strategic-thinkingOne of the most important skills in an executive’s toolbox is being able to think and plan strategically.

Every manager needs to be strategic, and the bigger your job, and the more people and divisions you lead, the more critical this requirement.

It’s one of the first goals new executives tell me they want to work on. They are told when they get the job to “Be strategic.” The more straight-talking new executives will ask, “What is being “strategic” and how do I get some?”

Strategic thinking includes not only thinking further down the road — but thinking more broadly — taking in a wider lens than your span of control. What other divisions and businesses impact you and must you take into account and influence?  And you are still responsible for the immediate in-your-face re-org and the fires you have to put out.

What I’ve discovered is that some of you are more strategic than you realize. You just haven’t put the “strategic” label or language on what you say and do. Strategic thinking comes with its own vocabulary.

This is the case with a recently promoted executive, Alyssa, who underestimated her own strategic thinking.

Alyssa grew up playing a variety of field sports, so we frequently fell into using sports analogies.  Strategic thinking is Alyssa having her eye on the goal and seeing the entire field. She’s done her homework to know who is on the other team’s bench and the likely field conditions (an “external scan”). She’s also intimately aware of her bench, her team’s current morale, strengths and weakness and her personal motivation and fitness to lead this charge (an “internal scan”).

Alyssa is also aware of the disruption and chaos caused by a massive restructuring going on throughout her global business. She wants to encourage those she leads to stay motivated, focused and to weather the current storm that will eventually settle down. Her experience tells her that what she sees going on now and what she anticipates will continue into the future (the “future trends analysis”) means that “eventually” could be a long period of time — more than 18 months and maybe as long as three years (which is the “planning horizon”).

What makes her so sure the dust will settle? Well, she’s not certain, but she has a strong and rich history in this business — she’s combining her experience with what she’s been reading and seeing play out in the market (“lessons to carry forward from the past“).

Alyssa’s state of mind:  “Resist the temptation of being distracted by the noise of this most recent reorganization. I have seen similar reshuffling of the deck and know success depends on the basics of doing good business.”

Alyssa knows this long game requires very here-and-now practical advice to managers who feel overwhelmed. Her read of the emotional climate (another part of the internal scan) in this tug-o-war of change and the need to keep producing — often without as many resources as before – requires frequent relationship check ins. Her best employees always have the option of leaving. So, Alyssa takes the time to check in with her key player-coach managers and tells them, “Just get in front of the client. Do as much business as possible. Focus on your career. Focus on profitability. Focus on your family. Keep things in perspective and balance.”

This is very practical advice. Being in front to their clients has short- and long-term payoffs — for the company and each individual’s reputation and career — whether they are with this company or anywhere else in the industry. Staying in front of the client keeps their reputation solid. Industries are huge, yes, but can be very, very small worlds full of interconnecting networks of friendships.

Strategic thinking — taking a long, broad view — is always balanced with tactical awareness and skill applied to the game in the moment. It’s never either/or. It’s both. However, the in-your-face emergencies that require agility in the moment can be very seductive. What we’re talking about here is building strategic agility to play the long game.

I’m curious, Alyssa, how are you keeping these three priorities — career, profitability, family — in balance in your own life?  How are you living in alignment with your own values?

All of this is strategic thinking.