People or strategy

What Comes First: People or Strategy?

It seems like a question of preference or belief such as Pepsi vs. Coke, Pampers vs. Huggies or Nutella vs. Nusspli. But far from it. Whether in large corporations or small businesses, choosing to put people first or put strategy first can mean the difference between success or failure. 

Whether you are leading a small business, a team or a large corporation, always put the people first. Hire the smartest and most agile people you can find who best align with the values of your business. And jointly you will figure out the best possible strategy and execution for your business. 

If you are like me, you may find this counterintuitive at first. After all, isn’t it the inspiring vision and well-defined strategy that motivate people to achieve results? And am I not a little dramatic to say that whether to put people first or strategy first can mean the difference between success and failure? Well, yes and no. Let’s explore this further. 

People come first

If I had a dollar for every time that a colleague, professor or past superior told me that “structure follows strategy”, I’d have a nice purse collected by now. And there is a point to that statement. 

Before you start drawing organizational charts and boxes with names, you do want to figure out where the business is going and how it is going to get there. And then organize according to that strategy. But that is not the question.

When the question is whether to put people first or strategy first, then it’s absolutely people first! People… not organization or structure. 

No matter what your endeavor, what your business is, what team or organization you lead, surround yourself with the best people you can find. If you have a team of A-players, a team of movers and shakers, doers and believers, a team that trusts each other, debates each other, and helps each other solve problems, a team which challenges itself to greater heights, you can virtually achieve anything.

When choosing team members, hire for attitude first and aptitude second. I forgot where I first heard this phrase, but when you google it, you find tons of relevant hits. It’s often extended by “hire for attitude, train the skills”. What it means is that you first want to probe for values and character traits which fit your business, your team, and yourself. Don’t get blinded by amazing test scores, knowledge and skills. Those are great, but the hard skills can be trained. Hire for integrity, work ethic, team work, and grit, and then the hard skills are the cherry on top. 

When recruiting, never settle for “good enough”. In my experience, you are much better off holding out for the “right” person than hiring the first good person you can find. Don’t settle. Be rigorous in your search, clear in your expectations, and live up to the standard you aim to set. 

Who Before What

Now that makes sense but let’s come back to people and strategy. And this is where I like best the analogy from Jim Collins and his classic book “Good to Great”. In “Good to Great”, Jim Collins explains that his extensive research of great companies found a key common denominator: who comes before what

Collins describes leading a business like driving a bus. The business leader is the bus driver. Typically new business leaders set a direction first and then drive the bus in that direction. Collins’ research however suggests that the greatest companies first figure out who should be on the bus (and who shouldn’t) and in which seats they should be before determining the direction the bus should go

When I first read “Good to Great” I found this surprising. I myself had always thought that you start by describing a vision for the business so compelling that people wanted to strive to get there. What I had neglected is that I was blessed with teams who inherently were motivated to pursue that vision. But even that wasn’t really the point.  

It started making sense to me when further exploring Jim Collins’ analogy. He wrote that people come first because imagine you have people on the bus because of its direction. This works out fine as long as the bus is going towards that direction. What if shortly into the journey you figure out that the business is heading in the wrong direction? What if the environment around you has changed? If people on the bus are only there for its direction, you have a problem. If you have great people on the bus who are there to be with other great people, then you will quickly be able to adapt and change direction. 

So get the people off the bus who are there for the direction. Get those people on the bus who are there for the joint journey. Put the right people in the right seats. And then jointly figure out in which direction the bus – or the business – should be going.

In Good to Great Jim Collins argues that the continuous, disciplined approach of putting people first and strategy second was one of the key differences between companies that were merely good and those that were truly great. 

According to Collins, great leaders understand that there are three basic truths

  1. If you first choose the right people, you can more easily adapt to a changing world.
  2. If you have the right people, you don’t need to worry about motivating them.
  3. If you have the wrong people, even the greatest strategy only achieves mediocre results.

So following these principles, spend a major portion of your time and attention on assembling and developing your team. Once you have assembled a great team, then jointly define the strategy and jointly drive execution to deliver great results

Using OGSM to develop strategy in a great team

When you are ready to develop strategy, consider using the OGSM methodology as a process and catalyst for your strategy. 

OGSM stands for Objective, Goals, Strategies, and Measures and is a one-page business plan that describes WHAT you aim to achieve and HOW you are going to achieve it. Developing your strategy using the OGSM methodology greatly benefits from discussion in a great team. Click here to learn more about the OGSM methodology and how it can help you simplify strategy and deliver excellent results

Now over to you. What is your experience with people vs. strategy? Feel free to drop us a note below. We’d love to hear from you. 


Collins, Jim (2001). Good to Great: why some companies make the leap… and others don’t. New York: HarperCollins.

Top 10 OGSM tips to rock your strategy.

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