Being a strategic leader requires that you first understand corporate priorities and future agendas as well as have a clear direction on how you can contribute to it in a value-added way. Being an active supporter of the organization’s strategy is only one element of strategic leadership. There are two other very important elements.
The second aspect is a personal process to help you think strategically about the role you and your team can play relative to the organization’s strategy– things that are independent and unique to you and your responsibilities. In our book, Ahead of the Curve, we present an easy process for thinking strategically. It is about how you, as an individual, can influence your future in positive ways and contribute to the execution of corporate strategy. This comprehensive process can be used in any type of situation and by anyone wanting to make a difference in the future.
The third and probably most overlooked responsibility of strategic leadership is leading, guiding, and influencing your team members to be strategic thinkers about their own responsibilities. Typically, we think of team members as task executors and tactical players. But, imagine the value that strategic teams could generate if each member not only fulfilled their daily operational responsibilities, but also thought about their roles, objectives, and changes needed to satisfy the future requirements of internal and external customers. Innovation would occur, productivity would increase, and team member motivation and self actualization would be unleashed.
The mistake organizations have been making is believing that strategic thinking is something only upper management and executives do. In fact, if everyone in the organization were thinking and acting on their own strategic contributions, the results in alignment with the execution of strategic initiatives would be striking.
A leader’s role is critical in creating a strategic mindset and culture at the working level. To do this a leader needs the skills and tools in place to ensure formulation, execution, and accountability of the strategic performance of each team members’ plans and initiatives.
In the case of my own team, each member is expected to have at least two strategic targets that they focus on in addition to their regular, operational responsibilities. They utilize a strategic thinking planning guide to help identify their strategic target areas, conduct a SWOT, explore scenarios, and build an action plan. In my one-on-one interactions with them, I provide some guidance regarding the selection of a strategic target. Then on a monthly basis, we have a team meeting (actually it is a breakfast meeting) where we review the collective strategies we are working on together. Each team member makes a five minute report on progress with their individual strategic progress. After each person presents, the team checks for alignment and discusses questions, feedback, or ideas with the team members. I, too, present my own leader based strategic targets. This meeting is very focused, efficient, and strategically oriented. We work very hard to keep operations discussions out of the meeting. For me, this meeting is very important because it brings the process full circle. The team is linked and there is some accountability for the strategic thought process. I have found that these more strategic team activities help the team focus their energies on activities that will have a positive impact on the future. The present becomes linked with the future; there isn’t an unknown gap between where we are now and where we are going in the future. While this may not be the perfect approach for you, it has become an important tool for me as a leader to promote strategic behaviors in my team. In addition to having tools and processes in place that I just discussed, a leader can do a lot to create a strategic culture in the team without taking away from operational efficiency and focus. Consider a few of these ideas for unlocking the strategic leadership potential in your team:
• Talk about strategic topics and ask the team to challenge the status quo.
• Frequently discuss what will prevent the team from maximizing its future potential.
• Share your own strategic targets with the team so they can see you aligning your personal strategy.
• Ensure follow-through on strategic assignments and mechanisms.
• When the team or team members identify a strategic opportunity, recognize it and respond rapidly.
• Kick off the new year with strategic “open letter” to all team members.
• Focus decisions and actions (even operational ones) on what is most important for the team to be successful long-term.
• Help team members see how strategic thought processes will benefit them.
• Reward team members for strategic behaviors.
• Give them reading material such as a quarterly newsletter. We offer one titled “Ahead of the Curve™.”
Explore and experiment with these ideas and some of your own to figure out how you can fulfill all three elements of strategic leadership. Operational pressures can certainly divert our attention, but just take it one step at a time as you move towards greater strategic leadership. Your investment in taking care of the future will begin to make a difference for you and your team today. The organization too will find notable benefits when strategic thinking is driven through the organization.