How to be a More Strategic Leader Part 2: The Development Plan

I’ve facilitated or participated in well over 100 talent review meetings, usually using a performance potential matrix and competency model as the basis for assessing a management team.

When discussing why a particular manager isn’t ready for promotion, or is seen as having a lack of potential, the reason I hear the most often is “he/she isn’t strategic enough”, or is “too tactical”, or “too operational”.

One of the reason I hear this so much is that I find managers just aren’t very good at describing specific development needs. When they use the “not strategic” label, and I ask for specifics, what I hear doesn’t really describe a lack of ability to think strategically. Sometimes the person is perceived as having a lack of intellectual horsepower, lack of creativity, a nit-picker, too focused on the details at the wrong time, uncomfortable with ambiguity or uncertainty, doesn’t understand the “big picture”, can’t comprehend complex concepts or issues, and is too focused on the day-to-day details and issues. These managers often seem to compensate by gravitating to and getting really good at operational details, and end up perpetuating the label.

In reality, some managers will never be seen as strategic. They just don’t have the IQ or DNA. And that’s OK, every business needs a good COO – we can’t all be big picture visionaries. But for the rest of us, we can to some extent develop our strategic muscles.

Here’s a general development plan for learning how to be more strategic:

1. The most dramatic way to learn something new is to change jobs. Perhaps you’ve been in a role or series of roles that requires attention to operational detail, and have not had to be strategic. If possible, find a job that requires a significant degree of strategic thinking and planning. Moving from a line to staff job, overseeing the development or marketing of a new product, moving to an unfamiliar area, business, technology, or territory, or any assignment that would involve doing something for the first time would all provide opportunities to develop and flex those strategic muscles.

2. A less risky, but almost as effective way to develop this capability is taking on a strategic, developmental assignment within your current role. Develop a strategy for your own unit, or better yet, volunteer to coordinate the development of a strategy for your manager’s team. Take on a complex project that requires a fresh approach, involving different parts of the business.

3. Learn from others. Find someone who’s known as being strategic, and spend time with that person to learn how they think and operate. Ask to shadow the person during a meeting, and watch and learn how they work with others, ask questions, and work at the 10,000 foot level. Mentors, coaches, consultants, and perhaps your own manager can also be great ways to learn from others.

4. Volunteer your time to a non-profit or community board, planning or advisory committee. Ask to participate or lead the development of a long-range strategic plan or vision.

5. Take a university based executive education program that emphasizes strategy.
Here’s a few I’d recommend:
– The Center for Creative Leadership’s “Developing the Strategic Leader”
– Stanford’s “Executive Program in Strategy and Organization
– Wharton’s “Strategic Thinking and Management for Competitive Advantage
– Harvard’s “Strategic Agility: Leading Flexible Organizations”

6. Read. School yourself. Go to Amazon, do a search, and order 5 books on strategic thinking and strategy. Subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, or the Financial Times. Subscribe to e-newsletters, blogs, and other online resources (see sidebar for ideas). Becoming a strategic leader is an intellectual journey that never ends. It requires rampant curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. Develop the discipline to always be scanning the world around you and stretching your thinking.

7. Get feedback. Let it be know that you are working on developing this capability, and continuously ask your manager, peers, direct reports, and others how you’re doing. Mulit-rater assessment research has shown that by simply making a public declaration – and asking those around you for help and feedback – will improve other’s perception of the areas in which you are focusing your development.

Follow this development plan, and soon you’ll be playing chess with the big dogs.