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Meet the editor of... Strategy & Leadership

An interview with: Robert M. Randall
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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This interview © Robert M. Randall, 2009

Image: Robert M. RandallRobert M. Randall heads a New York-based publishing business, R.M. Randall & Associates ([email protected]), that specializes in operating management magazines and in writing and editing articles, books and white papers about strategy and management. He is a former Time Inc. magazine and books writer/editor, and together with the competitive strategy expert, Liam Fahey, has co-authored a number of books including The Portable MBA in Strategy (John Wiley & Sons, inc., 2nd edition, 2002), and Learning from the Future: Competitive Foresight Scenarios (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998). He has been Editor of Strategy & Leadership since 2001, and in 2003, 2004 and 2005 won a Leading Editor Award for his work on the journal.

Strategy & Leadership (S&L) is a bi-monthly publication aimed at senior managers and organizational leaders who want to stay abreast of the latest strategic management theories, strategies, tools and best practices. The publication takes pride in publishing "authoritative comment from the world's leading experts in corporate strategy and strategic management...the thoughts, advice and analysis of some of the world's current revolutionary thinkers". Its articles focus on leadership issues for those responsible for making and communicating organizational and business unit strategy: CEOs, senior corporate management, corporate planners, chief development officers, division heads, R&D leaders, executive coaches, leadership trainers, and HR strategists. Strategy & Leadership strives to provide these leaders with articles on the latest conceptual thinking and best strategic management practices that are crucial to compete and survive in today's fast paced markets.

Publishing philosophy

Emerald: Over the years, Strategy & Leadership has won a number of awards and has maintained a loyal following of top executives and strategic planners in major corporations and academics at leading universities. What does Strategy & Leadership do to enlist the support of these internationally known thinkers and leaders?

Randall: For more than 37 years Strategy & Leadership has operated as an intellectual co-op where leaders and thinkers share their ideas and experiences and get feedback from their peers. S&L’s contributing editors – a mix of corporate reviewers, veteran consultants and senior academics – pick the articles and make substantive editing suggestions. Though their feedback can be tough and candid, authors respect the opinions of these experienced strategists. Our mantra is that readers deserve a publication that’s both "interesting and useful". That is, we should not become purveyors of fads and theories just to be interesting. To prevent this, the reviewers keep prodding authors to provide specifics about results and best practices. Sometimes we introduce process innovation experiments before the results are known. But the reviewers continually push S&L to hew to the "useful" part of our publishing philosophy.

Emerald: What are the "hot issues" in strategy and leadership for business leaders today?

Randall: The jackpot questions are: "What do business executives need to know about strategic management?" "What dilemmas do they face that require new solutions?" A survey of senior executives found that the four hottest issues were: customers – acquiring them, keeping them, learning more about what they want, and then satisfying and delighting them; innovation – not just to keep customers happy, but also to rejuvenate their company in the long term; outsourcing – as a way to cut costs and stay competitive, but not necessarily by sending the work offshore; information technology – how tools like business process reengineering, customer relationship management, and knowledge management can help managers to gain or maintain maximum efficiency and competitive advantage.

We address these information needs in articles and special issues. For example, we have published numerous special issues on innovation. The strategic management field is currently experiencing a spurt of innovation itself, so we have a lot of fascinating concepts to write about, such as C.K. Prahalad's system of co-creating unique value with customers.

Emerald: What kind of articles is S&L looking for?

Randall: We have an editorial model of exactly what we want to publish. Our articles should insightfully define a strategic management problem, dilemma, or opportunity from the perspective of senior management; propose a creative solution to the problem or a way to take advantage of the opportunity; describe the tool, technique or concept that enables the solution; show examples or offer evidence that the proposed solution has worked or will work; provide a mini-case of the process in action; show results; list the how-to steps; note the pitfalls; and lay out next steps managers should take. We appreciate it when authors also consider and evaluate alternative approaches.

Emerald: You state your publishing philosophy as being to publish "practical articles that describe effective practices of leading-edge companies and reports on new theory that has potential to advance the art of strategy development and implementation". Can you unpack these statements – how do you determine which management theories will have a genuine impact on practical strategic development and which won't?

Randall: Our article model is a good guide. We want articles that introduce innovative theory and practice to produce significant competitive advantage – strategic concepts and implementation practices that are supported by evidence, analysis, or results. We ask the authors to report on initial implementation experiences so that early adopters can avoid the known pitfalls.

