“What we need to do is always lean into the future; when the world changes around you and when it changes against you – what used to be a tail wind is now a head wind – you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining is not a strategy.” Jeff Bezos
My husband Allen beats me at chess consistently. Sometimes I can see it before he does. I just drop my king over knowing that it was probably the first move I made that created the undesirable outcome. In chess you need to think at least 5 moves ahead of your opponent to have a chance of beating them. The best leaders, and thinkers I know and have had the privilege to coach are masterful at looking way ahead and creating a vision that others can understand and feel engaged by. It’s hard mental work. To do it well you have to schedule your time around the not urgent but really important tasks. The urgent will always win out over the not urgent, even if it’s really important, though.
The results of leaders not thinking strategically can be costly. If you fail to think strategically in regard to personnel, “the costs of losing a “normal” employee are high enough, Centers for American Progress found that the cost of losing an executive is astronomical — up to 213 percent of the employee’s salary” – down goes a knight. Yahoo has made many moves that turned out to be strategically wrong – down goes the queen. The executives at Blockbuster weren’t thinking too strategically when they didn’t convert quickly enough to the logical next steps to offer their products digitally to compete with Netflix – down goes the king.
What does it mean to be strategic as a leader?
Strategy is defined as a plan of action designed to achieve a major or overall aim. Based on research from McKinsey & Company, a top tier consulting firm with a focus on collection and analysis of leadership data, they found that: “You don’t need a formal strategy role to help shape your organization’s strategic direction. Start by moving beyond frameworks and communicating in a more engaging way.” In their article, Becoming more strategic: Three tips for any executive, they mention the following:
- Understand what strategy really means in your industry. You need to learn to think strategically in your particular industry context. Consider the flaws of strategy when Ron Johnson took over as CEO of JC Penny. He understood retail from the context of the IT industry, not from the context of apparel at lower price points.
- Become expert at identifying potential disrupters. When is the last time you spent an entire week or two focused only on seeking to find new technologies that may disrupt your industry? How much research did you do? Did you visit the hubs where those technologies are being born and are currently in use? Seeking others perspectives with different and diverse backgrounds of experience and knowledge can help provide you with relevant information to help forecast trends and changes in emerging markets.
- Develop communications that can break through. How are you communicating your strategy? “It may require building new skills; indeed, developing messages that can break through the clutter is becoming a required skill for the modern strategist,” explains Michael Birshan and Jayanti Kar. How you collect and then report out data can make a clear difference in your ability to act “in the moment” on it. When it is easy to see the information and understand it’s impact, the less complex and time consuming the outcomes will be to design. If you can tell that 59% of your customers are now finding you online through their mobile devices and 75% of your customers would like to have easier access to customer service tools from you, the strategy to create an easy to access mobile application becomes quickly clear.
What skills will you need to build your strategy muscle?
According to Harvard Business Review, in their article “How to Think Strategically” strategic thinkers are partially born that way and they can be made. We sit on sort of a spectrum of having a talent for it and being able to develop it as well.
To nurture the talent you already have, here are a few suggestions they had:
- Immersion. It’s best to master the core dynamics of each situation that you want to create a strategy for rather than moving from one business to another with what they call “soak time” to build power mental models.
- Apprenticeships. Work with masters in the field. You want to study the way they think. The mistake many make is to only study someone’s results from the “outside” of a situation. Much more powerful is to observe which moves are made when and be able to ask the person who determined the strategy the power question, “Why did you choose that move over another one?”
- Case-based education. Exposing yourself to case studies that allow you to see a diverse range of realistic “cases” will help you distill down to a few key distinctions to see how they effected results.
- Cognitive reshaping. This one is important as it means doing exercises that create new habits of mind. In coaching we call it going to the balcony or detaching from the situation in a way that you are no longer emotionally attached to the situation. This distance can help you think more effectively and literally shifts the part of the brain you are using to consider the situation.
LEADERSHIP EXERCISE FOR THIS WEEK:
This week, set aside an hour to focus strictly on strategic thinking for your organization, division or department. Spending the time doing research on emerging markets or technologies in your industry may help. Or, spending a lunch or grabbing some coffee with a forward thinking colleague who has a different and diverse look could broaden your thinking.
You could spend that hour thinking about how you will refine and make more clear what your current strategy is and who you need to have on board to help execute it. Do your teams know your strategy? Do they understand it? Do they know what they need to do in order for it to be successful? What will you say or do, in regard to your strategy, to make them connect and care?