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6 Skills You Need to Become A Strategic Leader

Jun 07, 2021

Strategic thinking skills are highly sought-after management competencies in leaders. The reason? People who can think logically, critically, and strategically have a significant impact on business growth.

Businesses face complex situations every day involving an array of challenges to be solved, and goals to be achieved. Changing market demands, new technologies, remote workforce, regulations, and competition – all put a premium on the leaders’ capabilities to respond in time and strategically.

These challenges are daunting in part because they involve several independent agents interacting with each other in a complex system. For instance, it’s quite one thing to say your organization needs diversity but requires another level of review to figure out how to practice the concept with your people and place.

“Strategic leaders understand the goals of the organization, business unit, and team at a very deep level. When they take action, they do so to advance those goals.” – MIT Sloan School of Management

Managers, supervisors, executives, and business strategists are looked upon to navigate the unknown effectively.

  • Do you offer compelling ideas to plot a best course of action to a problem?

  • Are you able to inspire contributions from every member of your team?

  • Can you bring a diverse group together on a common vision?

A strategic mindset can help you do so.

Here are six strategic leadership skills that great business strategists possess.

CHARACTERISTICS OF A STRATEGIC LEADER

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1. The Conversation Guide – Building space for deeper and focused conversations

Strategic leaders are great conversation guides. They know how to steer tête-à-têtes toward focused discussions.

Deeper conversations are a rarity for people, and they are even more elusive in case of groups. The difference between everyday and deeper conversations is that of sparking innovation, creativity, and productivity. As the longest-serving first lady of the US, and a diplomat, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Increasing productivity of groups starts with increasing productivity of their conversations. Leaders who are able to kindle great conversations among teams often see marked progress on complex challenges facing them.

This ability is about building a safe space for people where focused conversations can take place. Psychological safety is its bedrock.

To improve your ability to guide conversations:

  • Proscribe rapid toggling, such as the use of smartphones. It impacts focus and switching between tasks comes with cognitive impact.

  • Choose the right team size. It should neither be too small, nor too big; just right. Jeff Bezos goes by the “two-pizza rule” to create teams, according to which, if you can’t feed your team with two pizzas, it’s too big. A Psychological Sciences study found seven to be the most effective number for a group. Organizational Sciences concludes that having an odd number of people in a group makes for the optimal size.

  • Carefully choose the meeting place. The idea is to pick a place where people can speak honestly, and frankly. According to NASA’s group experiments, collaborations emerged most easily on neutral turf referring to the geographical regions that didn’t belong to any of the groups involved in the workshops. You could also apply the “teddy bear principle,” which says that exposure to childhood cues propagate social behavior. So, using toys in the room, or colors on the wall.

  • Equity of voice is another cornerstone of this skill. Establish rules of civility in a conversation that gives everyone an opportunity to talk and imbibe patience to listen when others speak.

Case-in-point: Google

Google, over the years, has spent a great deal of effort into understanding group dynamics and building effective teams. Psychological safety is their priority consideration in teamwork.

2. The Questioner – Framing appreciative questions

Questions can be powerful. Every time a question is asked, it creates an invisible frame around which the conversation takes place. Strategic leaders design appreciative framing questions that facilitate conversation in a more productive direction.

The essence of powerful inquiry is to spark fresh ideas. It is a complex process that requires engagement from everyone, and deeper thinking.

To improve your ability to frame appreciative questions:

  • Ask clear and adaptive questions. Adaptive questions seek solutions and can be used with groups tasked with the same. It involves paving the way forward through group intelligence and strategic intuition. Some examples of adaptive questions are: How do we become the employer of choice? What’s the most effective way to respond to new technology?

  • Frame questions that focus on what the organization wants more of rather than what it wants lesser. For instance, instead of asking what you can do to reduce customer complaints, frame your question to say, “When our customers have been most pleased with our service, and what can we learn to multiply those moments?”

  • Don’t shy away from eccentric ideas. Powerful questions are often surprising, which are not often discussed or thought of.

  • Approach every challenge and problem with an open mind. It entails looking at reality differently. This can trigger new perspectives and innovative solutions. Sometimes the best way to do this is by letting go of your urge to control or premeditate solutions.

  • Make sure your questions prompt people to reflect and think. They could touch them on a personal level. This often leads to stories, and can be used for team building, creating a sense of vulnerability, and trust.

Case-in-point: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was the master of asking appreciative questions. Instead of asking, “How must we compete with IBM?” he asked, “What if personal computers were small and portable?” That’s what made Apple the trailblazer.

3. The Inventory Taker – Identifying assets at the disposal

Many people like to live in an “if only land,” contemplating what they could do if they had something else. Strategic leaders focus on what assets they have and talk about the ways to leverage those opportunities.

The use of assets here is not limited to money and people, but other tangibles and intangibles. We can see them in four major categories.

  • Physical assets include land, building, spaces for meetings, virtual meeting groups, classrooms, and high-speed internet.

  • Knowledge assets include people with skills such as public speaking, research, budgeting, digital dexterity, subject expertise, data analytics, etc.

  • Social assets are the groups and people your network knows and are acquainted with.

  • Capital assets along with financial resources include space bought for advertisement or opinion, donations, administrative support.

It is an especially vital skill for strategic leaders in new ventures where finances are scarce, and staff thin. They ask – how do we move forward with the skills and connections we have?

To improve your ability to identify assets:

  • Adopt network thinking and limit the hierarchical approach that usually guides resource allocation. It will open earlier disregarded and unexplored avenues and resources, which could be used in a different way.

  • Think expansively about your assets. Every new person brings in a network and new assets. It can be as simple as taking a sheet of paper and listing the assets you and your people possess.

