Jonathan Chocqueel-Mangan is an experienced NED and strategist, most recently he was in role as Pearson's first Chief Strategy Officer.
With extensive experience in strategic planning, commercials and transformation, we thought it'd be good to get his take on all things strategy...
Hi Jonathan! Can you describe your recent role at Pearson?
I was the company’s first Chief Strategy Officer in Pearson’s 175-year history. I joined at the end of 2017 to help establish the group as a focused, integrated global education company.
My responsibilities included developing the five-year strategy, the three-year business plan and ensuring alignment between plans and budgets, across our assessment, courseware, schools and online learning businesses operating in over 60 countries.
I was also responsible for innovation, including our corporate venturing unit, Pearson Ventures, and our LP investments, data strategy, corporate development, and strategic partnerships. I sat on our global executive committee and reported directly to the CEO.
What is your approach to strategy planning?
I am a great advocate of strategy as a capability rather than a process and see strategy as emergent. Over the years I have developed some basic assumptions about strategy including that drive our whole approach:
- Strategy is not about predicting the future: There is always a danger that strategies become a bet on a certain outcome, which can then make us blind to signals that the market is not going where we expected.
- Strategy is continuous: It can’t be the case that learning is only confined to the specific months of the year where we formally update strategy. We have to have regular reviews and updates where we can identify opportunities to improve or alter course at any time
- Strategy is everyone’s job: The process has to be inclusive, and everyone has to have a sense of ownership though their involvement.
I have found scenario planning a very useful tool that is consistent with these principles. It is very inclusive; requires preparing for a whole range of futures; and can be the useful basis for ongoing discussion.
I am fairly agnostic about the structure of the strategy itself as long as it includes the following five elements:
- A point of view about the market in which we compete and how we expect to win in that market (i.e., What is the customer problem we can solve better than anyone else?)
- A description of the assets and capabilities we will need in order to win, some of which we already have and others which we will need to build
- Key levers, or guiding principles, that will enable us to decide how best to allocate resources over the medium term
- A high-level view of how and why the chosen strategy will create value for customers and shareholders
- Clarity about where we will not compete and what we will not do.
How often do you review your strategy?
We put in place a governance approach that aligned our monthly business reviews with the strategy, and so you could say we reviewed the strategy every month but from an operational perspective! In reality we looked to test and learn almost continuously, but every year, around June, we would test it more thoroughly and more formally by inviting as wide a group as possible to challenge, improve, and refine it. This then fed into the annual three-year planning process and budget.
Do you have any KPIs that you monitor regularly as part of your role?
Having worked closely with Professor Robert Kaplan and Dr David Norton at Harvard Business School on the development of the Balanced Scorecard, I would be shot if I didn’t have a coherent set of KPIs against which we monitor strategy execution! So, we had a balanced set of KPIs, each linked to clear objectives, covering financial outcomes, customer satisfaction and retention, internal process and capability metrics, underpinned by indicators of staff engagement, retention and capability as well as culture.
As a business that is looking to become more digital and more learner focused, the use of metrics sends more of a cultural signal than perhaps many people realise. For example, we wanted to measure how many customers we have each year and start to understand customer lifetime value. This could be calculated as the number of people who pay us money over the course of the year across our entire product range.
However, as a digital business, looking to build long term customer relationships, we should actually count all customers who have benefited from what we do regardless of how much, if any, revenue that generated. This meant we had to know who our customers are and how they engage with us across the whole business, year on year. The metric prompted investment and a shift in thinking.
How do you engage your employees with your strategy?
As I have mentioned above, I believe that strategy is everyone’s job, so I engage a lot of people in the formulation of the strategy. In my first year at Pearson I involved over 500 people across the company, as well as 100 people outside the company, including students, teachers, employers, education authorities, competitors, commentators, and investors.
At the beginning of each year, we would look to engage the whole company in the strategy, not as a one-way transmission exercise but as a true engagement. Discussion forums, management meetings, town halls, and included a technology platform that enabled us to capture and disseminate ideas for execution and improvement. All actively led by the whole leadership group not the strategy team.
Looking back, have you made any key strategic mistakes?
Where to start?!
I have always believed that strategy is about execution; a grade B strategy with a grade A execution plan is far better than a grade A strategy with a grade B execution plan. Sometimes it is easy to feel we have to get the strategy ‘right’, holding on to the ‘facts’ and analysis, when it is more important that people feel ownership of the strategy and committed to its execution.
There have been occasions when I have focused too heavily on the strategy and not paid enough attention to the ownership and energy around the implementation and by wanting it all to be perfect, we have missed opportunities. You have to respect people’s reservations, fears and resistance around change and sometimes I need to recognise that while progress isn’t a much as I would like, we are at least moving forward, sustainably and with conviction, and that is good enough.
What strategy tip would you give companies?
I think most companies know their strategy. When I was a consultant, I found that people either didn’t realise they knew the strategy, they knew it and didn’t know what to do about it, or they knew it and didn’t like it. So, for me, strategy is about getting it out of people’s heads and into a plan that everyone supports and feels excited about, even if they are a little daunted about the challenge ahead.
Thank you for your time Jonathan! 👍