How to Help Managers Become More Strategic

John’s frustration had turned to exacerbation.  He’d done everything he could to position himself for the next promotion. His results were amazing. He’d taken on several cross-functional projects and nailed those, too.

He was delegating more and growing the competence of his team. He’d become far more open to feedback and had truly become a team player, even navigating the tricky inter-departmental dynamics. This time, the “I’m sorry, we’ve given the position to someone else” call ended with “We’re concerned about your ability to be strategic.” When he probed deeper for specifics, he didn’t get much of an answer.

John’s not alone. I’ve seen some great talent hit a wall with this “competency deficit.”

There’s no doubt that strategic thinking is vital. There’s strong evidence to support that strategic thinking is one of the most important executive competencies.  In a recent HBR article,  Robert Kabacoff shares his research of 60,000 managers in 40 countries.

We found that a strategic approach to leadership was, on average, 10 times more important to the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors studied. It was twice as important as communication (the second most important behavior) and almost 50 times more important than hands-on tactical behaviors. (This doesn’t mean that tactical behaviors aren’t important, but they don’t differentiate the highly effective leaders from everyone else.)

But it’s a mistake to view strategic thinking like handedness–you’re either born a lefty or a righty, and it’s really tough to change. Managers can learn to be more strategic through understanding, exposure and challenge. Resist the urge to label and box your talent and move on. Instead invest in your highly talente managers and teach them the art of strategy. It’s a win-win. The more people you have thinking strategically, even at the frontlines, the more innovative and dynamic your company will be.

How Help a Manager Become More Strategic

1. Define It

Help them visualize what you’re talking about. An easy to articulate definition comes from the Lominger Institute:

Can think and talk strategy with the best; intrigued and challenged by the complexity of the future; likes to run multiple “what if” scenarios; very broad perspective; counsels others on strategic issues; can juggle a lot of mental balls; isn’t afraid to engage in wild speculations about the future; can bring several unrelated streams of information together to form a compelling vision; good at meaning making; produces distinctive and winning strategies.

And then customize the definition for your industry.

For example, being able to think strategically in the high-tech industry involves a nuanced understanding of strategy topics such as network effects, platforms, and standards. In the utilities sector, it involves mastery of the economic implications of (and room for strategic maneuvers afforded by) the regulatory regime. In mining, leaders must understand the strategic implications of cost curves, game theory, and real-options valuation; further, they must know and be sensitive to the stakeholders in their regulatory and societal environment, many of whom can directly influence their opportunities to create value. Becoming More Strategic:  3 Tips for Any Executives

2. Provide Opportunities For Broad Exposure

It’s frustrating when I hear executives complaining about the lack of strategic thinkers in their organization, and yet they hold all the long-term vision close to the vest. Strategic thinking requires context. Do whatever you can to explain not only the vision and the direction, but why those decisions are being made. A side effect that goes beyond more future leaders: stronger engagement and better decision-making down the line.

One of my favorite developmental activities is “bring a friend staff meetings,” where my direct reports could bring one high-potential manager to the table to experience the thought process. If you’re meetings are strategic, this is a real eye-opener. Oh yeah, and be sure to give the “friends” a few strategic action items for follow-up.

3. Move Them Around

Move your people around, particularly from line to staff and back.  Sure, many high-potential folks hate lateral moves. It feels slow. Share the wisdom of going slow to go fast. Nothing beats building strategic mindset more than looking at the problem from multiple perspectives. Don’t limit it to the hi-po crowd, you may be amazed at what blossoms in a different role.

4. Think Out Loud

It’s easy, and perhaps even tempting, to take all the input, make the decision, look wise, and move on. That doesn’t build strategic thinkers. Slow down enough to explain your thought process as you make decisions. Use each major decision to catalyze strategic confidence and competence.

You can help your managers to be more strategic. Let’s share best practice and tackle this challenge together.