Develop strategic thinking in your future leaders TODAY!
Leaders must think strategically. As they helm the business and guide its headway, the ability to look ahead, to plot the path over 5, or even 10 years, is crucial. Nobody doubts that this skill is extremely important in leaders and resources are made available to develop and improve this capability in them.
Yet many organisations place less significance on this skill for their future leaders. They seem to think that over time, their young talents can acquire this skill as they cycle through assignments and projects. Unfortunately, this is a mistaken assumption. In this article, we will uncover why this is the case and emphasise the need to develop their talent pool before they need to be strategic.
Why we can’t leave strategic thinking development to chance
Our future leaders are talented, no doubt about it. They have the intellectual wherewithal to excel in school and be placed top of their cohort. They can be depended upon to shoulder larger responsibilities, even in their personal development. To a large extent, this is true. Yet, when it comes to developing strategic thinking, several factors impede organic development.
Need for operational excellence
One of the key reasons why our young talent does not develop strategic thinking even in the face of corporate-level assignments and projects is the focus on operational excellence. They might have to think strategically to overcome issues like getting approval or funding for a project, but it was simply a means to an end. Once the hurdle was crossed and the project moved on, the need to think strategically passed, being replaced by the need to be operational and to deliver results. This need for operational excellence seems to outweigh the need to be strategic and project members see that. In the end, the lessons that our talent take away from these projects is not the primacy of strategic thinking, but that of operational excellence.
There is a pervading sense of “us-versus-them” in an organization. After all, different departments compete with each other for limited resources. They also judge themselves (and are judged) by their impact on topline and/or bottomline growth. If they cannot impact topline, they will focus on cost-cutting measures to impact bottomline. And that creates the silo thinking that prevents our future leaders from looking across business units to embrace an all-encompassing view of business. After all, if one department is on the path of bringing in more customers or increasing wallet share per customer, and another is on a different path of shaving unit costs, there will be a clash of wills that cement silo-thinking. This is anti-strategic.
As they say, you get what you measure; and there is a huge preference for doing things right in performance systems. Don’t make a mistake and you will be okay. Don’t have more than 3 “adverse reports” from the authorities and your performance bonus is secure. Meet your KPIs and you will be safe. These performance measures reinforce operational excellence and silo thinking. In fact, there is no strategic thinking KPI. Although performance measures are derived from strategic intents, the link between KPIs and strategy are seldom elucidated in operational documents; or if so, hardly reinforced. As a result, people become highly focused on meeting the KPIs not for the sake of meeting a strategic intent, but in not committing a foul. How is one expected to develop strategic thinking in such an environment?
Lack of knowledge and opportunity
Awareness is important for learning. If we know what we are supposed to look out for and vary the inputs to assess its outcome, we increase knowledge and improve strategic thinking. If left to our own devices, we will not be able to discern what to look out for and how to apply it appropriately. This in turn exacerbates the lack of opportunity in applying strategic thinking leading to even less learning moments. This sets up a vicious cycle of lack of knowledge and lack of opportunity. The longer this is left to fester, the harder it is to overcome the inertia to think strategically, especially on the back of the previous three points.
Develop strategic thinking early
Having debunked the assumption that strategic thinking can be picked up along the way, what do we need to do to develop our future leaders’ ability to think strategically?
Train them early
Provide young managers and individual contributors with the skills to think strategically as early as possible. It takes time and practice to be nurtured and perfected. And don’t leave it to chance that they will pick these skills up as they move along, even if they were intelligent people. Create the means to develop their thinking way before they need it. After all, a soldier will be ineffective if he has to learn how to fire his rifle only during the war!
Emphasise the need to be strategic
Even when there is no need to be strategic, imbue the need to think one or two levels higher. Strategic thinking gets better with use and while it may suffice simply to approve a certain expenditure, it may be worthwhile to ask “Why are we buying this?” to level the thinking higher. It may uncover gaps in the individual’s thinking and possibly avert higher costs further down the road.
Coach strategic thinking
The supervisor needs to be in the system. While it may sometimes be time-consuming, there is a need to unplug from the daily grime and reframe an operational issue to address more strategic ones, especially ones that are painfully obvious. As we imbue a strategic thinking coaching culture, and mentor our future leaders to embrace the bigger picture, we reinforce the notion that strategic thinking is important even in the run-of-the-mill activities.
Include strategic thinking in performance management
If it is indeed true that we get what we measure, then there is a need to include a strategic thinking measure in our performance management system. This can come from a Strategic Thinking Quotient, which the organisation can set up and implement for each individual of a certain job grade or salary grade; or a behavioural system that requires the supervisor to assess if certain strategic thinking behaviours are being demonstrated. When these are tracked and reported on, the message that strategic thinking is important is reinforced.
Constantly expose younger talent to strategic matters
Whether it is via a talent management system or outside of one, there is a need to expose future leaders to strategic issues so that they see first hand how they are managed, learn the common language used, and see the impact of it on a system-wide basis. The key word here is “constantly”, which takes commitment from all levels of management to embrace the waffling that may sometimes come out of this, and the apparent inconvenience to stop proceedings and explain them to the participants. But these are important as they will help our future leaders get engaged in a higher level, see how they impact the running of the whole business, and apply strategic thinking in their roles.
Strategic thinking is not something that we can leave to chance to be developed. Take a structured approach and the level of strategic-ness in the thinking of your current and future leaders will grow exponentially. And that has untold benefits for this business!
Ian Dyason, CEO, A I Training & Consulting
Co-Developer of the AITC Strategic Decision Making framework