What Alexander the Great Can Teach Us About Business

Book Reviews, Business

If you haven’t noticed already, I have an esoteric taste in books.


I recently finished Donald Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, which — despite the title and subject matter — is a remarkably interesting and insightful book. The breadth of Engels’ research is impressive, as he’s able to unite historical, economic, geo- and topographical data to make sense out of Alexander’s march through Asia that allowed him to conquer the known world in little more than ten years.

“There’s no possible way you can tie this book to business and marketing,” you say.

I can and I will!

The book got me thinking of a parallel situation, which beyond running a business has to do with growing that business.

You probably don’t want to conquer the known world, yet I’m sure you want your enterprise to be successful. And Alexander was nothing short of absolutely successful.

What are the lessons we can extract from his example and apply to our world?

Attention to Detail and Planning

Engels shows there wasn’t a single movement in Alexander’s campaign that wasn’t planned. Furthermore, he argues that the Macedonians’ success was beyond planning, and a product of unrepentant attention-to-detail.

Impressive, right?

What details did Alexander the Great pay attention to?

As it turns out, supplying a large army wasn’t easy, especially in those days. The best way to supply your forces was by ship, but this wasn’t always possible. By land, you could only bring so many supplies with you and they would only last for so long because horses and mules don’t carry much and they also consume a lot. In fact, ancient commanders were just as well off simply using manpower, including their soldiers. Humans carry a third of what a horse can carry, but also consume a third less.

Thus, oftentimes the primary source of supplies was the land itself. Before Alexander could advance, he needed to know which direction to go so that he could guarantee his forces land for grazing and food, as well as a water supply. He did this via intensive scouting and preparation.

“…Alexander considered it essential to obtain advance intelligence of the roads, resources, terrain, and climate of the territory he was about to enter. Indeed, he generally received advanced intelligence throughout his campaigns on enemy movements and resources of the country. This is one of the reasons why his campaigns were successful and his army able to successfully cross the same regions in which other armies lost many troops through starvation and dehydration alone.”

Why does supply matter so much? Obviously, you don’t want your soldiers to starve to death, otherwise you won’t have much of an army left for the battle. Yet, oftentimes, Alexander (and other generals) accepted casualties from malnutrition and lack of water.

The right approach to supply, then, relates to a bigger picture and other considerations. Where is the enemy? Who is the enemy? What’s the size of that enemy’s army? What size is your army? Are you traveling through friendly or hostile territory? Are there ample local supplies or do you need to bring most of your supplies with you? What are your supply options?

A general like Alexander had to keep all of these factors in mind when determining his next move, and it was only because he was able to do this that he was systematically successful.

The business owners’ and entrepreneurs’ task is very similar.

Details of Business

Just as Alexander had to worry about a host of interrelated factors when planning his conquest of the known world, you have to worry about your own set of factors when moving your business forward.

The Strategy and Vision

Where is your business now, where do you want it to be, and how are you going to get there?

Strategy comes from an understanding of the game — the rules, processes, and systems of your industry — along with your current place in it, and your long-term goals. If you understand these variables, then you can begin to chart a path toward your objective.

The exact path will depend on other factors, but with a strong strategy, you can communicate your vision and provide a framework for achieving it. Without a strategy, you and your business lack direction.

It follows that a successful strategy requires clarity. And clarity comes from being certain of your current position, both weaknesses and strengths, as well as the position you want to be in, and the nature of the system you’re working in. If you lack clarity in one of those three areas, it will affect your ability to communicate your strategic vision.

Remember that beyond verbal communication, communicating a vision also comes down to the rules you impose on your team, the standards you hold each individual to, and the discipline you’re willing to put on yourself to show your team the way through example.

The Troops, Your Employees

You’re not going to achieve your objectives on your own. If you’re a dentist, you can’t perform surgery, do all of the dental hygiene, and guide patients through the finances on your own, unless you only want to work with a very small group of patients. At some point, you’ll have to grow your team so that you can focus your time on the bigger picture.

For your team to produce as much as they can for you, your employees must be happy, which necessitates certain needs to be met and requires certain management styles within specific situations.

