February 8, 2021
Developing Your Strategic Thinking Skills
It is a tale as old as time: a qualified candidate is ready to be promoted, but it never seems to happen. What if this common problem that leaders experience could be solved with one overlooked leadership quality?
If you want to ensure that you will be considered for higher-level positions, I suggest you focus on developing strategic thinking skills. In addition, you ought to consider how well you transmit your interest in your organization’s strategy to those around you.
Zenger Folkman’s research confirms that others’ perceptions of poor or absent skills in thinking strategically could be a significant anchor holding you back.
The majority of leaders have a sharp focus on operational, tactical, and interpersonal issues. They get projects done on time, solve difficult problems, delve into new technology, and resolve spats between subordinates and other groups. They assume that the successful execution of these activities puts them in contention for a higher-level position. Unfortunately, they are wrong.
Three Studies on Developing Strategic Thinking
We discovered that one of the most significant issues for the terminated group was the difference in their ratings of effectiveness on the leadership quality, “Strategic Vision.” Each of the executives had participated in a 360 feedback assessment where their manager, peers, direct reports, and others rated their effectiveness on a series of leadership competencies. The total population of leaders we assessed had an average score on Strategic Vision at the 54thpercentile. The group who was terminated scored at the 32nd percentile. Written comments about these leaders included comments such as, “Operations-oriented, not strategic” or “Handled narrow roles well, but floundered in organizational navigation and setting strategic direction.”
Note that the High Potential group was rated significantly higher on their effectiveness at Strategic Perspective than the Promotable group (T-Value = 5.607, sig. 0.000). To further verify our conclusions, we analyzed the data employing an experimental design where only 50% of the leaders were randomly selected for the analysis. The difference remained statistically significant (T-Value = 3.882, sig. 0.000).
These three studies show that a key characteristic that is highly correlated with promotion is the ability to think strategically. It does not differentiate leaders at other levels in the organization. For example, the number one leadership quality differentiating individual contributors from supervisors is Taking Initiative. But for senior leaders, the one competency that helped them stand out was Strategic Perspective.
Developing Strategic Thinking
Developing strategic thinking involves thinking about larger, macro issues, in contrast to the microfocus that many tend to take. Strategic thinking means seeing how the industry and the broader economy function. It also includes thinking long-term in contrast to near-term.
Being more strategic begins with a change in thinking. Instead of only focusing on operational, tactical, and interpersonal issues, begin to ask yourself tough questions such as, “Why do we operate in this particular way?”, “Why are our competitors doing so well?”, “Is there some organization out there that could disrupt our business?”, and “What changes in the future will have a significant impact on our business?”
To help us understand what leaders with high strategic thinking skills were doing differently, my colleague Jack Zenger and I looked at data from over 100,000 leaders. We sought to understand what else those who were most strategic were doing that helped them build that skill. We discovered five skills we call companion behaviors to Strategic Perspective. Leaders who were the most competent at Strategic Perspective were also very competent at these skills. We infer that improving these skills will help every leader become more strategic.
Changing’s Others Perceptions of Your Strategic Thinking Skills
The late Peter Drucker observed that career success does not merely depend on someone doing a good job. Bosses and colleagues need to know that the person is doing a good job. In the case of strategic thinking, it is equally as crucial for others to perceive that the executive possesses that quality as it is actually to possess that quality.
I heard of a case recently in which a coach advised a woman executive, who had received lower ratings on her strategic thinking skills, to consciously make some changes in the language she used in management meetings. It was suggested by the coach that the executive introduce her comments in management meetings with phrases such as: “I think this would better support our strategy if we…” Or, “How does what’s being suggested align with our strategy for this department?” This rather simple change in language had a positive outcome. A year later, a repeat 360-degree feedback showed a dramatic improvement in her colleagues’ assessments of her strategic perspective.
If a lower-level employee were to become so focused on the company strategy that they failed to accomplish their operational goals, this could negatively impact their career. But when a higher-level executive is only focused on operational execution rather than strategy, not only will that negatively impact their career, but it will also impact the organization’s success.
If you want a different ending to the story of your career, start thinking more about developing strategic thinking skills. Ask yourself, do others perceive me as a strategic leader? Take a look at these companion behaviors, incorporate them into your routines, and resolve to be the leader who can see and communicate the whole picture
(This article first appeared on Forbes.)
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Episode 21: Strategic Thinking– The Skill Required for Advancement
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