The Holy Grail of Strategy — How Leaders Can Be More Strategic
CEOs want their senior team to 'be strategic'. Managers aren't being promoted until they 'become more strategic'.
Everyone would agree that leadership and strategy are desirable, but what does being strategic really mean? These buzzwords are mentioned daily at work but often misunderstood. Good leaders are offered little guidance on how to become more strategic and how this translates to day-to-day work.
The Bigger Picture
Although it is a management cliché, being able to see the bigger picture remains surprisingly difficult in the middle of a busy day. Tackling a specific issue whilst also observing the wider situation requires an agile mind.
Managers need to stay on top of details, collect relevant data and analyse facts. But in some cases, like Mark's, an over reliance on data can leave you stuck in a rut. Stepping back and exploring the situation more broadly at these times is an important skill.
Seeing the bigger picture is more about thinking than doing. Workplaces are preoccupied with doing.
Momentarily pausing the action is tough, especially working within demanding timeframes. But thinking has to be seen as important work too. A wider focus is needed to tackle longer term, stubborn challenges.
Mark began taking time to just think things through before jumping to action. He could be found staring out of the window on occasion, pondering the situation. When he felt uncomfortable 'doing nothing' he booked out time in his diary called 'strategic planning'. He then felt justified in creating open space for reflection. He had more insights and could see the bigger picture when he took the time
Redefine The Challenges
Work can be fighting fires at a tactical level or tackling chal-lenges faced by the whole organisation or industry.
If you are valued as a troubleshooter, you are likely to roll your sleeves up and get stuck into the immediate crisis. It is tempting for managers to rely on technical expertise for addressing problems, but leadership challenges can rarely be solved using a technical approach alone.
Rather than just being the specialist in his area, Mark started seeking out opposing points of view and identifying the competing agendas that sat around the challenge. He weighed up the longer-term consequences of certain actions. He discovered the ability to see issues from the perspective of other functions in his organisation, as well as considering the views of external stakeholders.
Instead of asking, How can I fix it?, he began to ask different questions, such as, Who will be affected by this? What will the impact be on our customers? What would the xyz team make of this? How does this immediate issue relate to broader things happening around here?
Relying less on technical find it and fix it know-how and moving to a more strategic approach is a big shift that requires healthy confidence and the willingness to seek out a less immediate, but likely more impactful, solution.
Influence Without Authority
Being more strategic puts less reliance on traditional rules and pathways through the work hierarchy. Silo busting is fundamental to getting new things happening outside formal reporting lines and beyond the usual boundaries.
Mark dropped into other work groups more often. He could be found asking lots of questions and asking to be involved in meetings that were only partially related to his division.
People who are more strategic not only delegate specific tasks but are prepared to hand over projects, processes and even entire platforms or units. Leaders who can free themselves from tasks can concentrate on connecting more pieces of the puzzle and maintaining vision. Keeping in touch with a particular function is important, but drowning in details doesn't contribute to influencing overall direction. Regular conversations with a diverse audience will foster relationships that can really make a difference.
Build Capacity In Others
Stepping back from details and handing over functional responsibilities is only possible if there is capacity in the organisation. Part of being strategic involves concentrat-ing your efforts on building others' capabilities as well as maintaining your individual expertise.
Although it is gratifying to be the expert, enabling other people is more important.
Undertaking a coaching approach to people managing projects will build capacity. Keeping an eye on the total capability in the organisation distinguishes a technical expert from a strategic leader. CEOs and senior mangers also need to know how to give specific feedback to help people become more strategic in their work.
Be More Visible
Mark realised he was becoming more visible around the place. With an eye on building the capacity of his team, moving around other divisions and stepping out of the detail, more people knew and recognised him.
He needed to develop more political nous. The increased level of visibility meant Mark had to be aware of the impact of his behaviours on other people and ensure he was being a role model. Mark found his communication with people was more focused on vision and goals than on technical or functional information.
CEO's and boards universally say they want their senior team to take more initiative and to be prepared to make a stand on issues that matter. 'Yes' men and women are not valued as highly as those willing to stand up and be counted during important debates. This is not easy if your perspective is unpopular and different to the major-ity.
Be well prepared and use your influence wisely - choose the appropriate delivery and the right forum.
Try not to get stuck in tired ways of working. Becoming more strategic means being agile and ready to take advantage of new opportunities as the context changes. Being aware of shifting conditions is vital and ongoing learning is at the heart of the approach.