How to Become a Strategic Thinker

Marissa was asked recently to lead an important project team. Her New York City-based pharmaceutical company believes she has the leadership skills needed for this critical work. They are especially excited about her ability to think strategically and how vital that is to the success of this project. 

Two other team members were considered for the lead, but it was judged that their strategic thinking skills fell short. When they were each informed of the decision, they were encouraged to “improve their strategic skills.” The discussion was positive and supportive, but no specifics were offered. After, they thought, “What does Marissa have that we don’t?”

This happens often. Leaders are “strategic,” right? Yes, they are. However people often fall into the trap of defining a word by using the word itself — Most of us have heard some variation of, “We’d like you to strengthen your strategic thinking skills by approaching your work in a more strategic way and reflecting more on the strategic aspects of your job.” What in the world does that mean?

Make “Being Strategic” Tangible and Actionable

So let’s get more specific. As executive coaches, here’s our assessment of some real,  concrete attitudes and behaviors that make Marissa a “strategic” thinker. Examine these ideas yourself and explore how they can help you be a stronger strategic thinker. 

Stop and look up!

Strategic thinking begins with lifting your head up from your desk — looking up from your day-to-day work tasks and responsibilities, and observing and thinking about the larger world in which your are operating.

Consider context

When you elevate your thinking and lift your head up, you break away from your regular patterns of thought — action items, tactics, data points, and project implementation. How does (or could) your work connect with:

  • Changes in your company’s marketplace?
  • How your company thrives financially?
  • The values that drive your company’s culture?
  • Trends in the economy?
  • Trends in your industry?
  • What your competitors are doing (or not doing)?

Ask yourself not only how your work connects with this context, but how you might change your work to better connect with context — context that your CEO thinks about constantly!

Go beyond the horizon line

Think about how your work is related to the long-term. Go beyond this month’s reports and explore how your work might relate to the company’s prosperity one, three, and five years from now. This effort also means that you’ll find yourself looking at larger, higher-level pieces of information and data sets.

Think above your station

We have all heard this phrase. Now apply it to your career and your work. If you were the team project lead, or the VP of your division, or the CEO, how might you be processing and analyzing your context and your long-term view?

  • What kinds of opportunities would you be seeking?
  • What would your biggest concerns be?
  • What problems would you be seeking to solve?

An essential fact of career development is that people get promoted because they think above their station. Senior leaders need to see you as “ready” for the next level. For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, (link to 12/30/20 blog: “Career Advancement: Hard Work Is Not Enough.”

OK, now look back down!

Use the knowledge you have from “being in the weeds,” to solve for strategic issues. For example, if you see a problem each month with a report you have to prepare, ask yourself if that might be a reflection of a strategic level issue?Perhaps the company doesn’t have the right software in place, or too many people are assigned to the report, causing inefficiencies? Perhaps the report tracks the wrong thing and you have discovered the issue lies elsewhere? What can you use from your more tactical position to answer a strategic question?


Strategic thinking comes naturally to very few of us. Practice lifting your head up, thinking about context, thinking about the long-term, and stepping into the shoes of your organizational leaders. This typically means you are getting out of your comfort zone. For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Beyond Your Comfort Zone: Grow in the Learning Zone.”

The next critical step is to begin to act upon and demonstrate your evolving strategic perspective. For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Five Ways to Progress From Worker Bee to Strategic Asset.”

Strong strategic thinking has long been recognized as one of the most important skills needed for leadership. Executive coaches frequently work with their clients to improve their strategic thinking skills to help them move successfully into new roles and higher levels of responsibility and authority. We believe that the ability to think and act strategically will be more important and more valued in 2021 (and beyond) than ever before.

To learn more about how to think strategically and build your leadership skills, contact the executive coaches at Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.