Can Strategic Thinking Skills Be Taught?

Strategic Thinking Skills

This was the question James (not real name) first put to me when we started our work together.  Just two weeks out of a long and intense promotion interviewing process, from which he was not successful, he was tired, bruised and feeling deflated after the whole process. 

The feedback from the CEO and some of the interviewing executives was that he “wasn’t strategic enough.”  This came as a big shock to James as he had always had excellent performance reviews, many of which were with these very same executives, who publicly praised him for the consistent delivery of his department’s ambitious yearly targets.  He didn’t know what to do with this feedback so when the Head of HR suggested he work with a coach to help him develop and demonstrate these skills, he agreed. 

Leadership Promotions – Common Mistake

My answer to James’s question was a very strong “yes.”   James like a lot of managers with his twenty plus year’s business experience and a long list of academic qualifications, including an MBA from a renowned business school had a lot of strategic delivery experience and built a successful career on this.  However, the competency of strategy execution, which is very operations focused, is very different from that of strategy development, which is very vision focused. 

This was the predicament in which James found himself.  His management roles to date were very operations focused, resulting in him having a highly developed operations mindset, and a less developed strategic mindset.    His strategic-thinking muscles, like all muscles when only used occasionally, were under-developed, and when put to the test as in his recent promotion opportunity, were assessed as being not strong enough.  Our work focused on correcting this imbalance.

Bigger Leadership Roles – The Rules of the Game Change

We started first with an understanding of the terrain of senior leadership promotions and how the rules of the game change.  As managers are assessed on their potential to step-up into a more senior leadership role a different set of skills comes into play, notably those of visioning, strategic thinking, communications and influencing.   Research conducted by the Management Research Group and outlined in their Harvard Business Review article Developing Strategic Thinkers Throughout Your Organisation not only identified strategic thinking as the number 1 sought after skill in leadership promotions, but as being 50 times more important than operational skills. So while excellent operational skills are still very important, a key learning is knowing that an over-reliance on them alone is not enough to differentiate yourself from the competition of highly coveted senior positions.   A second key learning from the research revealed that managers perceived as having high strategic skills were 4 times more likely to be seen as future high potential leaders.   

The Importance of Perception

While developing your strategic skills is critical to getting promoted, so too is demonstrating those skills to your manager and other senior executives across the organisation.    Their perception of your strategic abilities matters greatly and to influence it you must act on it today and everyday.   Three ways you can get started today are:

  1. Challenge your Beliefs about Strategic Thinking and Time – James like a lot of executives was working from a belief that if he could just  block-out 2-3 hours for deep uninterrupted strategic thinking every couple of weeks then he could make real progress on the strategic initiatives he wanted to pursue.  This is a dangerous and damaging belief system.  Instead reframe your strategic thinking as a key component of your job everyday.  This is what the best strategic leaders have learned to do.  Follow their lead.
  2. Identify the Top 3 Strategic Priorities of Your Role – the good news is that best content for strategic thinking comes from the challenges of your own job.  Organisations have no shortage of strategic plans, ambitions, opportunities and challenges. Identify what these are for your job and organise your time around progressing your most important strategic initiatives for maximum impact.    Delegating operational task will create more focus for your strategic priorities.
  3. Demonstrate Your Strategic Skills – by bringing your point of view to the executive table.  Use every meeting to contribute to progressing the strategic agenda e.g. this could be proposing to lead out on a strategic change initiative or putting forward new value-adding changes as part of a business strategy review etc.

Finally be patient with yourself as you embark on this journey of developing and demonstrating your strategic skills.  James admitted to being tempted several times, especially at the start of our work together, to abandoning his strategic work in favour of the more instant adrenaline kicks gained from solving operational issues.  Strategic wins typically require a longer time-frame to deliver bigger rewards, and deservingly bigger promotions for those that make them happen.

Wishing you well,


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