Your ability to think strategically is the most important leadership trait you can have–more important than your innovativeness, influence, communication skills, or ability to get things done.
According to 60,000 managers from more than 140 countries, it makes you one of the most highly effective leaders. This does not mean that other traits are unimportant, but if you want your team to excel, you need to share your strategic thinking skills with them.
To understand how you can do this, my colleague Charmian Hall and I interviewed 15 experts anywhere from university professors to CEOs who have thought deeply about this challenge. Here is our checklist from this panel of brilliant minds for what you and your team can do now to raise their strategic thinking capacity:
1. Connect your people with what matters. Entrepreneurship guru Michael Gerber suggests you ask questions like, “What is the most important thing to you? What do you want your life to be about?” Only by linking personal goals with the organization’s goals will you fully unleash your team’s strategic capacity.
2. Focus on competencies not job skills. Vice Chairman and Managing Principal of Deloitte LLP Cathy Benko’s research shows that routine, repetitive jobs are being replaced by non-routine ones. This means we need our people to build competencies that translate instead of specific job skills.
3. Build them with projects they don’t keep. Hector Aquilar, CEO of GE Central America and former chief HR officer of GE Latin America, noted that GE spends considerable time building strategic capability into the culture of the organization. One trick: every GE employee takes immediate responsibility of a special project. They develop solutions and sell recommendations.
“In our organization, everyone is accustomed to looking at how we get better. Everyone is trained as a business person,” he explained.
4. Create think time. Every expert acknowledged the tension between day-to-day demands and time to think. One way out is to give your people structured time to stop and think. Matt Reilly, senior managing director of Accenture Management Consulting, North America, and Matt Greeley, CEO of Brightidea, both advocate formal business-idea competitions. But don’t stop there. Hold one-hour brainstorms for your team to solve the week’s most pressing business challenge. Hold monthly half-day “brain workouts.”
5. Put up the periscope. A critical habit of highly strategic teams is what Michael Feiner, former senior vice president and chief people officer of PepsiCo, calls “putting up your periscope.” He looks to see if leaders “look outside their silos and sectors” to understand trends and practices they might apply. As Greeley pointed out, what will most change your market often emanates from unexpected sources. AT&T never expected they’d compete with Microsoft, but then Microsoft bought Skype.
6. Avoid outsourcing your thinking. The quick fix to solving strategic challenges is to bring in outside consultants. Turn to that crutch too often and your people will forget how to walk themselves. Instead force your team members to think for themselves. Feiner suggests you need three kinds of leadership: operational, people, and thought. Don’t give up on thought leadership!
Finally, you want to arm your people with the right tools to perform the practices. They key is to give them clarity.
7. The North Star. As Jessica Amortegui, director of global talent development at VMware told us, “The formal top-down approach where strategy is rolled down to execute no longer works in this [fast-paced] environment.” She believes a more flexible philosophy that allows companies to pivot quickly as conditions change is emerging. Executives can provide a guideline for what “true north” is, but it is up to each business to define a strategic path to get there.
8. The winning formula. Gerber advocates that finding a repeatable formula produces predictable results, the way McDonald’s has a proven operating manual for a successful restaurant. You don’t want your people to blindly follow the past, but you want to show them the key activities they must stick to in order to maintain a competitive advantage. When your people know what makes you great, and they stick to those differentiators, they know they are going to win, so they play with confidence and calmness.
9. The vocabulary. The words you use are tools that will shape your organization. Benko, for example, avoids the term “human resources,” preferring instead the term adopted by Hollywood: “talent.” It communicates people are unique, they get on stage and perform, they move from role to role and are not defined by those roles. Gerber similarly suggests you think carefully about the vocabulary you use because it shapes the reality in which your people think.