Menu

How to Demonstrate Your Strategic Thinking Skills

We all know that developing strategic thinking skills is important, but many don’t realize how critical it is to your career advancement to show these skills to your boss and other senior leaders. Showing strategic thinking skills tells your bosses that you’re able to think for yourself and make decisions that position the organization for the future. It assures them that you aren’t making decisions in a vacuum but are considering how other departments might be affected or how the outside world will respond.

When I’m helping my coaching clients learn to think more strategically, I emphasize that developing and demonstrating these skills are very different challenges.

  • Developing great strategic thinking skills requires you to gain exposure to strategic roles, synthesize broad information, participate in a culture of curiosity, and gather experiences that allow you to identify patterns and connect the dots in novel ways. That’s why high-potential and leadership development programs often include job rotations, cross-functional projects, and face time with senior leadership — these all accelerate the development of strategic thinking.
  • Demonstrating strategic thinking, on the other hand, requires that you are simultaneously a marketer, a salesperson, and a change agent. Proactive and widespread communication of your strategic efforts combined with the courage to challenge others and initiate and drive your strategic ideas are what make your boss and peers take notice.

The case of one of my coaching clients illustrates the steps you need to take to show off your strategic thinking skills. Tim Waters (not his real name), vice president of the U.S. supply chain for a growing medical products company, hoped to be named global senior vice president of supply chain but sensed that his promotion discussions were stalled. Tim had a good reputation for responding to business unit leads, and he worked tirelessly and effectively to keep the supply chain functioning well. He was therefore surprised to receive informal feedback from the head of HR, a longtime colleague and friend, who said that a few influential executives had voiced concern that Tim “wasn’t strategic enough.” These executives felt Tim was good at keeping the trains running, but he had not driven proactive change in the organization or set a strategic vision for supply chain. Tim was a strong strategic thinker, but he wasn’t doing it in a way his bosses could see it. He decided to engage an executive coach to help him learn how to demonstrate these skills.

Bring a point of view to the table

Your leaders want to know what you think, and they view your worthiness for promotion through the lens of how ready you are to make bigger decisions. By asking yourself, “Do people know where I stand?” you can sharpen your ability to demonstrate this skill.

Tim made efforts to update his understanding of trends and to refresh his network but realized that he wasn’t putting the knowledge learned to good use. One of the first changes he made was to instruct his assistant to block out 30 minutes on his calendar before important meetings. He knew that barely having time to collect his thoughts before going into meetings made him unprepared, less vocal, and less capable of synthesizing and sharing his knowledge. Just a half hour, once or twice a week, would allow him to shape his point of view on important issues.

Tim’s efforts began to pay off over time, and he was able to shift his contributions in senior executive meetings from operational input to strategic input. He took time to package his ideas into a vision for the organization and engaged his peers in new discussions about how the vision could impact their areas.

Having greater clarity of vision also enhanced Tim’s effectiveness as a supervisor. Tim was able to see how his team was missing the specific skills needed to support the vision. Now, instead of having reactive discussions with his HR business partner, he was able to engage in forward-looking discussions about strategic hiring and leadership development opportunities for his team. Demonstrating that you think strategically about hiring and talent development is a surefire way to make your leaders notice you.

Show that you can initiate innovation and bring strategic change

To be viewed as a strategic thinker, you must also demonstrate that you can use your knowledge to put new ideas into action. No matter your level, you can demonstrate strategic thinking by executing an innovative project that shows that your understanding extends beyond your current function.

Tim channeled the new energy and vision he had gained into a strategic planning process that culminated in formal recommendations for the supply chain group. Tim communicated the project and its milestones across the organization, allowing the executive team to see that he could lead a strategic initiative; previously, Tim would have kept it behind the scenes. Boldly suggesting value-added changes was a welcome shift to both Tim and his colleagues. Tim felt he had greater control, projecting greater confidence because he was no longer just reacting to others’ suggestions and issues, and Tim’s colleagues also appreciated that he was initiating improvements without their prodding.

Tim’s journey to demonstrating strategic thinking took him longer than he had expected, but over time, his boss, peers, and team noticed the changes and viewed them positively. Tim was promoted to the global role a year later and was ultimately better equipped to navigate the role.

Adapted from the HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically by Nina Bowman.


Nina A. Bowman is a Managing Partner at Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. Previously, she held various advisory and leadership roles in strategy. She is an executive coach and speaker on issues of strategic leadership, leadership presence, and interpersonal effectiveness. She is also a contributing author to the HBR Guide to Coaching Employees and HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically.

