July 12, 2015

Becoming strategic

When I talk with young professionals early in their careers, I regularly hear a frustration along the lines of “I don’t want to just execute anymore, I want to be strategic”. 
When I mentor, I meet more than a few talented, intelligent people who are passed over for promotion because they aren’t (yet) perceived as “being strategic”.
We all want a seat at the table. It feels good to be asked to help set the course for our teams and companies to be successful. To get there, it’s necessary to build your strategy setting and communication skills in order to earn that seat. Here are a few things to think about if you want to become or be perceived as strategic:
Banish the idea that any role is “just” execution or “just” strategy
Rarely does a strategy come down from “on high” like Moses with the Ten Commandments (or McKinsey consultants with binders) to be summarily handed off for execution.  The best ideas without execution are worthless, and a strategy’s success lies in the quality of every person's day-to-day execution and decision making over a long period of time.
This quality requires a level of understanding and buy-in that doesn’t come from a one-time presentation or strategy document hand off. The best leaders know this and is why they work continuously to ensure that everyone understands how their efforts and insights supports the organization's larger strategic goals. It is infused into every one of their 1:1's, every performance review with a team member, every new idea brainstorm with a cross-functional team and likely, even worked into every casual hallway conversation.
Today, you can “be strategic” in the role you have
A key way you can be strategic in the role you have is to actively help to translate your organization's “big” strategic ideas into the day to day activities of you and your colleagues. Even when you are not the team lead, your interactions and conversations can authentically reflect this understanding and it will help keep people appropriately aligned -- and your boss will definitely appreciate that.
As HBR suggests in “Strengthen Your Strategic Thinking Muscles”, thinking strategically is about creating connections between ideas, plans and people that others fail to see. This points to you beginning today to proactively build relationships with all of your different stakeholders - both internally among the different departments you work with and externally among customers and vendors. 

If you learn what is important to your stakeholders and you understand what is important to your team and organization, you are setting yourself up to be in the right place to identify and create those important connections and deliver valuable strategic insights.

Have (and share) a point of view beyond your span of control
Being viewed as strategic means you will need to demonstrate a broader understanding of the organization beyond “just” your role. It's not enough to know your own job backwards and forwards, you need a mindset that is both long term and systematic. Long term meaning you think about the implications of decisions beyond the current quarter or fiscal year, and systematic meaning you think about the implications of decisions on your extended stakeholder network.

Thinking strategically isn't enough. You need to have the confidence to find and take advantage of appropriate opportunities to demonstrate your understanding and insights. It can be as simple as speaking up in a staff meeting to build on a colleague’s point or making an important introduction to help a colleague’s project.

Don’t forget your soft skills
Soft skills like executive presence can make or break a career. Learning to effectively manage stress is important for the rising executive because it demonstrates your ability to deal with change and your calm demeanor instills confidence in those around you. 
Mindfulness is also a necessary skill for today's strategic thinker because learning to be fully present helps improve your cognitive and communication skills. Whether you exercise, do yoga, cook or meditate -- prioritize the time for these activities so you are strong and resilient and fully able to handle the inevitable stress that comes your way.