Every senior leader I know understands the importance of "being strategic." The leadership development literature extols the necessity of developing strategic thinking. It is one of the major roles of executives. It is no wonder therefore that most leaders I know believe themselves to BE strategic. But are they? And what does it mean to be strategic and how do you recognize it if someone really is anyway?
Here are a few things I have learned:
• It's a lot like what the famous Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said about pornography. It may be hard to describe but most people believe they "know it when they see it."
• One person's strategy is another person's tactic. Just read a series of supposed strategy statements to a group of individuals and ask them to evaluate if the statement is tactical or strategic, and you'll see what I mean.
• For those who are not highly strategic (and I know how you feel), it is something you can mechanically develop…but most of the stuff written about it isn't particularly helpful in helping you understand what it *really* is or whether you're *really* doing it.
Recently, however, I worked with a group of leaders, who admitted to struggling with this, so we dug in to how to help them truly grasp this concept and better their competencies in being strategic. Here is what we did…
First, I collected several different definitions of strategy, both from "experts" and from the web. Here is what I found. Strategy is…
• A direction an organization takes with the aim of achieving future business success
• Dedicated to gaining advantage over adversaries or seizing emerging possibilities
• Creates a set of options to address the element of uncertainty about the future
• A competitive position: "deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value."
• An action that managers take to attain one or more of the organization's goals.
Second, I asked the group to talk through what is common in these definitions. They did not need to create their own definition, but several themes were helpful to them to grasp the concept. These included themes about purposeful choice, competitive advantage, winning/success, and direction—all based on an ambiguous but informed future.
Third, we looked at their organization's strategy and they had a candid conversation about what it meant to them, what made sense, what they were confused about and what further information would be necessary for them to make this meaningful.
Next, we invited their executives in to discuss the organization's strategy…how it was created, what assumptions and beliefs about the past, present and future was behind it, what it was like to participate in updating it from previous iterations, and how they were currently using it. They asked their questions and a great dialog ensued. What became clear was THIS discussion was way more valuable than just sharing the strategy statement. It revealed what didn't make it in the strategy and why, what disagreements arose as it was discussed, what "the words" really meant, and what organizational issues and assumptions about the future were considered. The candor about how the statements were an organizational "bet" about how best to succeed in the future, but a well-informed one. It was reassuring and engaging.
These high potential leaders stopped trying to figure out what the words meant, but instead engaged in the real reason you develop strategy in the first place. These leaders better understood the future they were trying to create, why that future was critical, and how to choose priorities for action, from among the millions of "to dos" and fires they faced every day. These leaders couldn't wait to go back to their managers/leaders to talk about what they learned and how it could help focus their staff on the "right things."
The strategy came alive, and these leaders developed what we defined as strategic thinking in the real-world. It wasn't about finding THE right answer but understanding the information that was needed and considered, asking lots of questions without having to know definitive answers, listening to different perspectives, and looking as far into an uncertain future as was possible to do. Then, choosing purposely what to focus on and prioritize. All future actions could then be compared to that to decide if it was in support of or extraneous to the strategy.
It didn't matter how naturally strategic these leaders perceived themselves to be. It didn't matter what the correct definition/description of strategy should be. The exercise increased the strategic competencies of all these leaders because it widened their perspectives about the organization and what was important enterprise wide. It created a safe place for them to talk about what they knew and didn't know. They were able to ask questions to a receptive and open audience, and that allowed them to own the strategy and prepare to better coach and mobilize their teams for the next couple years. If you need to build the strategic capabilities in your organization and/or better execute on your strategy, give this a try. I'd be glad to share my experiences.