BOOK REVIEW: “The Strategist: Be the Leader your Business Needs” by Cynthia A. Montgomery (2012)

Cover picAnyone who has studied a theory of strategy known as the Resource Based View will instantly recognize the name Cynthia Montgomery. Her 1995 article with David Collis, “Competing on Resources” is one of the founding texts in this domain.

The Strategist is based on her teachings on the executive education program at Harvard Business School. It is an excellent read that challenges managers to think about their own vision of what they and their organisation contribute to society. From the introduction, she sets out her stance:

“You’re about to get a revisionist view of strategy. It’s not that what you’ve learned is incorrect. It’s that it’s incomplete.”

Key words

Management, leadership, strategy, strategic management, corporate strategy, strategic business unit, sustainable competitive advantage, product innovation, market diversification, corporate culture.


“My ultimate goal here is not to ‘teach strategy’”, says Ms. Montgomery, “but to equip and inspire you to be a strategist, a leader whose time at the helm could have a profound effect on the fortunes of your organization.”

Cynthia Montgomery

Montgomery encourages leaders and managers to become a strategist.

Hence the book is far more about the process of being a strategist rather than just setting down a new set of models to be learned and applied. It challenges the reader to ask some fundamental questions about their own strategy in the company and how they go about implementing it. Strategy should not be seen as a one off solution but “a journey” in need of “continuous, not intermittent, leadership.” Montgomery encourages leaders and managers not just to define a strategy but to become “a strategist.”

“Does your company matter? That’s the most important question every business leader must answer. If you closed its doors today, would your customers suffer any real loss?”

Michael Porter

Michael Porter´s ideas are cited especially in the beginning of the book.

Curiously, the first part of her book quotes heavily from Michael Porter. This is interesting because Porter’s positional view of strategy is often juxtaposed against the aforementioned resource based view. In Porter’s strategic world companies have a top down view. They decide how they want to position themselves and then choose the resources to do this. The RBV suggests a bottom up approach; i.e. companies look at what they are good at and the skills and resources they have and then position themselves. It is rarely as clear cut as this. It is not until page 75 that the reader gets any whiff of the aforementioned resource based theory. (All references to this are quite modesty confined to the Endnotes section of the book.)  Towards the end of the book she becomes more critical in her analysis.

“Conventional wisdom would say that the goal of strategy is a long-term sustainable competitive advantage. I challenge that view.”

 This is one of the fundamental pillars of Porter’s strategic theory.

Strategies at Apple, Gucci, IKEA and Masco


The book provides excellent examples of company strategies.

Aside from some very challenging questions, the book also gives an excellent outline of the strategies of a few companies. To begin with there is a very entertaining outline of a case study on Masco and its attempts to move the faucet (tap) industry to furniture. This is followed by two excellent chapters on IKEA. Chapter 3 gives a wonderful outline of the rise and fall and rise again of Gucci.

The final one is Apple. This too is a concise and interesting outline, the only problem being that the Apple Story has been told and retold so many times (and I too am guilty of this) that it seems to have lost its impact a little.


The book is an excellent read designed more for executives than academics (all references are banished to the end of the book) and gives the reader a real vision for developing an ongoing strategic process within the company. In the end, defining the strategy is the easy part; it is executing it that should be seen as the real challenge.

 Interesting quotes from the book:

In the 1980s and ‘90s, my colleague Michael E. Porter broke important new ground in the field.… Strategy became more about formulation than implementation, and more about getting the analysis right at the outset than living with a strategy over time.

Having seen hundreds if not thousands of such strategies in their initial form, what is clear to me is this: Many leaders haven’t thought about their own strategies in a very deep way.

In all my classes, I pose one fundamental question: “Are you’re a strategist?” Sometimes it’s spoken, often it’s only implicit, but it’s always there.

No one respects timid, passive managers. Bold, visionary leaders who have the confidence to take their firms in exciting new directions are widely admired. Isn’t that a key part of strategy and leadership?

Steve Ballmer

Bold, visionary leaders are widely admired.

A manager should produce success in any situation. One writer calls this “the sense of omnipotence that plagues American management, the belief that no event or situation is too complex or too unpredictable to be brought under management control.”

I call this belief, when taken to its extreme, the myth of the super-manager. I see it behind Masco’s leap into furniture manufacturing. Confidence matters. But there’s much more to strategy and leadership than a steadfast belief that a daring vision backed by good management can overcome virtually all obstacles. Without the rest of it, ‘bold’ too often becomes ‘reckless’.

Jack Welch

Jack Welch

In GE, Jack Welch sold off more than 200 businesses worth more than $11 billion and used that money to make more than 370 acquisitions. Why? He wanted out of industries where conditions were too negative, where he thought it would be too hard for GE to flourish.


Effective purposes

A good purpose puts a stake in the ground – It says “We do X, not Y. We will be this, not that.” It’s a  commitment.

A good purpose sets you apart; it makes you distinct – Sometimes what matters is not just one innovation, but a cluster of innovations that flow from a new concept, a new way of doing business.

