As business leaders, we’re supposed to know all about strategy. After all we’re typically responsible for setting the strategic direction of our firms. But it’s a widely misunderstood topic. So it’s a real joy to encounter someone who can put the topic in perspective.

Recently, I attended a workshop on the topic of execution conducted by Patrick Thean of the Gazelles organization. In my experience, strategy and execution are closely related, and a point Thean made only deepened this conviction. Thean was emphasizing how important it was that tracking performance indicators support your business strategy. That’s when he said it:

“Strategy is not about being better, it’s about being different.”

Now think about that for a minute. How much time do professional services firms spend trying to be better than the competition? We’re forever trying to be faster, more agile, smarter, have better people, use a better process, and walk on water. This is not a strategy. It’s not much of a competitive advantage either.

Let's reflect on being different for a moment. If everyone else emphasizes low cost, you emphasize ultra-high quality. Now you are talking strategy! Your competitors emphasize customer service; you go for the self-service niche. That could work. What will not work, however, is trying to be “competitive” — i.e., doing what everyone else does, only better.

It is true. Being different just to be different isn’t very smart either. The only differences that really give you an advantage are those that are meaningful and beneficial to your target customers. Nail that one and you have a strategy that will put your professional services firm at the top of the list.