Years ago I was working with a high-level technology executive to align my program’s direction with his over-all goals for the division. Since I worked for him, I needed his buy-in. His blessing could go a long way in providing legitimacy for our efforts and making it easier to get good work done. But I also wanted his advice. After all, he had accomplished a lot in his career and the chief benefit of my position was to learn from high-achievers like him.

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The core concept of the meeting was that there was that there was an near inifinite amount of work that could be done. What we were searching for was, given limited resources, what work should be done.

I had prepared for the meeting and had made a list of actions I thought we should take substantiated by all sorts of documentation and metrics. I had brought with me an insane amount of ancillary items so I could facilitate a discussion no matter which way it turned. I thought I was ready to rock! The only problem was that I had geared up for the wrong conversation.

How to Make Decisions Like a CEO

At the executive level I find the focus is on what is worth doing. After all, people in these positions have hundreds or thousands of people at their disposal, thus a lot of capacity to do things. But what is worth spending those precious, finite resources on? It is the ability to consistently and accurately make those judgement calls that they get paid the big bucks for. After a few years in this arena, I believe I’ve spotted a pattern to how they do it, and how everyone can apply it successfully in our day-to-day lives.


Each successful executive I have met takes the time to examine their field of operations and suss out a philosophy of action. That’s why you see devices like ‘Mission statements’ or ‘Flywheels’ or all other abstract-level communication devices come out of these offices.

The first step is to identify an ideal end state; be it a self-sustaining model, an exit strategy, or other ultimate goal. The next step is to devise a philosophy of action is by identifying the gaps between the current state and the ideal. This includes both the areas of highest return and the immediate danger areas and shoals an organization can wreck itself on. It is this delta that generates the opportunities.


Once you have an understanding of the opportunities, you can move on to addressing them and closing that delta. A phrase I hear a lot from executives is “There are many roads that lead to Rome.” For each Opportunity you can have multiple strategies. Strategies are the possible ways you can address the delta.

It is unlikely you’ll choose to implement all of strategies that are presented on the table. In fact, some may preclude others. Also worth noting is that some strategies implemented on one opportunity may address others very well. Or some strategies for one Opportunity may complement other strategies on another. Identifying these synergies requires a reasoned approach and a lot of experience.


This is where the ‘rubber meets the road.’ Tactics are the individual courses of action that you will take to implement your strategies and reach your goal. These items are not abstract. They are clear, concise deliverables that have measurable begin and end states.

How to Apply This

In that meeting I was prepared to showcase the individual tactics I had devised. Implicitly I had reviewed the opportunities as I had seen them, assigned strategies, and jumped right into tactics. My mindset was to line up tasks and then complete them. After all, that was what had brought me success in the past.

The executive I was working with saw this and identified it as a hall mark of someone new to the concepts of thinking across a larger scale. Fortunately for me he had the patience to bring my vision up to a larger scale. I wish I could report that I grasped the concepts of what he was trying to do and was immediately able to apply them, but I was not able to. It was not until my flight home when I consolidated my notes that I began to discern the pattern.


I can’t show you how I’ve applied this on the job, so let’s try a few other examples.


Opportunity: Watching tape a coach notices that his offensive play makers have a comparative speed advantage over the defense.

Strategy: The coach decides to exploit that advantage by spreading his offense over the entire field.

Tactics: Implement the read-option where the quarterback or running back force defenses to commit to a space and then quickly move the ball to an open spot where the defense isn’t.

Small Business (My web design company)

Opportunity: Lots of small business owners (my target audience) use Craigslist for advertising because they have no time / aptitude for web campaigns.

Strategy: To be a go-to resource for small business owners using Craigslist.

Tactics: Wrote numerous tutorials for people advertising on Craigslist. Show them how a website complements their actions and can lead to more customers.

Unfortunately the executive in this example moved on to another field before I was able to demonstrate that I learned my lesson. Luckily I’ve been able to apply it multiple times over to great success. Hopefully you will, too!

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