Strategic vs. Operational Leaders

Here’s an interesting piece of information from DDI’s (Development Dimensions International) Directions newsletter:

“According to DDI’s 2008/2009 Global Leadership Forecast, 39% of respondents rated making the shift from a frontline leader to an operational leader, or leader of leaders, difficult to very difficult. A whopping 52% rated making the transition to strategic leader at that same difficultly level. Astonishingly, over half of the organizations surveyed had no formal development plan for their leaders making this transition.

With the increase in responsibility, it’s crucial to ensure these leaders are receiving the guidance and development they need to take on their new role. DDI’s new white papers provide additional guidance around those steps: identifying potential and assessing readiness; assessing performance; and developing your operational and strategic leaders. But first, you need to know what these leaders look like. In the following article we’ll show the Success ProfilesSM for operational and strategic leaders. Read the article.

I like the success profiles DDI has put together. We often tend to mis-characterize the value of operational leaders. For example, when assessing talent, if someone is labeled “a good operational leader, but not strategic”, it’s often code words for career limiting. Most business need both types of leaders to be successful, and I’ve seen managers make very successful careers at being strong operational leaders. I’d even argue that a well-rounded, developed leader should try to get experience and development in both roles (although they may be more suited to one or the other).

Here’s DDI’s success profiles:

At this level, look for the ability to be innovative and think “out-of-the-box” when introducing and managing change. Additionally, operational leaders will need to develop strong internal partnerships across departments or work groups, and build strategic relationships with external clients to ensure loyalty and satisfaction.

Knowledge: An operational leader candidate should demonstrate in-depth knowledge of the company’s business model, financials, and competitive landscape. Further, they should have an understanding of the other business units’ processes, products and procedures in all markets—domestic and international.

Experience: Operational leaders should have some experience in the following areas: leading a business unit with profit/loss accountabilities, leading cross-functional teams, preparation of business plans, and managing a significant function.

Personal Attributes: Finally, your candidate should exhibit personal attributes like receptivity to feedback, flexibility/adaptability, a strong desire for continued growth and development, and acceptable risk-taking.

Competencies: At this level, leaders must exhibit succinct and compelling communication, the ability to inspire and lead organization-wide change, entrepreneurship, a passion for results, and tenacious drive for high performance at all levels.

Knowledge: Strategic leaders need to make well thought-out, long-range plans and thus must intimately understand their customers’ needs and the competitive landscape. They must also have the ability to understand and drive key talent management functions, such as compensation, training, and performance management and measurement.

Experience: Leaders at the strategic level need to have experience in creating a corporate culture, cost control, and global or expat leadership assignments. This is even more crucial at this level since these senior-level leaders drive the culture and direction of the organization.

Personal Attributes: Finally, your candidate should exhibit high levels of ambition, inquisitiveness, imagination and innovation, and a high learning orientation.

Where do you see yourself against these profiles? And are you willing to think of yourself as a strong operational leader, and be proud of it?