The ability to be a strategic thinker is a key characteristic of an effective leader. But one common mistake people make is to assume that strategic thinking is the exclusive domain of C-suiters or other positions with a senior title. That isn’t true at all! Anyone can be a strategic thinker!
In fact, everyone should be thinking strategically from whatever chair they currently occupy. Even the receptionist should constantly be evaluating how they can do their job better — after all, they’re the company’s brand ambassador to clients (both current and potential) and to possible new hires. How the receptionist greets existing employees can help them start the day on a more positive note (and thus potentially contribute more to the company). That’s the power of thinking strategically from every seat: by developing their strategic skills, anyone can elevate their game and improve their own leadership potential.
Short-Term and Long-Term Thinking
Leaders need to remember at all times that they are judged according to how their staff perform. Therefore, in all of their planning they need to set their personal bar high and take steps to ensure that their employees meet those same high standards.
In the short term, planning should involve:
- Hiring the best people available (and not holding on to poor performers)
- Providing top-notch onboarding
- Ensuring that staff have the training they need to perform at their best
- Focusing the team’s efforts on one or two metrics that help the business most
In the long term, planning should involve:
- Building a team that can react quickly to challenges and changes
- Identifying — and addressing — the obstacles to productivity
- Identifying — and seizing! — growth opportunities for the team
- Creating succession plans for critical positions
- Cataloguing employee skills (leaders who have this information at their fingertips when future opportunities or challenges arise will better positioned to tap the right people for them)
However, no goal — whether short term or long term — is fully attainable without strategic thinking! Certain approaches work especially well for improving skills in each area of strategic thinking
When examining either the organization’s goals or their own goals, leaders should use these three methodologies to help them fine tune their targets and how to reach them.
Use introspection to figure out the current state, including which areas need improvement and which issues are the highest priority to address. Next, determine what the ideal future state is. This can be defined specifically (such as “increase social engagement by a factor of X” or “decrease absenteeism by 25 percent”) or broadly (such as “create a more inclusive work culture”). Then identify ways to bridge the gap between the current state and the future state. It doesn’t matter if the solutions are qualitative or quantitative (or both), but they must be specific and trackable.
Identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that are most relevant to the organization. As anyone who grew up in the 80s watching the G.I. Joe cartoon show is well aware, “knowing is half the battle,” and once these categories have been filled and specific points to address have been identified, it’s much easier to map a path forward.
Also called an Ishikawa diagram (after Kaoru Ishikawa, the Japanese organizational management theorist who developed it), this tool links a problem to its possible causes. Its graphics-based depiction of the data makes it easier to see the connections between causes and effects and therefore easier to address problematic areas.
Eager for input
The best leaders know that they don’t know everything, so they surround themselves with smart people and listen to them. When leaders understand that it’s more important to get things right than to be right — and that it’s okay to admit their own shortcomings — they gain access to information and tools that can improve the success of their projects. Leaders should ask questions and listen with an open mind to what others say.
Focused on the long term
Achieving big goals takes both time and effort. (Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all!) So always keep the big picture in mind. For example, strategic thinkers do their research on upcoming trends (such as technology developments, hiring practices, and skills gaps) so they can be prepared to meet them. At the same time, though, they keep both feet on the ground: rather than plan for every possible paradigm shift, they conserve their mental energy for the future scenarios that might actually come to pass.
Willing to take risks
A leader who says “That’s not how we do things around here” needs to rethink how they approach strategy. Anyone who doesn’t want their company (and their career) to get stuck in a rut needs to push themselves beyond their comfort zone sometimes and embrace uncertainty. Strategic thinkers encourage their people to take risks (and make mistakes!), and they recognize and reward informed (but not reckless) risk taking. Most importantly, they give their people some autonomy to make these decisions. In other words: strategic thinkers trust their employees.
Adept at prioritizing time
An action priority matrix helps measure the impact of each task and the effort needed to complete it. (Though often credited to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, this simple technique actually has its origins in a method favored by Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he described, borrowing the words of an unnamed college president, in a speech in 1954:
I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.
This approach is clear, concise, and effective. When thinking about how to prioritize, keep the following two questions in mind (and answer them honestly):
- Am I focusing on easy tasks (e.g., quick wins, fillers) and actively avoiding the challenging chores on my plate?
- Am I being truly productive — or am I just being busy?
Once the priorities are identified, don’t get derailed by less important matters. Strategic thinkers focus on their most challenging projects when they’re at their peak mental state. (A “morning person,” for example, might tackle their difficult tasks first thing in the day.)
Even people who do a great job of anticipating and preparing for possibilities occasionally look up to see something totally unexpected barreling toward them. At that moment, all they can do is figure out how respond to it quickly so they don’t lose their momentum. Do they try to duck around it and avoid it completely? Do they try to take hold of it and see what happens? The specific response varies according to the situation, of course, but the best way to be generally prepared for the unexpected is not to fear change.
Fear of change can divide workplaces, increase employee disengagement and turnover, lead to missed deadlines and drops in productivity, cause clients to take their business elsewhere, stunt innovation, and results in tons of other problem. In short, fear of change is bad. But change itself can often be very good, and if leaders and their staff are nimble — able to respond quickly and effectively — they can handle anything that comes their way. In addition to being prepared, strategic thinkers work to cultivate among their employees a mindset that values flexibility and creativity, and encourages colleagues and departments to help each other navigate challenging situations.
Committed to lifelong learning
When strategic thinkers become aware of something new that could have a big impact on their organization or industry (e.g., technology developments, new data analysis methods), they learn what they can about it — including how it can be helpful for their company and for their own career. When opportunities to learn from past experiences present themselves (for example, in reflections on what worked — and what didn’t — in a previous project), seize them. “Knowledge is power,” as the saying goes, and in the corporate world that type of power can help someone lead a capable and engaged team, spur their career to new heights, or contribute to their organization’s success — or all three!
First and foremost, strategic thinkers make a conscious effort to change their style of thinking. If leaders don’t actively search for new paths, they and their teams (and their company) will be stuck on the same road indefinitely — which means they won’t innovate. Here are just a few of the many great techniques for fostering creativity:
- Step away from work entirely, especially when feeling “stuck.” Taking a break from a work-related task and spending time on something completely different (such as going for a walk, drawing a picture, baking a pie, building an Adirondack chair — whatever!) can give the mind time to refresh itself and make space for new ideas to “sneak” in.
- Lie down for a few minutes. The simple act of relaxing can make it possible to resume projects or tasks with a renewed vigor.
- Try fun a “what if?” exercise to encourage staff to see things from a new perspective. For example, ask a team “What would you do if you had an extra million dollars in your budget?” After they come up with a list, revise the amount to $100,000 dollars, and then again to $10,000. Sometimes experiments in big, bold thinking can line people up to innovate on a smaller scale.
This strategy represents our policy for all time. Until it’s changed.
— Marlin Fitzwater
Leaders who strive to improve their skills as strategic thinkers must remember that this is a process, not a one-and-done event. It takes constant work, and it’s easy to lose momentum. So it’s critical that leaders block out time every day to work on strategic thinking — in ways that benefit their company and in ways that benefit them personally. When enthusiasm, effort, and energy are applied to this task, they create fertile ground in which strategic thinking skills can grow.