Episode 8: Amanda Setili on Strategic Agility

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May 16, 2017

Our guest today is my friend Amanda Setili, the author of two books:

The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World, was published in 2014. Her latest book is coming out in the fall of 2017, Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate your markets.

Amanda has an MBA from Harvard and started her consulting career at McKinsey & Co.

She has been running her own successful consulting firm, Setili & Associates, in Atlanta for nearly twenty years.

Her first book emerged out of something Amanda did which I think is pure genius: she created the Strategic Agility Think Tank, which brings together senior leaders from a blue-chip list of clients, several times per year for an in-person session that includes a panel discussion and then Q&A.

The Think Tank keeps Amanda top of mind with the clients she has served in the past and is a reason to reach out to new ones. It gives her fresh material and case studies for her writing. It positions her as the go-to thought leader on how to navigate turbulent markets.

It takes some real effort, long term dedication, and a willingness to invest to set up something like the Strategic Agility Think Tank – that’s why most people don’t do it. Those who do, like Amanda, are scarce and thus incredibly valuable.


Will Bachman: In addition to your business accomplishments, I understand you’re also an avid kiteboarder.  

 Amanda Setili: My husband and I have always loved catamaran racing and competitive water skiing and anything to do with water and board-sport type things. A couple of years ago, we got into kiteboarding; otherwise known as kite surfing. We are just totally fanatical about it and spend as much time on weekends as we can doing that.   

I think it’s an interesting thread that’s carried through my life: I’ve always been very analytical, but I’ve also been fascinated by turbulence and adventure. I love playing in the waves, and I think that that’s carried over into my business expertise because I really like to deal with companies who are in the midst of market turbulence, to help them figure out how to navigate that and how to come out on top.  

How did you create the Strategic Agility Think Tank? 

We’d been in business as a consulting firm for quite a long time and built up a lot of contacts, but didn’t have time to see them all. Every once in a while, somebody would call and ask a question — “Who do you know?” The other thing that that more and more of my clients were asking was for help with strategic agility. I decided that it would be good to proactively get my network to know each other rather than waiting until they needed my help. For the first one I called a few of the most interesting people I knew and asked them to be on a panel.  

When you ask people to speak, they generally say yes because they know they’ll learn from the crowd as well as the crowd learning from them. That has been my objective … to help companies learn from other companies outside of their industry.  

Can you describe the think tank itself? How did it work?  

It’s actually a fairly small group — maybe 30 people in the room — so that we can each be at a table of six or seven people. We typically have a panel discussion or speaker for about 20 or 30 minutes to kick an idea off. Then we open it up for the group to contribute their own ideas, challenges and success stories and to ask questions. It’s really very interactive. There’ve been a lot of relationships built. 

What sort of topics have you covered recently? 

The most recent one was “Innovation Meets Reality”. We’ll sometimes do them on “Sensing Changes in Customer Behavior and How Do You Respond”. We do them on “Strategy Execution: How to Execute A Major Change in Strategy When the World Is Still Changing”. We had one on data analytics … things like that. They’re all around the central theme of strategic agility.  

What kind of results arise from people’s involvement? 

People have taken ideas back to their companies and tried new things that they wouldn’t have otherwise. I think we brought a tremendous amount of ideas, cross-fertilization across companies. The second thing we’ve done is to help develop stories I’ve used in my books and stories that I’ve used in blogging and things like that. Third is just good, plain relationships. People have gotten to know people they enjoy knowing, and they see each other at the think tank or they get together outside. It’s fostered relationships among folks. There’ve been a couple of job opportunities. There’ve been people who have established business partnerships because of meeting people at the think tank. Sometimes it’s just calling and asking somebody for advice.  

In your book The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World, you write that you should observe a customer’s daily environment and the tools they use. What are some tips or practices that companies can use around that?   

Rather than just talking to the primary decision maker, take a more broad-based observation of the company, more of an immersion to see how people are thinking across that entire organization. 

What type of projects does your firm do? 