  • Talk to people to unearth hidden assets in your organization, like hobbies. People in groups could prod each other to remind them of the assets left unmentioned.

  • Ask questions to make assets more actionable. For instance, if someone knows people who understand new technologies, gain a thorough understanding of this social asset by probing about the technologies, and the markets they work in.

  • Try to understand the categories in which you are asset-rich, and where you lack.

Case-in-point: Non-Profit Organizations

A group of researchers working with multiple NPOs in a region got those organizations together, which received funding from the city government. Surprisingly for them, it was the first time these NPOs got in a room and contemplated on problems collectively.

4. The Horizontal Thinker – Linking diverse assets and areas

Making a list of assets is not enough. Innovation happens when these assets are combined with diverse thinking around a certain idea. Strategic leaders are adept at linking and leveraging these assets.

Combining standalone assets into one that creates new value requires skill.

To improve your ability to link assets:

  • Think horizontally. Most professionals are quite skillful at thinking vertically, i.e. exploring a subject or area in-depth owing to their expertise in the discipline. While it is useful, horizontal thinking is quite lacking. Horizontal thinking borrows from diverse disciplines, and fields. It can be a source of innovation and new insights.

  • Create an “extended mind,” by involving the entire group in the thinking process. Team thinking can prove to be a great stimulus for individuals’ horizontal thinking.

  • Follow a discipline to spur new thinking. While innovations may seem serendipitous, great strategic leaders plan for these breakthroughs by creating a structure that facilitates better conversations and horizontal thinking.

Case-in-point: Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering (RCHE)

RCHE, a group created as a result of horizontal thinking – healthcare engineering – practices the same on an everyday basis. It’s what led them to innovate the infusion pumps, which deliver fluids to the patient’s body. RCHE has made these pumps more accurate in the delivery of medicine and fluids with web-based tools.

5. The Decision Maker – Identifying an opportunity and measurable outcomes

Strategic leaders understand the importance of moving from ideation to action – all in time. As they identify the opportunities that come with interlinking their assets, they go a step further to zero-in on an opportunity and try to realize it.

This process involves taking decisions on what opportunity to choose for implementation and finding the best possible outcomes and measures for it.

How a leader takes decision impacts trust among people and lay the ground for future collaboration.

The Art of Decision-Making

Leadership, according to Herbert Simon, is about making “satisficing decisions,” i.e. choices, which are rational as well as satisfying to the most.

As a strategist, you can use different methods for decision-making.

One is consensus, wherein everyone agrees to support a decision. A popular version of this method that’s usually adopted in corporate circles is “consensus minus one.” It means everyone must agree to the decision, except one. The underlying assumption behind this is that if two or more people oppose a choice, there is ought to be some good reason. Consensus, however, can be hard to achieve.

Another popular way of reaching decisions is by majority. Many business strategists use an alternative version of this method, which gives a certain number of multiple votes to everyone, and different parameters are defined and voted out. The winning choice is determined based on their weighted averages. NASA is known to use this alternative version.

To improve your ability to identify opportunity and outcomes:

  • Adopt 2X2 modeling. It is a simple method, capable of triggering sophisticated thinking in a group. To use it, decide the two criteria on which you will ask people to rank opportunities at your behest. A suggestion to begin with: choose impact and ease of implementation as the two verticals. This will spot for you an opportunity that’s easy to implement and can have the highest impact.

  • To find out your desired outcomes, anticipate the future of your chosen opportunity. Ask three questions: What do we intend to see after we achieve our tasks? And whose lives will it impact and how?

  • Better understand your outcomes by figuring out the right metrics for each. Don’t restrict yourself to the budgetary concerns at the ideation stage of metrics identification.

6. The Leadership Maximizer – Inspiring ownership and accountability in people

Great strategic leaders make sure good ideas don’t die on the vine. They inspire organization-wide collaboration during the implementation by creating a sense of shared leadership and ownership.

Shared leadership is about empowering people to take leads and strengthen their abilities. This quality of a strategic leader marshal people to join in the cause, and actively participate to take on complex business challenges. It maximizes the talent of an organization and matches the best of people’s abilities.

To improve your ability of inspiring ownership:

  • Work for an individual as much as your larger-than-life plans. Consider yourself as a part of the team than just a supervisor.

  • Keep modest and achievable expectations from individuals. Each of these achievements will add to create a big impact.

  • Give more power to individuals in decision-making and implementation. It can include more autonomy on task completion and resource deployment.

  • Define clear boundaries and be open to revisions during regular assessments. You can adopt 30/30 approach for review, report, and revise. It entails taking stock for every 30 days and changing people and work dynamics based on the current status.

  • Cultivate an open culture for people to take initiative. For instance, the 20% project where employees spend 20% of their time on personal projects and innovations.

  • Don’t doubt the decisions of your people at every step. It lowers morale and reduces trust.

Case-in-point: Gore Associates

A Delaware-based company, Gore Associates, houses as many as 9,000 employees and essentially operates without supervisors and managers. Their employees accept (not get assigned) the work, and each office consists of no more than 150 people. It uses people’s collective knowledge to develop ideas and determine workflow.

BECOMING A STRATEGIC LEADER

Growing into a strategic leader requires self-exploration, profound questioning, and training. Although you may not always have the solution, strategic thinking inculcates the art of reaching those solutions and address complex business challenges. It’s about learning how to think and understanding the role of the right questions and answers to spot new opportunities within and outside the organization.

Are you looking to improve your strategic leadership capabilities? Explore TSI’s Business Strategy Certifications, designed to assess and empower the craft of strategic thinking to lead your organization with emotional intelligence and tactical intuition.

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