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Strategic Connections

Thursday, Jun. 14th 2018

It’s happened to most of us.

We are moving along in our career. And, then, well, things get stalled.

They may be a variety of reasons. But here is one reason, particularly for those who are at the manager level but aspire for greater responsibility. They have been told that they “need to be more strategic” in order to be considered for the next leadership role.

Frankly, about half the time I hear this I can’t help but think that the direct manager providing that feedback is just parroting what their boss, or their boss’s boss has said, but has no idea what to do to support their team members in “becoming more strategic.”  Some managers have even coached their people to use the term “strategy” or “strategic” more often, and—poof—they are strategic leaders!

This is ridiculous.

So in the spirit of providing some more practical suggestions for when you, or one of your people receives this feedback, here are some ideas to “becoming more strategic”. It is not a pill you take or an instant transformation, for sure. Rather, it is about applying a set of skills that become better with practice.

My experience is that “being more strategic” is about making strategic connections. Here’s what I mean:

Connecting to the Future. Most of us are so busy with our work and personal lives that we are focused on the car just ahead of us on the highway of life. We don’t look down the road. In contrast, the best strategic thinkers I know are constantly thinking about the future and are looking miles ahead.  They regularly invest time in understanding customer, product, and industry trends. They then start to see connections between the future and what they are doing now. They perform their work in the context of what they see ahead in the future.

For example, maybe international sales at your company are growing at a faster rate than U.S. sales.  Connecting to the future would be looking into what customer, demographic, or other trends are driving those sales increases. And then determining what can be done within your job or your company to take advantage of those trends—and drive sales further!

We have got to lift our heads up out of our current day to day jobs and look out and ahead. We have to resist the temptation to say to ourselves that “we don’t have time” to pay attention to what’s ahead or to be so wrapped up in today that we can’t look out at tomorrow.

Connecting to purpose. While there has been a growing focus on “purpose” and the “why” behind an organization in articles and books, the need to help our team members (and, frankly ourselves!) connect to a broader purpose for our work is not new.  It is strategic thinking to consider how you, your team, and your organization can better live it’s purpose.

One organization I worked with had a strong purpose related to being a part of the community. Leaders within that organization made strategic choices (including allocating time and resources) to be more involved in the communities in which they operated, contributing to community causes and collaborating with other community organizations to meet common needs. They shared what they were doing internally, with pictures, videos, and live visits from individuals who had been positively impacted by the organization. The energy and the commitment level felt in the organization was positively inspiring. Connecting to purpose is strategic work.

Connecting to customers.  Most of us can really benefit from considering who our customers really are, what they need, and how we can surprise them with how well we address their needs. Doing a “deep dive” on understanding our customers and how we can serve them better is strategic. If you don’t directly support external customers, my guess is that you have internal stakeholders that care about how you serve them.

In either case, doing customer research, and re-aligning your work and processes to more effectively delight your customers is strategic.

Connecting to choices. This connection can be the hardest connection of all. This is to connect your strategy work with the choices that you make in terms of what you work on and how you allocate time and resources either personally or as a team. Strategic leaders make really, really hard choices around what they must say no to, so that they can say the more important “yes” to those things that connect to customers, connect to purpose, or connect to the future more effectively.

This is where most of us get derailed. We lack the courage and the discipline to say no to things that we have been doing the past, or to the requests that may come that are not related to customers, purpose, or the future.  This is the connection that takes the most practice, and is the hardest to “sell” both to team members and maybe even our bosses. What we are doing now tends to create a very strong gravity pull that keeps us on the ground, but getting into orbit can be exhilarating and amazingly impactful both personally and for our organizations.

So if you are willing to invest in the time, the hard work, and the hard choices, you can make a difference. You can be that “strategic leader” that everyone talks about.

So…the next time you hear about “being more strategic”… don’t panic.

Just get to work.

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Leading People Partners

Leading People Partners, LLC
Email: todd@leadingpeoplepartners.com