Do you need to be more strategic?

Have you ever been told you need to be more strategic? If you have, you’re not alone.

Most Executives give their leaders feedback that they expect them to be more strategic, yet often fail to describe exactly what that means.

My own experiences over the years have left me with what can be best described as an allergic reaction every time I hear the word ‘strategic.’ It presents memories of career disappointments where I was given feedback that I needed to be ‘more strategic.’ The first time this happened I’d been acting up in a role for 6 months which I didn’t get. They said I wasn’t ready. I asked what I needed to do to be ready and they said, ‘be more strategic.’

I had no idea what strategic actually meant let alone how to do more of it. Rather than admit it, I went away and googled it and read up on definitions only to find there are as many of them as the authors writing about it.

Several years later I heard it again after I missed out on a promotion that was given to someone else who was ‘more strategic’ than me. I’d also heard this person described as ‘super bright’ and ‘really clever.’ When I asked what they would see me doing if I was being more strategic, they said things like ‘thinking on your feet,’ ‘facilitating strategy sessions with senior executives,’ and ‘understanding the bigger picture.’ Yet none of these things aligned very well with the definitions I’d read.

Let’s take Henry Mintzberg, an expert in the discipline of strategy. He developed FIVE different meanings to help people in the application of strategy. He says you can have strategy as a plan, pattern, position, ploy or perspective. Then you have Michael Porter who says there are three ways to apply strategy to any size or form of business for competitive advantage – cost leadership, differentiation or focus.

How confusing.

It was around then that I started to develop some beliefs around the idea that being strategic means being intelligent. The word became a trigger for me so that every time I heard it the voice inside my head would scream ‘you’re just not clever enough to do strategy.’ I wondered if there are two types of people: those who are strategic and those who aren’t. And I was never going to be one of those clever people.

What I have slowly learnt is that the word ‘strategic’ is massively overused and that most people have no idea what it means. Ask a room full of Executives even at the most senior level ‘what does it mean to be strategic,’ there will be different answers. From thinking long term to looking outside the organisation, to planning and having a clear vision. In one to one conversations many senior leaders have confessed that they have never really understood what being strategic even really means, despite being told they need to do more of it during their careers.

When you think about how much the world has changed over the past few years, do the traditional models of strategy even apply anymore?

The best way to describe it that I’ve heard is from Aaron Dignan, author of the brilliant Brave New Work. He says that ultimately strategy comes down to identifying what is really critical – what are the things we are going to do to make a difference and how do we use the resources we have available to us to realise and maximise that difference? And those things need to align to a really clear purpose to wards the outcomes you are looking for in the short, medium and long term.

Dignan says organisation strategy emerges when you have a really clear purpose and with decentralised empowered teams navigating the work. That’s where the great ideas happen, and things get done.

When you dive deeper into what Executives really want to see from their leaders when they say ‘be more strategic’ it’s really about spending less time stuck doing the day to day work and more time spent on those critical activities that are going to make a difference and create value for the organisation and the people they serve.

In a recent survey we asked senior executives in the housing sector what they see people who deliver exceptional value doing differently.

Here are some of the things they said:

  • Provide solutions not problems
  • Give options and recommendations
  • Anticipate and identify problems
  • Look outside the organisation
  • Push things forward
  • Put customer’s at the heart of what they do
  • Continuous improvement of themselves and the organisation
  • Prioritise and focus on what’s important
  • Do what’s best for the team / customers / organisation
  • Take ownership and accountability

Not one mention of the word ‘strategic’ in their responses.

Everyone thinks and everyone does things, it’s just the way that we do it is different. If what we mean when we say we want someone to be more strategic is that we want them to spend more time with their customers, or to provide solutions not problems then let’s be clear about it.

Because words matter and we need to take care with how we use the word strategic.

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