  • An inability of the organization to see change coming due to a lack of proper systems
  • Not speaking with customers
  • Overestimating or underestimating the organization’s resources and competencies
  • Lack of focus by senior management
  • Inability to deal with ambiguity
  • Following other competitors instead of differentiating oneself in the marketplace
  • Management not dealing with reality
  • Not balancing all the activities necessary to implement a given strategic direction
  • Believing that a resource allocation planning session is strategic planning

The CA as strategist

Developing high-level mission/vision statements all the way down to setting basic operational policies and procedures are critically important functions of management. And CAs are in the thick of it as part of the management team or as advisors to management. We spoke to a few CAs to find out more about their roles in developing and executing strategy. Keith Martin, CA, is Chief Operating Officer for The Roberts Group Inc., a Kitchener-based multi-trade industrial and commercial contractor. Wearing both the CFO and COO hats for the company, he found the transition to operations and strategy quite natural. “I understand the numbers and, most importantly, how the numbers are influenced by external business conditions and internal decisions. For these reasons, it is imperative that I be part of the strategic deliberations and contribute to the overall strategic design.”

Lisa Saunders, CA, is managing partner of Elements LLP, a boutique, 20-person CA firm in Toronto. “Our firm’s philosophy is to be a business partner to our clients. Many of them are small business owners and entrepreneurs who have great ideas and the passion to commit to them. We give them direction, expertise and strategy to fill in the gaps that neither they nor their team bring to the table. They especially value our business judgment, experience and understanding to complete the picture and ensure their success.”

What does it take to be a good business strategist and advisor? Saunders explains, “These relationships require that we be good listeners so that we fully understand circumstances and challenges, encourage when necessary and suggest course corrections when things go off-track. Often we simply remind our clients to remember who they are and what they want to accomplish, and the plan we developed together on how to get there.”

Becoming a master strategist

The CA academic requirements are broad-based. Business undergraduate and graduate programs require a mix of business disciplines. The apprenticeship nature of obtaining practical experience ensures exposure to many seasoned business professionals, mentors and role models. Work experience with different companies, different functional areas within companies, and often different industries, is the norm. CAs have chosen the profession because of the legendary on-the-job learning experience, both pre and post-qualification. The result is both a broad-based business understanding and an appreciation of the details.

CAs are entrepreneurial by disposition and by choice. Some firms operate at warp speeds and offer the ultimate adrenaline rush for the entrepreneurially minded. Bringing this experience and entrepreneurial flavour to the companies they advise or the companies they work for is a natural phenomenon. How then does one become a Master Strategist? Larry Ginsberg suggests that, firstly, to create strategy, “You should be creative, innovative, inclusive and team-oriented, and possess a basic grounding in strategic theory and contemporary thinking on the subject. I suggest you read Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategies, Peter Drucker’s The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization and Bossidy, Charan and Burck’s Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done for starters.”

The task of executing strategy can be more challenging and Ginsberg suggests that “open communication channels – up and down and laterally – and the delegation of empowerment and accountability, while remaining focused, are critical to success. There also needs to be a balance between strategic direction and execution reality.”

Rod Barr, FCA, the Institute’s President and CEO, was formerly a partner with Deloitte. He spent almost 40 years with the firm serving clients in three countries and several cities. During this time he has seen massive change in business, markets and industries, and the evolution of the CA in response to these trends.

“The CA experience is a great incubator for developing strong business IQ,” Barr says. “Balanced with rigorous academic requirements, clients, corporate Canada and the public recognize the competencies and capabilities of CAs. The business and strategic advisory role is an important one during these challenging economic times, and CAs are well positioned to excel in this role.”

Becoming a master strategist may be the difference between organizational success and failure. To be effective in the role requires a mix of competencies, and having a CA background is certainly an advantage.


Guest contributor Robert Gagnon, CA, Associate Director, Professional Development, oversees the Institute’s Executive Programs. For those interested in learning more about this topic, The Master Strategist program is offered November 14 – 17, 2010.

Article appeared in The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario’s CHECKMARK magazine Winter 2010.