LET’S GET STRATEGIC! De-Mystifying the S Word in Leadership

By Nora Infante, Psy.D.    

Every rising executive at some point or another will encounter the mandate to develop their strategic thinking skills in order to grow and elevate their leadership impact.  For many, the journey from operational to strategic can seem mysterious and intimidating.  Strategy can be a perplexing subject.  It is scientific and complex in its process and analysis, yet it is often informed by gut or instinct; the elegantly simple strategy that can be the most effective.

Developing and honing strategic skills are often a client’s goal for coaching.  And even when not the primary goal, thinking and acting strategically almost always becomes part of a leadership development conversation.

So, what exactly does “becoming more strategic” mean, why is it important, and how do you get there?

Let’s take a few minutes to answer those three questions and get familiar with the, sometimes daunting, S word: Strategy.

What it means to be a strategic leader

It is very likely that for you to succeed in your career and rise within your organization, you will need to develop strong operational skills: the ability to manage teams towards efficiency through delegation, development, feedback, etc. Operational skills keep an organization moving in the necessary manner to meet and maintain current state.

However, when the status quo is disrupted in some manner, and the business needs to respond and adjust to a set of critical factors (think everything about the pandemic), sound strategy is necessary to address the longer-term issues facing the business.  Here are some examples of what a strategic leader looks like:

  • A strategic leader is able to see the bigger picture in order to find innovative and creative solutions to problems.
  • A strategic leader knows how to mine its employees for ideas and insight that help broaden the scope of potential solutions, but also to build teams engaged and committed to being part of a solution.
  • A strategic leader is on constant alert for internal and external trends that will impact the business and is prepared to analyze them and make decisions that will mitigate risk and respond to opportunity.

In summary, a strategic leader has learned to build high functioning teams that allow the leader the time to pay attention at a higher level to the needs, present and future of the organization.

Why is it important

Every business exists in a competitive landscape (no matter what the business is) and must respond with clear strategic goals to address the unique competition.  These strategic goals must be continuously reevaluated.  Some examples of why strategy is so important to keeping competitive:

  • Being competitive means not remaining stagnant. You may not be failing, but you are not growing either.
  • Being competitive means the output of effort has direction and purpose. As opposed your team being busy but not productive.
  • Being competitive means your resources are secure. Time and money are not leaking away.
  • Being competitive means you are as prepared as possible for unseen flux that might blindside the business and cause expensive setbacks.
  • Being competitive means you are a futurist thinking about emerging opportunities to grow, diversify and excel using data and analytics to check your assumptions.

How to get there

Too often senior executives tell me that their people are not good strategic thinkers; yet few resources are spent helping their people become the strategic thinkers they know the organization needs.  In an of itself a failure of strategic thinking!

The most important element of being a good strategic thinker is having a “learner mindset.”  This curiosity for learning permeates every aspect of strategic thinking.  The journey of getting to good strategy involves self-awareness, organizational awareness, strong business acumen.  Awareness and acumen are achieved only through diligent listening and observation.  There are plenty of data systems that can help organize what you are learning from listening and observing, which can aid in implementation—but the acts of listening and observing are where it begins.

Self-awareness is key.  It is your singular greatest leadership asset and the lack of self-awareness is your greatest stumbling block to success.  As a strategic leader you need to understand how you approach challenges, what your biases are, how you make decisions, etc.  Good strategic thinking requires a fine balance of competencies, and without knowing where you stand you will not be able to develop your skills in the right direction.

Therefore, one of the first steps in developing strategic thinking skills is a proper assessment of one’s learning and processing styles.  As mentioned earlier, strategic thinking requires a special blend of data, analysis and instinct.  It is important to know if you are a leader who suffers from analysis paralysis.  Or if you rely on scientific data versus experience, to the exclusion of the other.  Or if you care too much, or too little about how others might judge your decision.  Or if you let preconceived biases overly influence your perspective. Or if you are quick to react and move forward without the proper due diligence.  All these possibilities exist and can be addressed through a good assessment tool.  (While, my preference has always been the Hogan Leadership Assessment, there are many other good tools to help you learn more about the factors at play in your decision-making).

Finally, back to the importance of a learning mindset and the art of listening.  Good strategic thinking is only as good as the data being used to address your strategic goal.  Data used in strategic thinking is importantly a blend of gathered quantitative data (statistic measures, field and economic trends, etc.) along with your expert qualitative observations (what you learned from listening to others internal and external to the organization).  In order to orient your data collection appropriately to your strategic goal, ask the right questions, and never stop asking them.

The three questions I recommend are:

  • What do we know for sure?
  • What do we think we know?
  • What do we know for sure we don’t know?

And remember to always argue against your conclusions in order to identify gaps and weaknesses in your thinking.

Becoming a strategic leader is a discipline.  It requires rigor, time management and the confident humility to always be asking questions and moving out of your comfort zone. 

  • Empower others to become the operational executers.
  • Listen frequently and collect data constantly.
  • Know yourself so you are continuously developing your learning mindset.

If you follow these tips, you are well on your way to becoming a valuable strategic leader who competitively drives your business forward in a dynamic and rapidly changing world.

And remember to have fun learning and growing for your own benefit and that of your organization!

Elevate your Leadership Potential

To learn more about building culture and executive coaching, reach out to Nora for a consultation.