Your roadmap to becoming a Strategic Leader.

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“I’d like to see you be more strategic”.  

Have you received this feedback?  Many of you right now are in your performance review cycle and as you contemplate how to get to the next level, you may have gotten this very feedback.  It is especially common when you are looking to grow from being a manager to becoming a manager of managers, the move from mid-level to the next level – Senior Director or VP depending on the size and structure of your organization.  

While this feedback is so prevalent (I have had four clients get this feedback this year), it’s not always presented in a way that’s useful.  That is, it doesn’t come with any concrete guidance on what to do about it.  What does being more strategic mean exactly? How should you act on that? What’s a specific example?

As a result, you may have come away frustrated, thinking – “I need to think big picture.  I need to be less in the weeds.  I need to contribute to our vision.”  All of which aren’t incorrect. However, the path  is more nuanced.  Becoming more strategic is not like a switch that you can just turn on or off. 

So, let’s break this down shall we?

A strategic leader is one who not only understands the nuances of their team and their specific role, but has an understanding of how both of those relate to the goals of the organization and the industry or operating environment.  In other words, they are capable of thinking of the BIG and small pictures and the interconnectedness of their function, the organization and the industry.  They keep current on industry trends, question the status quo and/or challenge the prevailing view and are willing to change course if required.  Just like most things in our lives, this strategic shift doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes years of experience to be in a position where you can ‘see around corners’ and not only be effective at executing a vision but also be effective at CRAFTING one.

In my experience working as a coach for high performers – not being strategic is the number one challenge or obstacle preventing mid career professionals from moving to the next level. 

“But where do I get the time to do this?”, you may ask.  “I’m still responsible for the day-to-day reporting/production of results.  I still need to understand the ins and outs of the work of my team.  How do I also find the time and space to step back and think about the bigger picture?”

I get it.  You are stretched thin where the days are spent just trying to check things off your list.  Respond.  Put out fires.  That’s what the brunt of work has become and frankly, on a day-to-day basis, that’s what people tend to be rewarded for.  But that’s short term thinking.  You know deep down that great careers are built not on putting out daily fires but PREVENTING future ones from occurring. If you want to level up – your own career or your organization – you need to think beyond the short term.  

Here’s a roadmap to becoming a more strategic leader:

  1.  Get curious.  You want answers? Ask great questions.  Put yourself in a learning mindset.  What is your company’s broad strategy? What is the goal? How does your department contribute to that? How can what you do shape the direction? What does success look like a year from now? 5 years from now? What could impact the outcome in a negative way? What are early signs of success/failure?

  2. Broaden and leverage your network.  In addition to the individuals you work closely with on a day to day basis (your peers and direct reports), how much do you know about your cross-functional partners? What about peers within your industry but outside your organization? Other professionals within sister industries?  What trends do you see? Set up time on a weekly basis to have a conversation with someone in your network with the goal of learning something new.
     
  3. See the BIG picture.  Build a solid understanding of the industry context, trends, and business drivers. Explore internal trends in your daily work. What issues are showing up repeatedly?  What challenges do you see within your business function and what challenges are your peers faced with?  What insights are you gaining from your external network about the marketplace?

  4. Prioritize your time – you cannot have a jam-packed schedule of back-to-back meetings everyday and expect to make progress on this goal.  Categorize things on your plate using Steven Covey’s urgent-important matrix.  Stop going to meetings you don’t need to attend and block off thinking time on your calendar.  Real growth and development will occur in the not urgent but important bucket.
     
  5. Eliminate the time drains – idle surfing, doom scrolling, or shopping for what we don’t need.  I realize we can’t work all the time and you need time to step away and relax.  However, scrolling mindlessly on social media or reading news stories isn’t rejuvenating.   If you need a break.  Take a walk.  Listen to music.  Meditate.  

  6. Sound strategic.  Strategic thinkers are effective at prioritizing and sequencing their thoughts in a way that succinctly communicates the core message.   Add more structure to your written and verbal communication by logically ordering your main points.  Before meetings, prime your audience by giving them a heads up about overarching themes so they show up ready to engage at a higher level.  Use these meetings as an opportunity to share insights you’ve discovered.

Leaders that are strategic or can see around corners are the individuals that have read/spoken/asked questions and are aware of what’s happening on the fringe as well as the center.  They’re not inherently smarter.  They’ve become smarter by taking the time to be in the know.  

Yes, most of us are in a state of time-famine but if you don’t push aside something else in order to prioritize this – you will continue to have a roadblock preventing you from getting to the next level.  And let’s be clear.  This is about more than getting the next title or pay increase.  It’s about putting yourself in a situation where you can have a bigger impact both for your team, your organization and even your industry.   It’s about stepping into your potential as a strategic leader and making a real difference.

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