Gary Shapiro, president of the US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) tells an extraordinary story that shows that, while it’s essential to have a strategy in your business, it must be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected.
A business strategy flexibility lesson.
Through his background in electronics, Shapiro had a friend called Mark Rosenker who, at the time this story takes place, was a Major General working as director of military affairs at the White House under President George W Bush.
He had under his command several thousand people who operated Camp David, the president’s personal aircraft and his critical, highly secure communications complex that allowed him to stay in constant contact with the world.
The White House is on the line.
The General called Shapiro with a strange request. Apparently, a new DVD player had been installed in Airforce One, the presidential jet, but nobody had thought about stocking up on DVDs and the boss was leaving for Europe the next day. What could Gary do to help?
The question that springs immediately to mind is, why should this be laid on the head of the CEA rather than the local video store? After all, they are merely a representative body, they don’t actually trade in anything. We’ll get to that.
Not wishing to give his friend the brush-off, Shapiro asked the association’s librarian to research presidential tastes in movies and to provide him with a list of recommended titles, making sure that none of them contained sexually explicit scenes. Violence was okay, but not sex.
With his librarian’s list, combined with one from Amazon of that season’s most popular movies, Gary Shapiro went to a local store and bought nearly forty DVDs which he boxed and had delivered to his friend.
The General was, of course, hugely grateful and Shapiro thought that was an end to the matter.
The White House is on the line. Again.
A few days later, however, another call came in. This time it was Tom Campbell, special technology adviser to the White House, who explained that the Roosevelt Room, across the hall from the Oval Office, needed a technology upgrade.
They needed brand new state of the art secure audio-video equipment and conference communications systems for use in emergencies. Again, we wonder why the head of the CEA and the special adviser should be tasked with this routine assignment.
By now used to the strange behaviour of White House bigwigs, Shapiro played along once again. He contacted senior executives at twenty of the CEA member companies and arranged donations of equipment and technicians.
A few days later, 9/11 happened. The president had everything he needed to stay briefed on developments and to communicate with almost anyone, anywhere in the world.
Though Gary Shapiro never received public acclaim for his willingness to help out a friend, he became one of the leading influential figures in Washington and continues to lead the CEA and to serve the US government.
Priceless lessons in strategy for life and business strategy.
Here they are:
- The first point to make is that the CEA should never have been called in to help with government requests for presidential entertainment or communications equipment. They are an association that represents their members, not a commercial enterprise.
- To hell with that. Relationships are way more important than textbook definitions of form or function. The General had a relationship of complete faith and trust in his friend and Shapiro knew nothing should or would stop him from helping a friend out of a tricky situation.
- Ditto the call from Campbell. Obviously, he had heard how the CEA had painlessly resolved the DVD problem so he wanted some of that magic too. Again, Shapiro obliged. It would be unthinkable not to honour his friend once again and he was duty bound to serve the president of his country.
- There is no provision in the CEA’s business strategy that anticipates specifically this kind of eventuality, but it is flexible enough to accommodate them. And let’s not forget, Shapiro’s relationship with members of the association was such that he could round up donations of massively expensive equipment just by making a few calls. Did he have to twist an arm or two, did he have to concede something in order to achieve this? Almost certainly, but that’s what relationships are all about, inside and outside business.
- Good strategic planning is not just about the strategy you create, it is about the process. Sometimes it’s not entirely fit for purpose, in which case revise it until it is. Even then, you may hit the wall, so rip it up and start again. With strategy, one size doesn’t fit all and one path does not wind on for ever.