Being aware of these needs requires both emotional intelligence and awareness. Attention-to-detail in this regard means being present so that you know how your team members feel and why.

If your employees feel supported and are having their work needs met, they’ll be motivated and eager to exert themselves fully in fulfilling your strategic vision.

Two of the factors which matter most to your employees are contribution and growth. Income can matter too, but raises prove to be short-term motivators that run the course relatively quickly (until the next raise). Giving employees a sense of purpose and importance in your business produces better results because they address core needs.

Some easy ways to make your employees feel like contributors and give them a sense of personal growth is to explicitly tell them how their work fits into the business and how it’s crucial for the delivery of the product. A good line manager at a car factory doesn’t tell the person responsible for placing the bolts that their purpose is simply to place bolts, the line manager tells that person that they’re building a car.

Also, don’t be afraid of giving responsibility. When assigning team members more work, managers tend to expand their workload horizontally. They give them more tasks, but these are repetitive and non-challenging. Instead, vertically load your employees by allowing them to do more challenging work. This will give them a sense of growth and importance.

The Customer and the Product

Before I came to Now Media Group, I worked for Tony Robbins as the analyst for the marketing team. To do that job properly, I truly had to understand the philosophy, the products, and the business. I’ve come to fully embrace Tony’s concept of the raving fan.

85% of small businesses say that their most effective method of acquiring new customers is through word-of-mouth. Not only are referrals easier to convert into customers, they also spend more than other types of customers on average.

If you want more referrals, that’s where Tony’s concept of a raving fan plays its part. He believes that humans have six fundamental needs, which I talk about in more detail here. If you meet two out of six needs, you have a happy customer. If you meet three, you have a raving fan.

A raving fan is a customer that’s talking about you. They’re selling you to their family and friends, not because you’ve asked them to or made them some sort of offer, but because you’ve truly made that magnitude of an impact on their life and they want to share that experience with others.

You don’t need to believe in the six fundamental human needs to see value in the idea of a raving fan. Whatever needs you think your customers have, which ones are you meeting? Are there other needs you could be meeting? If you did, would it improve the customer’s experience? If the answer is yes, then do it — your customers are the core of your business, not just in terms of the revenue they bring in themselves, but also the revenue they can help you earn by referring others to you.

Understanding whether your customers are happy and why, and where you have opportunities to meet their needs, is pivotal to business success.

The Tactics

You have strategic vision, an inspired team, and you know how your product or service is going to meet the needs of your customers. Now you need to execute that plan and there are a lot of moving parts, each with their own challenges.

How is each team member accomplishing their part of the mission? How is their approach fitting into the overall goal, strategy, and vision? A lot of business owners lose sight of productive efficiency and they either lose money or don’t achieve their objectives, which can lead to frustration and a deterioration of the culture and environment.

Alexander the Great’s lieutenants had tactical flexibility – they were able to use their judgement to make decisions that affected their portion of the picture. Awareness of the tactics doesn’t imply that you have to map out the process in all its minutiae to your team.

Rather, tactical awareness comes down to giving tactical goals and analyzing whether they’re being met or not. In this fashion, you can give team members the flexibility and freedom they need to perform their job while institutionalizing a feedback mechanism that helps to align their tactics with the overall strategy. I talk more about this in my review and application of Lt. Col. John Nagl’s Eating Soup With a Knife.

The Marketing

You have a plan, a motivated team, a great product, and an internal structure that can deliver. Who are you delivering to? Where are you getting these happy customers?

When we think of marketing, we often think of SEO, paid advertisement, and the common services that a digital marketing agency sells. These are definitely marketing channels and a comprehensive marketing strategy ought to take them into consideration, but the truth is that marketing is actually much broader than that.

In fact, I find that non-agency marketing facets are often ignored. This includes referral marketing to maximize the amount of business you’re getting from the single greatest source of new customers at your disposal. Conversely, and ironically, I find that businesses with strong referral networks often think they don’t need marketing, when in fact they could profit from getting more out of those referral networks with better referral marketing.