Emerald: Your author guidelines say you want "Practical articles that describe effective practices of leading-edge companies".  What qualities are you looking for in such case studies?

Randall: We search avidly for case studies of best practice strategic management. We want these cases to candidly explore problems, the tools used, the implementation process and results.  The cases can be about one firm or a number of firms experimenting with a new business model. As an example of this type of disruptive innovation, we ran an intriguing article on a type of Internet-based business called the Network Idealist that is turning some industries upside down (Vol. 33 No. 3, 2005). Examples of Network Idealists are: Craigslist, the free online classified ad service, competes with newspapers; Kazaa, a file-sharing service, upended the entertainment industry; Skype, a voice-over-Internet telephony service, terrifies the telephone industry; MoveOn, revolutionized US political funding; and Linux, a programmer network, developed a software system that now threatens mighty Microsoft. The article explained how the network idealist business model could disrupt other industries and how existing businesses could defend themselves.

Emerald: In cases where you do publish first-hand research, how does this research differ from that published in an academic journal?

Randall: We are eager to publish research that is relevant to management decision making. Given that busy managers need to be able to quickly absorb the information we edit the articles so they are easy to read.

Emerald: Looking at your editorial board, the majority of its members are from the US.  How do you ensure that you maintain an international perspective, and do you try and encourage a geographical spread of authors? 

Randall: We have editorial board members and reviewers from the EU, the UK, and India as well as reviewers in Japan, Scandinavia, and Africa. We constantly network looking for talented reviewers. We don't just add people to the editorial team because of their prestigious reputation. They work and contribute, often for a number of years, before being added to the masthead.

Emerald: What journal is your nearest competition and how do you position yourself with regard to that/those publication(s)? Do you also have indirect competition, i.e. other sources from which leaders obtain information?

Randall: Some authorities put us among the top six strategic management journals (which it listed alphabetically) – Long Range Planning, McKinsey Quarterly, Sloan Management Review, Strategy+Business, Strategy & Leadership, and Strategic Management Journal. We compete with these publications for articles. But for the attention of our executive readers we compete with The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Business Week and online media to name a few alternatives. All these publications have vastly superior resources. So we focus on strategy. We open our pages to people of talent regardless of their affiliation. We address our readers peer to peer. We offer talented thinkers and experienced consultants the space they need to explain their new ideas for business models and management techniques in detail and provide a step-by-step description of implementation. And we edit quickly so we don't have a long line of authors waiting a year or two before they get published.

Emerald: What do you think that management practitioners in general, and your own market of strategic leaders in particular, want from a journal and how do you make sure you provide it to them?

Randall: The readers we talk to tell us over and over they want how-to articles. They eagerly read cases of leading organizations using tools such as strategic planning, outsourcing, customer segmentation, customer relationship management, strategic alliances, growth strategies, business process reengineering, and change management. I urge more academic authors to take on projects like these.

Writing for a practitioner journal

Emerald: What's in it for academics to publish in a practitioner journal?

Randall: Academics can benefit from their interactions with our community of practising managers. But to get published in S&L they have to follow our rules. Specifically, their articles must conform to our model. And they have to write for a managerial audience. I suggest that they test their article on a corporate manager before sending it to us. What's missing in most academic articles is a focus on how useful the research is to corporate decision makers. It's also important that academic articles and case studies conform to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, which means that the authors should avoid potentially compromising relationships with the companies studied. 

Emerald: Would you say that most of your "commercial" authors come from consultancies, if so why, if not, is it possible to profile a typical author?

Randall: We could fill Strategy & Leadership with articles by consultants. That would make my job easier. But instead we continually search for corporate leaders who have a viewpoint, a novel set of experiences, and new ideas. We invite academics who want to share their new ideas with an audience of practising managers to publish in S&L. We also welcome the opinions of distinguished business journalists.

Emerald: Academic authors write because that is part of the job requirement – they have to keep up their publishing profile. What's in it for a practitioner, who is probably busy running a company or consulting, to undergo the time consuming business of writing or being interviewed for publication?

