Have you ever been told you need to be more strategic? Or maybe you need to work on getting to the point, not presenting endless details, numbers, and facts, but distilling your case into a motivating vision. Have you been passed over for a promotion because you fail to see the big picture? If you’re anything like us when we were on the receiving end of this feedback, you probably thought, “What the heck does that even mean?!”
Whether you’re in a leadership role already or aspire to be, you should see this kind of feedback as a push to make a great shift from a tactical, gets-stuff-done worker to a strategic leader. When someone tells you that you need to “be more strategic,” what they want is for you to show how you’re driving corporate strategic goals and adding real value to the organization. You need to get results that matter, and then you need to share those results with the business in an enticing way.
THE WRONG JUNGLE
Stephen R. Covey used a story about producers cutting through a jungle to help explain leadership and big-picture thinking (https://leadershipforlife.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/hi/):
“Envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out. The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies, and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!’
But how do the busy, efficient producers and managers often respond? ‘Shut up! We’re making progress.’”
To be strategic, not only does the leader need to separate himself from the work of the producers and managers to climb the tree, but he also requires the courage to report back on his findings—that what everyone is busily working at below is in no way contributing to the expedition because they aren’t even in the right jungle. And then he requires more courage to stand up to the managers who say, “We’re making progress!”
In Learning and Development (L&D), it can be challenging to determine whether we’re working in the right jungle, particularly when we haven’t tied our strategy to business results. By starting with a big-picture understanding of the business, you can align to what the business really needs from its L&D function. Delivering on critical business needs will help you become an L&D leader who other executives rely on for strategic insights.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU TRIED TO CLIMB A TREE?
Whether it was last week, last decade, or a far-away time and place you can’t easily recall, take our word for it: Climbing trees isn’t easy—regardless of whether it’s a literal tree or the metaphorical tree in Covey’s jungle. The six factors for strategic leadership help you to build a ladder from the floor of the jungle to the treetops. By building a ladder, you have the ability to go up and down, using each rung as needed to help you make decisions and drive winning results.
FACTOR 1: DEVELOP YOUR FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS
Whether you’re an aspiring leader or already in the role, you must create your own personal development plan. Learning how to understand the big picture, see your place within it, manage your time, and show up in a strategic way will give you solid footing on the first rung on the ladder. Be sure you’re staying on top of what’s going on inside and outside of your organization— at the very least, are you as informed about your company as the average consumer could be? There are many different elements involved in showing up as strategic, but a good place to start is by observing the top leaders in your company. Does your style, appearance, communication, and behavior seem compatible with theirs? As you create your development plan, ensure it aligns with your vision for your own life, both within and outside of work.
FACTOR 2: ESTABLISH THE VISION
Every action a winning leader takes is tied to a clear vision. You need to create a vision and strategy that are clearly linked to the corporate strategy. Your strategy should be concrete and measurable, and everyone on your team should understand how his or her actions advance the strategy.
FACTOR 3: ENGAGE STAKEHOLDERS
Establishing a governance board offers a structured way to bring stakeholders into your work. Ensure you’re delivering value to your stakeholders and create an environment of shared accountability. Encourage your stakeholders to look across the organization to help you see opportunities and anticipate challenges.
FACTOR 4: BUILD YOUR STRATEGIC PLAN
A strategic plan is your blueprint for success. By starting with the end goals, you have a focused process for planning out the activities that will drive results. As you create your plan, take an inventory of your enablers—these include things such as budget, staff, tools, and political will to make necessary changes. Ask targeted business impact questions, the answers to which will give you the information you need to make smart decisions. We use an Impact Blueprint to create a visual for what you’re doing, where you’re going, and how you will win.
FACTOR 5: EXECUTE YOUR STRATEGIC PLAN
You can’t plan forever—at some point, you have to act, and you need to lead a great team to drive results while you’re making sure you’re still in the right jungle. When change, crisis, or confusion inevitably arises, you need to be prepared to act swiftly and get on a new track. A high-functioning, motivated team is critical to executing strategically.
FACTOR 6: MAKE DECISIONS TO WIN
Continuous improvement is a systemic perspective that is critical to this entire model. You don’t get to the treetops, sit back, and relax— you look around for ways you can learn and get better, setting yourself up to succeed and your company to win. You may be at the top of the ladder today, but how will you stay there? Making decisions at the top requires a different mindset from the one that got you there. Never stop growing, and never ignore the information and resources around you. Share your findings and use information to drive meaningful change. The best leaders are the best learners, and they surround themselves with the brightest and most productive people. Identify someone you trust to help give you the feedback you need to grow.
ADD VALUE THROUGH STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP
Remember to take a strategic approach to your development. Revisit the company’s vision, its strategic goals, and your functional goals, and determine if there are behaviors you need to demonstrate at a higher level to better assist in execution. And, of course, set and achieve measurable goals tied to the business so you can show your impact.
Becoming a strategic leader is about much more than gaining a promotion—it’s about getting results for the business and never stopping.
Diana Thomas, MBA is an executive coach and past vice president of Training, Learning, and Development for McDonald’s USA.
Stacey Boyle, Ph.D., is Chief People Planner for Smarter People Planning, a consultancy that helps some of the world’s best companies answer their business questions about investments in people.
Learn how to build your ladder in their new book, “Be More Strategic in Business: How to win through stronger leadership and smarter decisions.” Visit www.bemorestrategicinbusiness.com for details.