Above all, a good purpose sets the stage for value creation and capture.

 Creating value for others is the surest way to capture some yourself.

A great strategy is more than an aspiration, more than a dream: It’s a system of value creation, a set of mutually reinforcing parts. Anchored by a compelling purpose, it tells you where a company will play, how it will play, and what it will accomplish.

Harvard AMP Books

Click to access more AMP Books.

Too many leaders, unwilling to give up any possible advantage, take the easy route and dodge or defer the tough decisions.

The resources that are particularly valuable in most strategies are the last two:
1. intangible resources such as brands and corporate reputations, and
2. complex organizational capabilities and routines that are vital to a firm’s distinctiveness yet relatively scarce and difficult to imitate.

 Most basic and fundamental questions about what a company does and how it does it:

 Key strategic questions


If you feel your company’s strategy is too complex to summarize in one or two paragraphs, that’s likely a sign that the strategy itself is unclear, or convoluted in some way.

If you’re frustrated with your strategy or with your statement, keep at it. Writing a bad strategy statement is often the necessary prelude to writing a good one.

As we saw with Apple, the strategist’s work is never done. Achieving and maintaining strategic momentum is a challenge that confronts an organization and its leader every day of their entwined existence.


Picasso: “To copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”

Pablo Picasso put it bluntly: “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”

You need to connect with people throughout the business so that you can both inspire them and learn from them. If you don’t fill them in on your thinking, they’re not likely to make strategy part of their agenda.

Duplication – If you had the recipe, you could make Coca-Cola, for instance, but you wouldn’t be able to duplicate its brand recognition, its supply and distribution lines, or its pricing.


See also:

Porter and five forces model Jack Welch
One of the most important business  books of the 1990s and has been in the best seller list ever since. Fantastic read for anyone thinking about their leadership style. The all time classic book on strategy and still a good read 30 years on. One of the most charismatic leaders of the 1980s. Still worth reading.


Other Book Reviews

The Strategist by Cynthia A. Montgomery – Book review

Blog Business World: “Cynthia Montgomery recognizes that considerable amounts of new research and empirical data, based on real world results, have emerged from the field of strategy. Through the author’s own experience from working with executives and managers, however, she has concluded that the role of leadership has been downplayed in strategy studies.”

How to Become the Strategist Your Company Needs – Interview with the Author

Forbes: “Over the last twenty-five years thousands of books and articles have been written about strategy, but virtually nothing has been written about the strategist or what this demanding role requires of a leader.”

The Strategist – Bring Your Passion and Leadership

Thin Difference: “The Strategist is a solid read. It sets the stage for why strategy is an essential leadership responsibility while providing frameworks to use in developing one that is meaningful and adapts with changes. Although I read Good Strategy. Bad Strategy. The Difference and Why It Matters first, The Strategist would have been a great precursor. Together, they are powerful reads for leaders.”


Related Blog Articles

Michael Porter’s company, Monitor Group, goes bankrupt: Are his ideas bankrupt too?

CoverI have just finished my classes for the semester in Strategic Management. As I did my fifteen minute wrap up of the course, I announced some interesting news to my students. Just three weeks ago, Michael Porter’s company, the Monitor Group, had declared bankruptcy. It is a rare treat to subdue a group of enthusiastic business students but their stunned silence was fascinating to watch. Read more…

Building Enduring Success

Building Enduring BusinessMany have written about the key components of business success. Theories build on approaches ranging from evaluating lessons learned to recognizing opportunities and having a willingness to take measured risks. Clearly such concepts can play an influential role. However, there are three key foundational imperatives for ensuring enduring success. Read more….

Greater Leadership

Education and Empowerment: “I reflect on the foundations of what it means to be a great leader quite often.  How do I inspire? How do I appreciate and congratulate? How do I hold people accountable in ways in which their personal worth is still recognized?  This question of leadership is one of the questions with which I am consistently grabbling.”

Strategy Land – Richard Rumelt´s Blog

“Richard Rumelt’s Web Journal on Good and Bad Strategy in Business, Politics, and Economics”

Peter Lorange’s Blog

“Blog of Dr. Peter Lorange , one of the world’s foremost business school academics.”

The Value of Being Second

Booz & Company: “Oded Shenkar, author of Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge, introduces an excerpt on the wisdom of entering markets after first movers from The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking, by Eli Broad.”


one click Richard Rumelt on strategy Blue Ocean Strategy
Good, objective analysis of the growth and strategy of Amazon. An excellent outline of some of the fundamental issues in strategic management. The book is short and generally to the point. Classic book that gives the ins and outs of creating new markets.


Filed under Book Review, Higher Education, Leadership, Management, Strategy, USA

2 responses to “BOOK REVIEW: “The Strategist: Be the Leader your Business Needs” by Cynthia A. Montgomery (2012)

  1. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: “Dealmaking: The New Strategy of Negotiauctions” by Guhan Subramanian | GlobalEd

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