Strategic Planning Is More Than A Dusty Three-Ring Binder!

A distributor’s experience in strategic planning for leadership succession

I doubt there is a single manager in our gases and welding industry who has not attended a seminar or been forced to read a book on the topic of “strategic planning.” It’s such a buzz phrase nowadays, ranking right up there with “quality control,” “zero defects” and “mission statements.”

But to many of us who have completed exercises in these improvement trends, the sole surviving memento from the experience is an untouched three-ring binder on a dusty shelf containing ideas never implemented and promises never kept. At best, hanging somewhere in the foyer or over the sales counter is a framed Mission Statement claiming that we “strive to exceed the customer’s expectations” or we are “compelled to be the best in our field.”

So why am I writing an article on a topic that sounds good but, in fact, evokes less excitement than doing the laundry? Because, if done properly with commitment, strategic planning WORKS! Not only does it work, it can save a failing company or propel an average company to new heights of greatness.

Let me give you a firsthand example of a company with no strategic vision, and then let’s look at that same company with strategic planning at work: my own company, founded over 90 years ago by my grandfather.

A Case Study of Indiana Oxygen
Walter Brant I was a bright, eager entrepreneur with an electrical engineering degree from Purdue and a little bit of venture capital. From scratch, he created Indiana Oxygen and remained at the helm for nearly 60 years. He rarely took vacations and was plugged into just about every facet of the business, from production to billing to ordering janitorial supplies. To Walter, he had earned the right to do things “his” way. Hopefully, the next generation would follow in his footsteps, but little or no thought was given to “strategically” planning an executive handoff or a program to nurture management talent from within the ranks.

The result was chaotic when Walter suffered a stroke in 1974 at the age of 87. Control of the business passed to Walter’s son, Robert, who was 57 years old! Fifty-seven is the age when most executives start buying retirement property and studying cruise pamphlets. Fifty-seven is NOT an age to start thinking about new management techniques! Fortunately, Robert Brant had the foresight to immediately begin to plan for his succession. I was the lucky designee. For several years, I challenged nearly every “sacred cow” policy in place at Indiana Oxygen. The result in some cases was a new way of doing things. In other cases, we reaffirmed that our “old” policy was still working just fine. In other words, we performed an internal “audit” of our business strategies.

The value of that “audit” never escaped my memory. Fast-forward to present day. Now I’m the one who is 57. Our company has enjoyed dramatic growth over the past 20 years and is operating more successfully than any time in its history. A happy ending? Not at all! It’s just the beginning of a new strategic planning segment; a time for more strategic vision.

Why Do Strategic Planning?
Let’s first of all agree that “strategic planning” is not a buzz phrase. It is simply “planning” your company’s future and creating a “strategy” to accomplish the plan. Simple. So why do it?

Assembling the troops and discussing our objectives is, at the very least, a step toward promoting communication within the organization. In the words of a business associate of mine, Jim Thorne, “The planning process allows the team to collectively create a clear business direction.” How confusing it would be if half of the team thought the company objective was higher sales at any cost, while the other half thought the mission was greater profits by controlling growth. By gaining a consensus on the company’s direction, you will: (a) face your entire team in the same direction, and (b) identify any dissenters in your midst who share contrary goals.

Five Key Steps for Leadership Succession Planning
  1. Determine if your company has a future.
  2. Hire a facilitator to work with your employees, without management present.
  3. Involve all employees in drafting a list of Core Values.
  4. Make a confidential list of prospective leaders and rank them.
  5. Implement a leadership development program for the top candidates in each leadership position.

The planning process also provides a critically important opportunity for the entire team: to be involved in the outcome. By involving your key team members, you most likely get the best of ideas and, simultaneously, gain their commitment! They become authors of the plan, and they have “skin in the game.”

An important by-product of the strategic planning process is the alignment of your key team members. No key player should be left on the periphery; involve everyone in the outcome. Assign various tasks so that each key player has an assignment and a date of completion and presentation at the next strategic planning meeting. There is no limit to the number of strategic planning meetings, since the process is ongoing. Each meeting serves as a chance to get key members together to be refocused and celebrate progressive accomplishments. These meetings become the best communication opportunities, too.

Key team members may be involved in the initial planning, but the implementation of the Strategic Plan is everyone’s responsibility. Your team will be tasked with enrolling all of your employees in a common cause.

Planning for Leadership Succession
Jack Welch, the famous General Electric CEO and author of the best-selling books Winning and Jack: Straight from the Gut, once wrote that “(choosing my successor) is the most important decision I’ll make. It occupies a considerable amount of thought almost every day.” And he said this NINE YEARS before he stepped down as GE’s leader!

Remembering the chaos in my own company when my grandfather suffered a stroke and passed the reins to an ill-prepared successor, I am committed to avoiding that mistake. Therefore, several years ago we created our own Strategic Succession Plan. We hired a facilitator (very important!) who was familiar with Indiana Oxygen and who had strong leadership qualities to maintain control of our sessions.

The first task in planning your future is to determine IF you have a future. We first asked ourselves: “Does our industry have a future?” The buggy whip manufacturers got a rude awakening when the automobile destroyed their future. What about our own industry?

Next, we asked ourselves: “Does our company have a future in this industry?” In other words: If the future looks different, is our company (and its ownership or top management) willing to make and invest in the necessary changes to remain competitive? If the answer is “no,” then selling the company now might be a good idea! But if the answer is “yes,” THEN you begin the strategic plan for the next generation of leadership.

Involving your employees is critical. Even better is having the facilitator work with your employees without you or your management team present. Tough to do, but critical for honest answers. Our facilitator was able to determine why our employees were with us instead of another company, and what they believed the company and its top management really believed and practiced. Finally, he tasked them to come up with their list of Core Values that they thought accurately represented the company and its culture. The result was a clearly defined set of values that they believe, and, by the way, our company’s top management readily adopted.

Once armed with a set of Core Values, the management team began to make a confidential list of prospective leaders from within the ranks who were identified with personal values consistent with the company’s core values. If the owner’s children were possible candidates, they, too, were added to the list.

Once the list was ranked, the process was started to implement a leadership development program for those top candidates in each leadership position with a takeover date set five years in the future.

Today, every employee at Indiana Oxygen knows about the Succession Plan and knows the approximate date. The exact names of the candidates have not been divulged, which gives us “wiggle room” if any candidate proves not to live up to the challenge.

We stress to our company that the strategic planning for leadership succession is much more than the owner’s retirement plan or a paved road for the owner’s kids to have a job. It is a process for leadership continuation. We recount the chaos that happened in 1974 when strategic leadership planning failed to take place, and we stress the importance of nurturing talent and sighting opportunities from within. The result is a motivated and eager team, all working for the same goal.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
97a_brantwally Meet the Author
Wally Brant is president of Indiana Oxygen Company, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, and on the Web at He served as GAWDA’s 2003-2004 President.