I once started working with a leader who suddenly found herself on the executive team. A corporate restructuring resulted in skipping a level and now she is sitting around the table asking, ‘am I strategic enough to do this job?’ Her question is not unique.
Twenty years of developing leaders has taught me there are three leadership success factors people worry about most: communication, financial acumen and strategic thinking. The typical solution for the leader who wants to be more strategic is to attend an executive education program called Strategic Planning for Executives. What usually happens is you take the program, have a wonderful time, develop some really good peer connections, and then complain the course was about planning not strategic thinking.
So what is strategic thinking?
Strategic thinkers demonstrate the following characteristics:
They see patterns. Strategic thinkers have a way of looking at information and seeing relationships. Instead of identifying five problems that need solutions, they see how five problems have a common thread and conceive a solution that addresses all of them at once.
They see the future. Strategic thinkers see how events are likely to play out. They have a ‘sixth sense’ that gives them an upper hand in using data to predict the future and they plan accordingly.
They communicate at a higher level. Strategic thinkers speak the way they think – they are future-oriented and thematic in their communication. They are good at connecting actions and people to higher-order goals.
They are efficient and disciplined in assigning resources. Strategic thinkers streamline how they assign and align resources. They are less distracted by the ‘urgent’ and maintain a steadfast focus on the ‘important’.
Now, you are probably asking yourself if strategic can be learned.
First, the bad news. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. Some people are profoundly creative. Others have an intuitive sense around people. Your brain is your brain. Best to know what it does well, and where the wires don’t connect.
Now, the good news. If you understand how your brain works, and you know what you want it to do, you can apply it in new ways.
Not every strategist will be a leader, and not every leader will be a strategist. Being a strategic leader is a combination of strategic thinking and strategic action. Tactics for developing strategic thinking include:
Here are some tips on how to become more strategic:
Be curious. Strategic thinkers take in a lot of information from many different sources to help them spot patterns. The best way to stimulate thinking is to step outside your normal flow of information.
Look for themes. As you travel around your environment, keep an eye out for things that are related. Stop and take note every time you read or hear a particular topic or point of view. I have a couple of blogs and podcasts I track and when the same idea pops up 4-5 times in completely different places, I like to ask the questions, ‘what is going on here? Does this mean something?’
Set aside time for reflection. How can you possibly think strategically if you don’t allow yourself time and space to think? The 21st century is all about doing. Shame. Because the best ideas and insights come from thinking. I highly recommend a daily walk, alone.
Tactics for developing strategic actions include:
Develop and use a framework. Strategic leaders are able to link activities and initiatives to higher-order goals and objectives. There shouldn’t be anything on your ‘to do’ list that isn’t tied to a key objective. A framework allows your team to prioritize effort so they are working together with maximum impact. There is nothing worse, or less strategic, than a leader who is constantly downloading random questions and requests for information. The message it sends to the team is, ‘this is interesting but I don’t know what is important.’
Lead through goals. Strategic leaders manage goals, not tasks. They are good at establishing deliverables and then leave others to determine the mechanics of how things will get done. They focus on what, now how.
Delegate decision-making authority. Strategic leaders are rarely accused of micro-managing. Being too hands-off, maybe. Because they provide their teams with clear strategic objectives aligned around performance outcomes and have a decision-making framework, they rarely need to intercept the decisions being made by those around them.
Everyone wants to be strategic. While you might not be the most strategic thinker by nature, strategic action can be nurtured.
Rebecca Schalm, Ph.D. is the Founder & CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with straight-forward advice and innovative talent management solutions.
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