If you’ve ever received feedback that you “need to be more strategic,” you know how frustrating it can feel. To add insult to injury, the feedback rarely comes with any concrete guidance on what to do about it.
So what specific steps can you take to be more strategic in your current role?
Start by changing your mindset. If you believe that strategic thinking is only for senior executives, think again. It can, and must, happen at every level of your organisation; it’s one of those unwritten parts of all job descriptions. Ignore this fact and you risk getting passed over for a promotion, or having your budget cut because your department’s strategic contribution is unclear. Once you’ve accepted that it’s part of your job, focus on developing four key abilities that demonstrate your strategic prowess.
In order to be strategic, you need a solid understanding of the your industry, the trends within it and business drivers behind it. An intellectua appreciation of the importance of bringing in current data and seeking trends isn’t enough.
You also have to:
• Make it a routine exercise to explore the internal trends in your day-to-day work. For example, pay attention to the issues that get raised over and over in your organisation and gain knowledge of the common obstacles your colleagues face.
• Be proactive about connecting with peers, both in your organisation and in your sector to understand their observations of the marketplace. Then, share your findings across your network.
• Understand the unique information and perspective that your function provides and define its impact on the corporate level strategy. With a fresh understanding of trends and issues, you can practice using strategic thinking by asking yourself, “How do I broaden what I consider?” Question are the language of strategy. For example, when working on an employee retention project you could ask yourself, “What does success look like in Year 1?” “What does it look like in Year 3?” “What could impact the outcome in a negative way?” “What are the early signs of success/ failure?” “What do business partners need to understand to ensure its success?” and “Do the outcomes support the broader goals of the organisation?” By asking these tough questions first, you can better engage with colleagues and senior executives early on in ways that can benefit the overall project.
Strategic thinkers also know how tospeak the language. They prioritise and sequence their thoughts. They structure their verbal and written communication in a way that helps their audience focus on their core message. They challenge the status quo and get people talking about underlying assumptions. Those that are really skilled walk people through the process of identifying issues, shaping common understanding, and framing strategic choices. If this sounds complex, that’s because it is. But there are ways you can start honing these skills:
• Add more structure to your written and verbal communication. Group and logically order your main points, and keep things as succinct as possible.
• Prime your audience by giving them a heads up on the overarching topics you want to address so they are prepared to engage in a higher level conversation, not just the tactical details.
• Practice giving the answer first, instead of building up to your main point. Act: Make Time for Thinking and Embrace Conflict It can difficult to contribute strategically without the time to reflect on the issues and to ponder options. It is important to evaluate tasks based on urgency and importance as outlined in Stephen Covey’s 2 x 2 matrix. Stop going to meetings that you don’t need to be at, for example. Make time for thinking on your calendar and stick to it, just as you would for other diaried meetings. There are of course other key skills. Embrace debate and invite challenge, without letting it get personal so that you can ask tough questions. To do this, focus on issues, not people, and use neutral peers to challenge you thinking. To manage the inevitable ambiguity that arises when you ask more questions, learn to clarify your decision-making criteria, which wil allow you to better act in the face of imperfect information.
The quest to build your strategic skills can be uncomfortable. At first, you might feel like you’re kicking up sand in the ocean. Your vision will be blurred as you manage through the unsettling feelings that come with challenging your own assumptions and gaining comfort with conflict and curiosity. Once the dust settles, however, and you’re able to contribute at a higher level, you’ll be glad you took the risk.