15-How to Build Strategic Culture

We would argue that the whole purpose of leadership is to leverage talent and achieve results through the efforts of others.

As such, leaders have a special responsibility when it comes to creating a strategic culture, setting direction, and securing the long-term success of their team or function.

Leaders who have vision, fundamental strategy skills, and a viable strategic plan have a golden opportunity to mine new ideas, leverage the thinking and imagination of their team members, and implement solutions to long-term problems.

However, in order for this to work, leaders must be willing to establish a clear direction, motivate and teach others how to improve strategic thinking, and use their core leadership capabilities to guide the team through the strategic management process of change.

This will result in an organization that is less reactionary and more prepared to seize opportunities, head off potential catastrophes, and achieve better bottom-line results, both now and in the future.  But there is a tradeoff: Leaders must be disciplined and willing to invest the time it will take to transform the way people think and act so that today’s needs can continue to be met—but not at the expense of the future.

Building a Strategic CultureSmart leaders understand that executing a change in direction—even a small one— (picture of basketball players) requires their own thinking, expectations, and beliefs to shift, as well as those of the people on their team.

But this isn’t like flipping a switch; being invited to help shape the future is something that most people have never experienced, so stepping into a strategic, entrepreneurial, or proactive role may initially make them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, building a strategic culture can be a real dilemma for leaders due to the intense pressure they feel to deliver results now.

Too many leaders have been taught to attend solely to what’s right in front of them: the emergencies and tasks that require their immediate attention.

They’ve learned how to squeeze the organization operationally. They’re great at reducing costs, eliminating errors, and improving service over the short term, and many leaders pass these same priorities and pressures onto their workers.

Unfortunately, these leaders may lack the understanding, discipline, energy, or interest needed to accomplish the strategic side of their work.  They’re unlikely to nurture the seeds of future innovation, new ideas, and long-term plans in others because they haven’t been encouraged to think this way themselves.

The catch is that these are the things that will ensure the team’s long-term relevance. Clearly, building a strategic culture is more important than it can seem on its face.

In order to begin building the strategic culture that is so crucial to long-term success, leaders need to incorporate five strategic-leadership principles into their character and the manner in which they operate:

1. Establish expectations.

Strategic leaders must clearly and regularly convey the expectation that thinking strategically and contributing to the strategy of the team and organization is everyone’s job.  Once that expectation is established, leaders must hold people accountable to this idea and provide coaching and feedback that supports it.  Remember, stating your expectations once will not be enough.  Talk about it more often than you think is necessary.

2. Change the beliefs.

Strategy is a state of mind as much as a documented plan, and a strategic leader must be able to instill that mindset in others.  If you want to see your team or function operate more strategically and are serious about strategic change, act like it. Begin creating new experiences for your team members; have conversations that establish a new mental framework; focus people’s attention on strategy being everyone’s responsibility and the critical nature of thinking about and looking towards the future—and remember that as the leader, you need to model this new set of beliefs for others.

3. Demonstrate patient resolve.

Creating a strategy and a strategically focused culture takes time and effort.  Strategic leaders need to demonstrate patient resolve and show their support as their teams change their beliefs and learn to formulate and execute new strategic initiatives.  People will find balancing urgent needs with future needs to be challenging.  Remember to be patient as your team members experiment with controlling the day-to-day minutiae dedicating more time and activity to being strategic.

4. Manage resistance.

Some people excel when they are given the opportunity to participate in strategic work.  Others will struggle to make the change, and you must be willing to confront and address their resistance. Help them see the barriers they have created and the value and benefits of the new strategic direction.  Remember, if you show them your support them as they overcome their resistance to the change and become comfortable with your new expectations, they may eventually champion your strategic vision and become your best allies.

5. Exhibit discipline.

Strategic leaders need to have tremendous willpower and the discipline to succeed.  When they discover that their piece of the business needs to think and act more strategically, they must focus on the goal and persist until they are able to bring the strategy and the strategic culture shift to fruition.  Remember how easy it is to fall into the trap of taking short-term action, and counteract this tendency by seeking out processes and systems that will make strategy a daily way of life for you and your team.

A strategic plan and culture can bring out the best in you and your team.  Be willing to invest in the future of your team and function by building a strategically focused organization where strategy truly is everyone’s job. We guarantee that the time you spend up front will be worth it.

How Is Your Team Strategy? Download This Free Kit to Improve Your Team’s Strategic Initiatives.

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About the Author
Steven Stowell, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth.

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