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5 ways you can become more strategic and why it’s essential if you want to grow your career

Strategic thinking

There’s something very seductive about being a tactician. It has clear responsibilities. The focus is on today and tomorrow rather than the vaguer possibilities of the long-term future. It asks you take action and move towards a defined goal.

‘I started out as the ultimate tactician,’ says Dona Munsch, former Vice President of Cloud Operations at NetApp. ‘I had this continuous drive to enjoy the intoxicating buzz of checking off things on my list.’

Diving into the detail is a hallmark of tactical thinking. And, as author Nacie Carson says, ‘Tactics can be anything from completing a market analysis to finalising a logo.’

However, to become the person who sets the strategy rather than the one actioning it, you must be able to open your mind to the bigger picture — the place where not every detail is pinned down.

To a considerable extent, the shift from tactician to strategist asks you to step into the unknown and imagine the possibilities and challenges you might encounter there.

To help you embrace your strategic potential and step confidently into a position of business leadership excellence, here are our five steps to success

 

1. You still need the detail — but don’t get lost in it

In the words of former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch: ‘You've got to eat while you dream. You've got to deliver on short-range commitments, while you develop a long-range strategy and vision and implement it.’

A balance of strategy and tactics is essential for business success. What changes as you rise up through your organisation is how you fit into that process.

As the head of a department or particular function within your business, you may have been celebrated for your attention to detail, for being a ‘doer’. In your new strategic role, you need to be a ‘thinker’ — and a visionary too.

During the research for her book The Finch Effect, Nacie observed that the most adaptive business professionals were both tactical and strategic. With this combined knowledge, they were able to help their teams ‘connect and improve their day-to-day activities with the larger goals and vision for the project, department, or company.’

Your skillset must include the ability to move between the details and the bigger picture. It’s what Michael Watkins, the career transitions expert behind the Seismic Shifts concept, describes as ‘level shifting’.

Notice how these different perspectives relate to and impact each other — and then, to avoid the mire of the minutiae, delegate the tactical realisation of your resulting strategy to others.

 

2. Look for the connection between A and Z

As part of the evolution from tactician to strategist, Watkins talks about the ability to recognise patterns: being able to ‘take a complex, noisy, jumbled environment and discern what’s really crucial about it’. It’s a version of creating order out of chaos — but in this instance the order is ultimately a coherent strategy.

According to business journalist Brenna McDermott, ‘What holds many people back from being good at strategic thinking is that they’re in too big of a hurry. The temptation is just too great to arrive at a fast (and likely wrong) conclusion.’

The process of pattern recognition involves taking the time to look at multiple sources of information before developing a viewpoint — and encouraging your team to do the same when appropriate. It’s an opportunity to challenge prevailing assumptions and test out different hypotheses before reaching a conclusion.

The Project Management Institute website notes that many leaders fall prey to ‘analysis paralysis’ and recommends developing a process for interrogating information. It also suggests resisting the urge to seek out a perfect answer. You need to arrive at a ‘good enough’ position — ‘balance speed, rigour, quality and agility’ and be prepared to take a stand even with incomplete information and diverging viewpoints.

Total consensus is rare, it says. It’s up to you as a leader to ‘foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders’.

 

3. Think bigger and wider

As a strategist, you need to be thinking about the long-term future of the business, shifting your focus away from what’s immediately in front of you.

As you go about your day-to-day routine, Munsch suggests thinking about your ‘time horizon’ and where your current behaviour is going to make its impact. 

‘Is it for today, tomorrow, a year from now, or five years from now? Am I being very tactical in what I'm doing, focused on today and tomorrow, or am I looking toward things that will happen two years from now?’

If you’re concentrating on the Now and Next, it’s time to broaden your horizons. Carving out the time to look at longer-term planning is essential — and you might find there’s a particular time of day or a place that makes this easier.

Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely has said that she wakes up an hour earlier than she needs to every morning so she can drive around Atlanta — because she does her best thinking in the car. Meanwhile, for Minted CEO and founder Mariam Naficy, running by the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is the secret to ‘thinking big’.

 

4. Consider the reaction to your actions

Part of your intellectual suppleness as a strategic thinker revolves around your ability to work with mental simulations, our mind’s ability to imagine taking a specific action and then predict the possible outcomes.

Mental simulation gives you a space to really think about how, for example, your competitors, regulators, the media and the public might respond to what you’ve got in mind.

This ability to project forwards and then reason backwards, as Watkins puts it, allows you to create a strategy that is more robust and more likely to have the necessary built-in contingencies. 

 

5. Hone your communication skills

You may have come up with the best possible strategy for your business, but unless your team and key stakeholders understand it, you’ve wasted your time.

Forbes recently described communication as the ‘tenth commandment of strategic planning’ and, as Watkins says: ‘If you’re not willing to do the hard work — and it is hard work — of communicating it, communicating it and communicating it some more, until people really understand, not just the strategy but what it means for them right at the local level, then you haven’t accomplished what you need to.’

This is where you need to be crystal clear on the Why of your plan. Your tacticians will take care of the How. And make sure you avoid making it too complicated.

One of the founders of the Boston Consulting Group, Bruce Henderson, described strategy as ‘powerful simplifications’. This reflects the importance of mastering the art of distillation to make your strategy more accessible to those who need to work with it. What should your audience know that will make it relevant to them and what’s the best way for you to present that information? Know who you’re talking to and what they care about.

‘I had many high-powered sales and marketing professionals who reported to me,’ said Abby Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments, ‘but I also had thousands of call centre representatives reporting to me. I had to learn to communicate to very different types of groups of managers with different orientations, different priorities.’

Meeting your people where they are is the first step. Then as a leader, you have to take them with you on the journey. And, as Marilyn Hewson, Strategic Advisor at Lockheed Martin, observes, this is where you can shine.

‘Good leaders organise and align people around what the team needs to do. Great leaders motivate and inspire people with why they're doing it. That's purpose. And that's the key to achieving something truly transformational.’

 

To help you develop your strategic skillset, read our interview with everywoman Associate Pippa Isbell: STRATEGIC THINKING: WHAT IT MEANS AND HOW YOU DO IT.

For more about making the transition from functional management to business leadership, take a look at the first two articles in our Seven Seismic Shifts series: Why you need to stop ‘specialising’ and get more ‘general’ to grow your career and Stop analysing, start integrating: why this is essential advice for aspiring leaders.