You simply can’t separate marketing from the product. In a marvelous book, Competition and Entrepreneurship, economist Israel Kirzner writes,

“The information such a producer-entrepreneur provides to prospective consumers in the course of his market activities was not, we found, to be understood exclusively as something, separate from but complementary with a product, that happens to be produced and supplied jointly with that product. Rather, we found, some of that information is to be considered as inseparable from the product itself: the product itself simply does not exist for the consumer until its existence and usefulness have been brought to his attention. It follows that the entrepreneur’s task is not completed when he makes information available to the consumer. He must also get the consumer to notice and absorb that information.”

If you have a great product, a strong team, and a plan of action, if you’re not thinking of ways to make potential customers aware of this product, then you don’t truly have a product.

The Logistics, Costs

There’s an old episode of Restaurant: Impossible where Robert Irvine visits a local San Diego restaurant to restore it to profitability. One of the first things he does is go through the books and see how much the restaurant is spending on supplies, then he compared the per unit costs to the per unit price and found that the business was making a loss with every sale.

This is an egregious example of an owner/manager who’s not aware of a major factor in the success of their business.

Your cost structure matters, even if you’re making a profit.

I’ve found price-cost discrepancies even in companies which are profitable. If they’re profitable, what’s the big deal? First, it speaks to a lack of awareness.

Second, saving money in some areas will allow you to spend more in others. If you’r a dental office, finding ways of better aligning production costs with output prices can help free up capital for re-investment, whether that re-investment is in technology, team training, or something else (like raises).

Being aware of costs will help you focus on opportunities for leveraging or reducing those costs of production. For example, using marketing automation, you can scale those costs and earn more revenue while keeping your existing cost and price structure. Or, by renegotiating your credit card processing fees, you might save thousands a month, which is capital you can re-invest in marketing or technology. Likewise, by saving in costs of production, you can produce more.

The Role of Delegation

“Alexander better understood the capabilities and limitations of his logistic system than perhaps any other commander, before or since. In this respect, he was aided by capable lieutenants, to whose the actual tasks of supply were delegated.”

Business and entrepreneurship, much like conquering the world, is hard. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered and kept within the context of the bigger picture, more factors than one person can keep track of.

If you’re not a strong marketer or don’t have time to monitor its performance, hire someone to do it for you. If you’re not a strong accountant or you’re not good with finances, hire someone to do it for you. Similarly, if you’re not good at managing a team, or you’re busy setting the pace elsewhere — maybe you’re a fantastic surgeon and just want to focus on surgery — then hire a leader.

Delegation also brings us back to your team as a factor. Oftentimes, the talent you need to help run your business is already working for you, you just need to trust them. Areas of improvement, where you don’t have the time or even the strength — and you have to be objective about your strengths and weaknesses — are perfect opportunities to give team members greater responsibilities.

As a freshman manager, it was a challenge for me to give up responsibilities and trust others with them. When I finally learned to do it, I found that I was leading a happier, more satisfied team that was producing more while allowing me to focus on new, higher level tasks that continue to drive the business forward.

Delegation is one of the most fulfilling evolutionary practices in any organization because it implies growth along almost every dimension.

Summing Up

Alexander the Great was successful in part because of his individual brilliance, but more so because of his awareness of all the minutiae that went into a successful military campaign. And when he didn’t have the time or the talent to think of a specific factor, he put someone in charge of it.

Running a business is very similar. You’re leading a team through challenging terrain with the intention of occupying it. You don’t just want more business, you want to retain it and keep growing. The terrain for a business might look different than the terrain Alexander had to deal with, but in essence, the importance of attention-to-detail and awareness remain the same.

This might seem obvious to a good businessperson, but not all business owners are good business people. In fact, oftentimes business owners tend to be technical experts who know their products well, but can’t connect the product to an overall strategic vision or the customer. Or, they can’t motivate their team; in fact, they often do the opposite. Or, they can’t produce a fantastic product profitably. Or, they stagnate after a certain amount of progress.

Being aware and having clarity of your strengths and weaknesses, where you are, where you want to be, and the factors that go into moving from A to B are fundamental to business and personal growth. If it worked for Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world in ten years, it’ll work for you and your business, as well.

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