“You’re the boss, but you still spend too much time on the day-to-day. Here’s how to become the strategic leader your company needs.”
Paul Schoemaker, Research Director from Wharton’s Mack Institute highlights a common talking point in leader circles, in his article ‘6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers’. A common temptation for leaders is to deal with day-to-day issues because they are either immediately in-front of them or seem to be more urgent. However, leaders who ‘dip-down’ in this manner could actually be putting their companies at risk, according to Schoemaker. He notes that while a leader is solving small, common, problems, the likelihood of missing major opportunities is high. Similarly, if management are looking ‘down’ at the current issues, there is no one looking forward and planning for possible threats or opportunities.
At Red Giant we know that being strategic is a high level skill. We also know that finding truly strategic leaders who are passionate and competent about preempting and planning for the journey ahead can be tough. However, there are a few things Schoemaker notes (that we agree with!) that are key indicators that someone is truly an adaptive strategic leader. If during self-reflection you notice a gap, don’t worry – these skills are also highly teachable!
We all know the saying ‘prevention is better than cure’ and this is also true in a business sense that anticipating what is going to happen is better than simply reacting to market changes. Schoemaker notes that “leaders lack peripheral vision” in that they are so busy looking at what is directly ahead of them, that they cause their organisation to be vulnerable in terms of competitors preempting market opportunities. Key strategies here are to look for important information at the periphery of your industry, look and think beyond the boundaries of your business and, of course build broad networks to help you keep atop of new and relevant information.
2. Think Critically
Critical thinking – it’s a skill taught in every educational institution, but not all can do it well. As Schoemaker notes in his article, conventional thinking leads to less second-guessing, however it also leads to a loss of competitive advantage. Critical thinkers not only question everything, but they are able to look at information and interpret it in different ways. Something to beware of when trying to improve critical thinking, is that we all operate within our own realities, and true critical thinking requires us to not only reframe problems, challenge current beliefs and mindsets, but also challenge our own (habitual) thinking.
Schoemaker highlights that most people (and leaders) find ambiguity disconcerting. When we are faced with ambiguity often our first preference is to reach for quick (and often poorly thought through) solutions. Schoemaker points out that good strategic leaders “hold steady”, analysing, collating and interpreting information from a variety of sources to develop their own view. Skills in interpreting information are closely linked with those of critical thinking, but perhaps are more analytic, including; identifying patterns in data and testing multiple hypotheses simultaneously by questioning prevailing assumptions.
Analysis Paralysis – a common pitfall for leaders. Although some decisions may not be perfect, often making a decision and then dealing with any issues that arise can be more effective than never making a decision at all. To make decision making effective, processes need to be put in place and enforced by leaders. Endeavouring to do this well means that you need to make sure that decisions are carefully and accurately framed and take a solid stance, even if there is only incomplete information and diverse views. Note also that Schoemaker specifically says that balancing speed, rigor, quality and agility are key in efficient and effective decision making processes.
Within an organisation (and the wider community) getting a strong consensus on any decision or direction is rare. A strategic leader must be skilled in both engaging and building trust with key stakeholders, but must also foster dialogue, especially when views are diverse.
At Red Giant we often ask leaders how they engage with their stakeholders and we find that in line with Schoemaker’s point of view, the most successful leaders have a deep understanding of other people’s drivers. They are able to assess risk tolerance within the organisation, build support and raise tough issues, even if it makes them uncomfortable.
6. Learn, or as we say here at Red Giant, “Be Curious!”
As your leadership skills grow, so too does the number of people that report to you and it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain honest feedback on your performance. However, as we have noted in other articles on this site, self-development is a key part of being a successful leader. Learning new skills and furthering your development can lead to both great success and sometimes failure. What is important to remember is that both success and failure are valuable sources of organisational learning.
Therefore, as a leader it is important to role model the celebration of both successes and failures which can provide insight. By encouraging open, honest and constructive feedback from your employees, you open the door to a collaborative, respectful community of practice, where feedback can be accepted and used to an individual’s (and the company’s) advantage in a non-hostile manner.
While we have discussed a number of points raised by Schoemaker, we think that a lot of the characteristics that true strategic leaders show are inextricably linked to being curious and self-development oriented. This is because, strategic leaders understand the personal, organisational and even community-wide impact they can have as a leader. And within an ever-changing environment they know that to be a strategic leader their knowledge base cannot be static.