Rich Horwath

Best-selling author Rich Horwath, 45, CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute, knows the topic of strategy can appear theoretical and wonky, or as he puts it, "textbook-ish" and "not real-world." But he views it more simply, as a way to combat a haphazard approach to life. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune / February 19, 2013)

A dozen managers sat around a rectangular table at the Wit hotel in the Loop, their attention fixed on a man in an Armani suit standing in the front of the room.

   They waited quietly, the CTA Red Line train periodically rumbling by, until the tall, blue-eyed man spoke.

   When Rich Horwath did, he began with a story.

   "A recent Saturday morning, I'm sitting in my home office, and I'm listening to a CD I recorded on strategy," he tells the sales managers and marketing leaders from Ferring Pharmaceuticals who had gathered in a fourth-floor conference room.

   "I'm just checking the CD to see if I need to make any changes. And a little while later, my (then-5-year-old) son, Luke, comes in the room. And he plops down on the brown leather chair and he listens a minute. And finally, being the dad, I had to ask, 'So, Luke, what do you think about Dad's new CD on strategy?' Right? I'm excited, and he pauses for a minute and says, 'It sounds like church.'

   "And so, not making that connection, I said, 'So how is it like church?' And he said, 'Well, there's a lot of talking. I don't understand most of it. And I think I'm getting sleepy.'"

   Laughter erupts around the table, and with that, Horwath establishes a convivial atmosphere for the 3 1/2-hour workshop he would lead on strategic thinking.

   Horwath, 45, the best-selling author of "Deep Dive: The Proven Method for Building Strategy, Focusing Your Resources and Taking Smart Action," knows that the topic of strategy can appear theoretical and wonky, or as he puts it, "textbook-ish" and "not real-world."

   But he views it more simply, as a way to combat a haphazard approach to life. Most people, he said, operate like bumper cars, bouncing from one activity to another without thinking.

   "In business, I think insanity is when we do the same things, the same initiatives, year after year after year and we expect miraculous new growth," said Horwath, who runs the one-man Strategic Thinking Institute.

   "I call it the organizational lobotomy: working without really thinking about our work."

   Horwath's clients have included FedEx Corp., Abbott Laboratories, Kraft Foods Inc. and Motorola Inc. This spring, Google Inc. invited Horwath to its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to speak to its employees about how they can create personal strategies for their careers.

   Companies, he said, are telling employees, "'Look, you've got to have a plan.' We can give you the gym and the financial lessons and all that, but look, you've got to kind of put it all together.'"

   Horwath's rates run $20,000 for a keynote address or $35,000 to $50,000 for a full-day workshop, which includes a three-phase training program that can last a year. Before the workshop, he reviews business plans, interviews participants and administers assessments and surveys. Follow-up can include counseling by phone and email, and evaluations of progress based on criteria set by him and the client.

   David Hammond, president of Wonderlic Inc., a maker of surveys and tests applied to potential employees and students, brought Horwath into the company's Vernon Hills headquarters last year for two daylong training sessions.

   "The actual case study is your own business," said Hammond, 39. "You're really turning on that whole lens of introspection on the work that you do."

   Seeing the whole field

   In Horwath's second-floor home office in Barrington Hills, where he prepares and studies strategy when he's not flying around the country to train managers, three plaques line a shelf, given to "Coach Rich Horwath" from the Barrington Area Soccer Association.

   Horwath, who spent most of his childhood growing up with a sister in Hoffman Estates, played the sport through college. After graduating from Hoffman Estates High School, he went to the University of Connecticut, playing there for two years, with his team making it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. When Horwath transferred to DePaul University out of a desire to be back in the Chicago area, he spent two more years playing soccer as a Blue Demon.