Read more...

Being a Strategic Leader Is About Asking the Right Questions

If you asked the world’s most successful business leaders what it means to “be strategic,” how many different answers do you think you’d get? Consider this number: 115,800,000. It’s the number of unique links returned when I searched online for “strategic leadership.”

There’s a good reason for all of those links: Strategy is complex. Thought leaders from all over the world have created sophisticated frameworks designed to help leaders grapple with their own strategies at an abstract level. But the reality is that strategy succeeds or fails based on how well leaders at every level of an organization integrate strategic thinking into day-to-day operations. This is less about complexity and more about practical focus.

How can you personally be more strategic as a leader? Consider asking yourself and your team the five questions below to drive clarity, alignment, and strategic insight. The questions build on one another, leading to a well-aligned, strategic perspective. If you make these five questions part of your ongoing dialog, you will inevitably become more strategic and more successful as a team.

1. What are we doing today?

Leaders are often surprised at just how much they don’t know about what team members are working on. Here’s why: Over time, organizations add more and more to the plates of various teams and employees. While leaders and team members talk at length about new initiatives and assignments, they focus less on legacy work that’s still being done. At some point leaders lose sight of just how much time people are investing in legacy priorities. Asking this question almost always brings to light significant work that managers aren’t aware is being done or that’s taking much more time than it should. You can’t move your team forward strategically without knowing the answer to this question with total clarity.

2. Why are you doing the work you’re doing? Why now?

Once you’ve taken stock of all the work being done by your team, the next logical step is to examine the importance of the work being done. This serves two strategic purposes. First, you gain clarity on what’s important and why it’s important from your team’s perspective. You’ll likely uncover situations where you and your team are uncertain or in disagreement. This drives important conversations with your team about choices, resources, and trade-offs. Second, you have the opportunity to attach value and meaning to the work being done by your team. Everyone wants to believe that the work they do matters. It’s your job to understand and articulate that with your own team and across the organization. The only way you get there is with scrutiny.

3. How does what we’re doing today align with the bigger picture? 

Never underestimate the power of gaining total clarity about your own area of responsibility and then examining how well your work aligns with the broader goals of the organization. This is a discussion about gaps and outliers. If your team is working on something that doesn’t align with the broader purpose or goals of the organization, you have a responsibility to challenge the value of doing that work. This is true even if your team believes the work is important or meaningful. Does it bring value to your customers? Does it contribute to the highest priorities of the business? Work that benefits both your customers and your business should be the top priority. If you identify gaps not currently being addressed, more strategic discussion is needed. Are you doing exactly, and only, what most benefits your organization?

4. What does success look like for our team?

Chances are that you have a handful of measures that others use to evaluate your success. Do they tell the story of what success really looks like for your team? If you asked your team what success looks like for them individually and for the team overall, could they articulate an answer? The best strategic thinkers invest time here — not in trying to pacify their boss with a few measures that can readily be achieved, but in trying to understand what really drives success in terms of activities, behaviors, relationships, and strategic outcomes. The better you are able to align your team around a strong vision of success, the more likely you are to achieve it.

5. What else could we do to achieve more, better, faster?

Most leaders want to demonstrate their ability to “be strategic” by jumping directly to this question. If you haven’t done the work to answer the preceding questions, it almost doesn’t matter what you come up with here, because you may or may not be able to act on it. But if you do the work to answer the preceding questions, you are well positioned to be strategic in answering this one. You may identify new and better ways to serve the broader goals of your company. You may choose to redirect resources from current work that matters less in relative importance when compared to other new possibilities. This question is the most important of the five; every great leader needs to challenge their team to do more, better, or faster over time. It is, however, inextricably linked to the previous questions if you want to generate the best strategic insights.

The bottom line: Being a strategic leader is about asking the right questions and driving the right dialog with your team. In doing so, you raise the team’s collective ability to be strategic. The more competent you become in asking these questions, the better positioned you are to drive progress for your team and your organization.

Lisa Lai serves as an adviser, consultant, and coach for some of the world’s most successful leaders and companies. She is also a moderator of global leadership development programs for Harvard Business School Publishing. Follow her on FacebookTwitter, her Blog, or her website at www.laiventures.com.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/01/being-a-strategic-leader-is-about-asking-the-right-questions?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=17110384&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1020039204&spReportId=MTAyMDAzOTIwNAS2

Read more...