Thinking and Acting Strategically – A critical leadership skill

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2008

Two of the key characteristics that CEOs and Boards seek when hiring or promoting someone into a key executive position are interpersonal effectiveness and the ability to think and act strategically. As I’ve stated numerous times before, at the senior level, technical competence is a given. It’s hard to climb the ladder if you are not technically qualified. However, whether you are a full-time executive working on daily issues or a consultant hired to “fix” a major problem, your ability to think and plan ahead will elevate you above the pack and earn you the respect of your boss or clients. The ongoing challenge for all busy executives is to avoid being consumed by the daily grind of just putting out burning fires, and to look ahead.

People who think strategically constantly reassess their business environment. They evaluate at a corporate level by looking at the company's strategy, customers, competition, and industry trends. At the department level, they analyze the department’s internal challenges and positions. Next, they gather and assess extensive information to estimate the changes that must be made today in order to generate the desired results tomorrow. Strategic thinking is an ongoing process.

Good strategic thinkers:

  • Identify relationships, patterns, and trends while noticing patterns across seemingly unrelated events, and categorize related information to reduce the number of issues with which one must grapple concurrently;
  • Think creatively by generating alternatives, visualizing new possibilities, challenging assumptions, and opening themselves to new information;
  • Analyze data while prioritizing the most important information;
  • Prioritize action steps to stay focused on key objectives while handling multiple demands and competing priorities;
  • Make trade-offs while understanding the potential advantages and disadvantages of an idea or course of action. From that, they make choices trying to balance short- and long-term concerns.

You can develop your strategic thinking ability by practicing the following:

  • Curiosity: being genuinely interested in what transpires in your company, department, industry, and wider business environment;
  • Flexibility: trying new approaches and ideas when new information suggests the need to do so;
  • Focus on the future: thinking about your company’s operational conditions that may change in the coming months and years. Remaining alert for opportunities that may prove valuable in the future — as well as threats that may be looming;
  • Maintain a positive outlook: viewing challenges as opportunities, and believing that success is possible;
  • Openness: welcoming new ideas from others, including outside stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, and business partners;
  • Self-expansion: continually working to broaden your knowledge and experience. Doing so will help you to see connections and patterns across seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge.

In today’s business environment, anyone who can think and act strategically is worth his or her weight in Euros.