We work with all different kinds of companies in many different industries. The common thread is companies that are in the midst of market change and would like to develop a new strategy for capitalizing on the things that are going on in their market. What we find is that most organizations were set up for what they used to do or what they do now rather than for what they need to do in the future.  

The most common client contact or decision maker that we work with is a division president. The catalyst is often that they’re going after an opportunity that they’re not set up to go after. It’s not just more of the same. They’re not trying to take their current business and grow it by 7% instead of 5%. They’re trying to do something new. Often, I’ll just start with, “What are you guys working on? What are your objectives in general?” and then we’ll zero in on one or two areas that may not be moving as fast as they would like or with as much clarity as they would like. If there’s an area within their general objectives that needs more clarity, more speed, more alignment, that would be an area that would be right for us to help with. 

How do you go about assessing your own skillset, figuring out what you want to work on next and then developing those skills?  

Picking an area of expertise and forcing yourself to write a book does a lot of good on that front because it forces you to clarify who you are, what you want to do, what you love to think about and the type of people that you want to work with. One of the most valuable things to me about writing a book has been that it enables me to attract the clients that I really get a kick out of working with, people who are forward-thinking or strategic, who are in the midst of market change and want to do something differently in the future. Then everywhere you look, you see ideas that you need to add to that.   

Part of my professional development has been to take an idea and flesh it out in everything that I see, the clients that I talk to, things that I read in periodicals. It enables it to take shape and create a body of work. 

What do you do to build your visibility? 

Blogging is good, and the books have been valuable. The Strategic Agility Think Tank has been valuable. I try to talk to clients at least two or three times a week, not just existing projects but to just stay out there, try to stay active on social media as much as I can. 

My view is that every company needs to open their borders and let ideas flow in and out. The more you put yourself out there and put ideas out there, the more ideas are going to come to you. The more you put your intellectual property and thinking out there, the more ideas you have. 

How do you interact with clients when you’re working with them on a current project? 

First, I want to hear what they’re struggling with, because I want anything that I say to be relevant to what they’re working on that they’re concerned about. When I hear what they’re concerned about and what they’re working on, I try to bring as much value in the conversation as I can: ideas that I’ve heard in other places, things that I’ve seen other companies doing, things that I may have read that could be valuable to them. When you’re thinking in a vacuum, you tend to think in one way. Then you have a conversation with someone else and they reframe it for you. That reframing is very valuable. 

I think if you’re an interesting person, people want to hear from you for two reasons. They want to hear what people outside of their company can share with them that might help them, and they want a diversion from what they’re doing. Then the third thing is how can we work together? It’s got to be the combination of all three. I’m trying to bring ideas that can help them, whether or not they hire me.  

Can you talk a little bit about fear and how that plays a role in agility? 

I don’t know if executives want to explicitly say, “I’m afraid,” but I think that’s behind a lot of the behavior you see in companies. There are many sources of fear. My aim in writing Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets was to ask how we get past that? How can we develop real, true fearless growth? 

As I did research for the book, I realized you have to give up a degree of control to gain control. As the world is changing faster and you need to be more on your toes, you need to be more agile, and you need to be ready to change direction. You really need to give up a degree of control in order to get to a safer place on the other side. I think part of what can enable you to get over fear is to realize that uncertainty is what creates opportunity to break out of the pack and stay ahead. That’s a huge competitive advantage. Getting past the fear can be partly just accepting the fact that fear means there’s going to be opportunity. If you can feel the fear, that means there’s probably something you can capitalize on. 

What are some books you’ve found particularly powerful in shaping your thinking? 

I don’t know that it necessarily fed directly into my work, but it’s such a good read. It’s Peter Drucker, who is a famous business writer but who has a book that’s more of a memoir called Adventures of a Bystander. It’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Every paragraph has something amazing in it. 

What’s the best way for people to find you? 

My website is www.setili.com, and I’m @AmandaSetili on Twitter and you can find me on LinkedIn. Luckily, I have a unique last name so it’s very easy to find me. We also have a business Facebook page at setiliandassociates.com. I would love to connect with folks, so send me an email and we will find a way to collaborate.