Columns / Positive Cultures

A leadership marker: Can you think strategically?

Competency models” identify the knowledge sets, skills, and attributes that make for success within the company. These models are a foundation for the company’s entire talent development and talent management systems. They provide a filter for initial recruitment, interviewing, selection, on-boarding... all the way to longer term career development and succession planning

Competency models have quite a few common denominators. For one, personal competencies related to cognitive skills (e.g., problem-solving and decision-making, attention to detail) and especially interpersonal competencies (including communication skills and teamwork). These typically are seen as more critical than technical/job-skills per se, especially as one rises from individual contributor to supervisor. Most companies recognize job skills are trainable, and that the critical personal and interpersonal attributes are often the ultimate difference makers.

Living large, working large

The skills of strategic thinking is another important common denominator as people move to higher leadership roles. At the individual contributor level, strategic thinking skills are generally not much required.  Where the work gets done, competencies such as dependability, consistent follow-through, initiative, teamwork, and the like are especially prized, more so than blue-sky, big-picture thinking. Individual contributors who do possess some capacity to see the big picture and to think about the longer term implications of what they are doing here and now, are, other things equal, poised for higher levels of responsibility.

Similarly, first-line supervisors are by the nature of their traditional role, relatively more here-and-now oriented than strategically oriented. But with their responsibility for organizing the work of others in order to achieve goals, they are necessarily thinking somewhat beyond the immediate, and in general operating over a longer timeline than their individual contributor direct reports. The skills of strategic thinking become more visible and valuable at the first-line leader level when supervisors are expected to facilitate and coordinate more than direct and control per se, and where they are expected to continually look for ways to improve.

In general, as people are promoted into positions of even higher authority and responsibility, such as manager, director, VP and the like, the scope of their thinking and the timeline over which they conceptually operate increase progressively. The core competencies of the individual contributor continue to be important, as do the daily leadership skills of the supervisor, but there is increasing emphasis on the broader strategic skills of the executive.

In the higher level role, leaders coach, delegate, and coordinate. In general they develop their direct report employees to manage the hour-by-hour, day-to-day responsibilities that must be fulfilled. High-level leaders are then free to focus their efforts less at the tactical level and much more at the strategic level. How are we positioned in the market? Where are our challenges and our un-capitalized opportunities? How are we using technology, and how should we be using it? How is our customer base changing? What are we not doing that we need to, and what are we doing that we should stop?

It can be very difficult to disconnect from the important and urgent demands of day-to-day, and to orient strategically. Under stress, we all tend to regress to previously successful behaviors. A leader who was an excellent tactical supervisor, and before that a strong individual contributor, can easily default to a very hands-on, narrowly-focused approach when things are dicey. One of the more common complaints of employees is that “the boss is a micro-manager.”

When circumstances get intense

How can leaders stay strategically focused, especially when things are intense?

The short answer: recognize the mission-critical importance of the big-picture orientation, and block out and protect strategic thinking time.

I fully understand it is impractical for most organizations to give any of their employees, even their leaders, significant blocks of time off for thinking on a regular basis. But it is possible to gain at least some of the benefits of the sabbatical in the real world of business.

Getaway day

As I was writing this column I came across a blog post by John Donahoe, CEO of eBay, in which he addresses the need for leaders to grab some critical strategic thinking time. He claims that every quarter he takes a “thinking day”— he disconnects altogether from the demands of the tactical-urgent, and just thinks, broadly and deeply about the business, the market, the competition, and the overall strategy of the business.

Your boss might be a tough sell on the “thinking day” idea (much less the year-long sabbatical). Still, as author and celebrated motivational speaker Harvey Mackay wrote some years back, “Your best people may spend their most productive time staring at the wall ... tell the cast of characters you’d like them to spend the same amount of time normally spent preparing for and attending the meeting (that you have cancelled), at their desks, simply thinking....”  

Leadership guru Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People uses the metaphor of “sharpening the saw.” The idea is, stop sawing the wood (tactical, here-and-now work), and step back to think about the work in a way that makes you much more effective (big-picture, strategic, longer-term, prioritizing) – that’s sharpening the saw. Covey suggests that even one hour a day in such saw-sharpening reflection and strategic thinking can pay huge dividends.

Leaders who discipline themselves to dedicate and protect some strategic thinking time will be thereby building that critical leadership attribute, and enabling themselves to work smarter and more effectively as a result.

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