Randall: When one of the senior managers who often writes for S&L was interviewing the head of a Fortune 100 company its CEO said, "It's nice to be talking to a fellow giraffe".  By that the CEO meant that he and our interviewer were both the same rare breed – strategic decision makers. These are leaders who believe that every organization must simultaneously lay the foundation for tomorrow's success while it strives to out manoeuvre its rivals in today's competitive arena. And they believe that a secret of that success is using the tools, models, and techniques of strategic management to gain competitive advantage now and in the future. Strategic leaders like to talk to S&L because our experts speak their language.

Our contributing editors do all our interviewing.  In coming issues they will be talking to leading CEOs, top managers who are implementing innovative initiatives, innovative academics and entrepreneurs who are pioneering new business models. 

Emerald: Some of your articles are derived from serious academic research, for example "Strategy for the critical first 90 days of leadership" by Michael Watkins in Vol. 32 No. 1 (2004).  How would you advise an academic who was publishing research in your journal to present it?

Randall: Make it worthwhile reading for senior decision makers. We hope to attract more academics who want to write about their observations of strategy and leadership in action.  Some academics assume we just want to publish well-known authors. Not so. We are eager to find articles by up-and-coming academics about big and small companies that are experimenting, innovating, analysing, and learning. But the articles have to present the findings in a way that is useful and interesting to senior managers. 

Emerald: How do you find your authors – do they come to you, or do you go out to find them?

Randall: The name of the game is network, network, network. Often we ask our distinguished editorial board – a long list of internationally known experts like C.K. Prahalad, Thomas Davenport, and Philip Kotler – to introduce us to potential authors in their networks.

Publishing issues

Emerald: How many submissions do you get a year, what percentage do you reject outright, what percentage go to review, and what percentage end up being published?

Randall: We reject without review all submissions that don't have practical implications for decision makers or that are primarily advertisements for consulting services. But we work especially hard to help corporate managers get their articles ready for publication. And for them, the rejection rate is very low.  

Emerald: Can you give any general guidelines as to the time between submission and publication?

Randall: We have reviewed, accepted and published important contributions just a few weeks after submission. This process includes reviews, rewrites, consultation with the authors, and final editing and proofing. 

Emerald: You operate in a very fast-moving world, so how do you ensure that ideas get to market while they are still topical?

Randall: We don't keep authors standing in line after they have been accepted. It would be a lot easier for us to complete a number of issues in advance. Instead, we ask authors to use current examples and to meet our deadlines as if we were a newspaper. 

Emerald: Can you describe your own process of review – what are your criteria for acceptance?

Randall: We simply invoke our mantra: "Is the article interesting and useful?". That is, does it offer a fresh solution to a real management problem or suggest a way to take advantage of a significant opportunity? Does it offer a strategic solution – one based on a concept, tool, model, or practice that creates leverage?

Emerald: Do you do much editing yourself on manuscripts you intend to publish – how do you deal with articles which make valid points, but where there are problems with the expression?

Randall: Early in my career I was a Time Inc. writer/editor. Starting with the assumption that good writing and good thinking go hand in hand, we routinely edit or rewrite when necessary.  My goal is to make the publication easy to read. We try to cut jargon and to express ideas as simply and directly as possible. The editing is done in partnership with the authors.  The process is easy for them and relatively fast. Fixes are made and then they are asked if they approve of them or if they would prefer to suggest an alternative. In dealing with authors, it sometimes helps that I have my name, as co-editor, on a well-respected book that surveys the field: The Portable MBA in Strategy.

Emerald: I note that your articles appear without an abstract, and yet you are indexed and abstracted in a number of publications. Is there a particular reason for this and how does the electronic dissemination work?

Randall: We want Strategy & Leadership to be read like a magazine, not skimmed like a journal. As an additional reader service, in each issue we publish a section called "Quick takes", which provides brief summaries that highlight the key points and action steps in the feature articles. A veteran strategic manager, Catherine Gorrell, who is president of a Dallas-based strategy consulting organization and a contributing editor of Strategy & Leadership, writes these.

Behind the scenes, we prepare an abstract for each article. The publisher enters the abstracts into the electronic information system.

Emerald: Do the articles you publish often get picked up by other media?

Randall: Strategy & Leadership is often quoted in books, articles and speeches. Several books started out as S&L articles.  However, we are happiest when someone tells us about S&L articles being passed around and discussed in corporate meetings or being referred to by a CEO.

Publisher's note

Robert M. Randall was originally interviewed in 2005. The interview was revised in August 2009.

Visit the information page for: Strategy & Leadership