What is the strategist's key skill?

Meet Mark Ellison. 

He’s a carpenter, the best in New York City. When a billionaire or a celebrity (like David Bowie or Robin Williams) wants woodwork, special woodwork, they call Ellison. 

A recent profile in the New Yorker digs deep into Ellison’s work and craft. His low-end projects cost $5 million, and he often works a job for upwards of $50 million. “Nobody ever hires me to do a conventional building,” he says, because billionaires “don’t want the same old thing…they want something that no one has done before.” 

At first I thought I’d write about how the skilled craftsman is superior to the distant desk-worker. The carpenter’s gritty hands-on knowledge beats the architect’s two-dimensional, screen-bound approach. One famed architect acknowledged of Ellison, “he can see these three-dimensional processes better than an architect can.”

Ellison fits that storyline. On a complex staircase job, with lots of curves, he had to correct an architect’s design as unworkable in the real world. As he put it, “people pay me a lot of money to make the obvious clear.” Ellison spots what won’t work much faster than others. That’s a rare skill.

And he’s a crazy-skilled carpenter. Ellison explained to the interviewer the trick to cutting curves with a table saw is to “use the saw the wrong way.” Then, 

“he grabbed a poplar board from a stack on his bench. Instead of placing it in front of the saw’s teeth, as most carpenters would, he laid it alongside them. Then, as the baffled [onlooker watched], he set the circular blade spinning and calmly pushed the board into its side. A few seconds later, the board had a smooth, half-moon shape carved into it.”

That’s expertise. That’s craft. As Ellison described it, “The secret is, I don’t think. I figure something out and then I’m done thinking. I don’t bother with my brain anymore.” 

It’s easy to be lulled into thinking this guy’s just a great carpenter. But as the profile continues, the writer reveals Ellison’s so much more. “Depending on the job, Ellison is also a welder, a sculptor, a contractor, a cabinet maker, an inventor, and an industrial designer…a man who gets hired to build impossible things.” 

New York City is one of the toughest places in the world to build. The environment is brutal. One skilled carpenter can’t just do the job alone.

It takes a team. Which is what makes Ellison more like a strategist than anything else:  he takes a vision, harmonizing and focusing a group toward that goal, synchronizing them to achieve something amazing. 

Colin Gray used to write about “the whole house” of strategy. That you can’t think of strategy in stove-piped dimensions. It is instead a “single enterprise,” in which Gray thought, “Theory and practice have to be considered as one whole project.” Lawrence Freedman reminds us that the practicing strategist must consider factors as diverse as politics, engineering, sociology, psychology, geography, history, and economics to get the “best out of one’s own side,” and to defeat an adversary. (Freedman was, of course, writing about actual war, but his larger point about skill diversity still seems to apply.)

When on a job, Ellison leads a blue-collar United Nations. He’s got “Russian plumbers, Hungarian floorers, Guyanese electricians, Bangladeshi stone carvers.” And it’s not just the ethnic challenge, but the specification challenge. The writer points out, “every trade works to different tolerances: steelworkers aim to be accurate within half an inch, carpenters a quarter of an inch, sheetrockers an eighth of an inch, and stoneworkers a sixteenth. It’s Ellison’s job to get them all on the same page.” 

Expensive builds in Manhattan aren’t the same strategic challenge as in other walks of life. But Ellison’s case demonstrates the path to becoming a strategist. He started as a very skilled carpenter. But over time he transcended his original skill and learned to orchestrate a symphony of other complimentary endeavors to build breathtaking interiors in a tough environment. 

A strategist’s journey is similar. It starts with one particular skill. It grows to include adjacent tools, well-wielded for greater gains. Over time, while the original skill remains, the more important ability is to conduct many tools toward success. 

The strategist’s key skill is the superior use of many other skills for some objective.