All of my adult life, I’ve been a student of leadership, fascinated by what it takes to be a true leader. I was compelled to try to identify those things that some leaders do so well that inspire others to follow and become their best, self-achieving things they didn’t think were possible. The fascination started when I was still in college, working as a young assistant manager at a McDonald’s restaurant. It continued through my career as an executive, while obtaining my MBA, and now as an executive coach.
As a certified executive coach, I have formalized into a leadership platform what I endeavored to do for many years as a business executive: Coach people to help them go places — higher levels of performance or career direction — they wouldn’t go without my leadership or influence. In fact, my favorite quote is by futurist/author Joel Barker: “An effective leader is someone who you will choose to follow to a place you would not go by yourself.”
Being strategic is a critical attribute in an effective leader. For decades I’ve been hearing executives describe others as “not seeing the big picture,” or as “too tactical; not strategic.” But not being strategic is one of the biggest opportunities for leaders — especially leaders who have been great doers/individual contributors, have grown up through the ranks, or are new millennial leaders.
So, how does one become strategic? What does strategic look like? Well, there are specific behaviors that need to be exhibited and incorporated into one’s own actions. Then, through practice and by receiving positive feedback and reinforcement, those strategic actions and behaviors become natural attributes. Only then will others perceive that person as strategic.
As leaders, it is our responsibility to help aspiring managers — the company’s leaders in training — to see the big picture. It’s easier to see the big picture the higher you move up in the organization. The conversations you have are at a higher level; the things you read are more applicable to the entire organization vs. having a more narrow focus on a specific area of responsibility. And, new leaders benefit from broader exposure to people who already think big picture.
As I was progressing to the executive level in my former position as vice president of learning and development in a Fortune 100 company, I had the opportunity and good fortune to work with a great many top leaders. I’m pleased to say I’ve continued to do so as an executive coach. Based on years of interaction with many successful leaders, I have identified four key traits and behaviors shared by those who are considered by their superiors and peers to be strategic:
- The person knows the big picture. They can articulate the company’s vision/purpose, and they’re effective at connecting the two for others in the organization.
- The person is aware of trends inside and outside the company, and knows how to leverage them for the good of the organization long-term.
- The person thinks through the consequences of decisions.
- The person regularly makes time for strategic thinking.
These are the specific actions and behaviors you need to exhibit to distinguish yourself as a strategic leader:
- The person knows the big picture. Strategic leaders truly understand the big picture and the company vision and purpose. They regularly talk about it, and ensure their people understand how the team’s work aligns with it. As a result, individual members, and the team overall, are more engaged and productive.
This can be more challenging if your team is more of a traditional support department, but it is possible. When I led a large training team, I was proud that the team consistently achieved 100 percent agreement on our annual engagement survey to “Understand how your work positively impacts the company’s vision and strategic plan.” Use the company’s vision as a screen to help ensure the team’s work stays perfectly aligned. When employees have a clear sight and understanding of how their work impacts the larger company, it is much easier for them, and for leaders, to determine the most important work upon which to focus.
The CEO of McDonald’s Corporation provided me, even to this day, with one of the best examples of this type of strategic leadership. In virtually every presentation he made to audiences large and small, he consistently referred to our vision of “being our customer’s favorite place and way to eat and drink.” He also consistently tied in our top three strategic priorities. His executives — at least those of us who thrived under his leadership — knew that when we met with him to solicit support for something we were doing, or wanted to move forward on, we had to be able to clearly articulate how the project aligned with the overall company vision and priorities.
- The person is aware of trends inside and outside the company. People perceived as more strategic have a strong awareness of, and regularly reference and leverage, relevant trends inside and outside of their companies.
Today there is so much information available and easily accessible about a company, its industry and competitors. Take advantage. I suggest you regularly read your company’s website and other industry literature. Have you read your annual report? Do you know your company’s customer satisfaction ratings compared to your largest competitors? Are you as educated about your company as the average consumer could be? I guarantee you will be surprised and enlightened by at least some of what you learn.
Make time to scan the internet and read important news about your company at a minimum once a week, if not daily. This isn’t just a nice to do, it’s a need to do if you want to stay relevant and build your big picture thinking. Then don’t keep the information to yourself; share it with others to help educate those around you, and to shape future strategies and actions. In doing so, you’ll come across as being strategic.
- The person thinks through the consequences of decisions. A strategic leader thinks through the consequences of not only their own decisions, but role-models the approach with team members to help build their ability to make good decisions.
For example, let’s say Sal is the strategic leader, and DeeDee is the design director. DeeDee recommends that Sal use a vendor to develop a new course, and it will cost only $4,000. Sal asks probing questions, such as; “If we go that route, how would we maintain the course if we need to update or change content?” Only then does DeeDee think about the maintenance the vendor would need to perform, since the course would be built in their proprietary software. Ongoing maintenance costs would be thousands of additional dollars.
Strategic leaders help build employee skills through these kinds of dialogues. They also learn more about their people along the way. High performers and leaders-in-training will welcome these developmental exchanges, whereas lower performers and those with little leadership potential will not.
- This person regularly makes time for strategic thinking. Strategic leaders regularly schedule time to envision the future and think longer term. The best way to do this is to step back from the whirlwind of things going on and just think.
Only by focusing your thoughts can you continue to: ensure a strong connection to your stakeholders and the core of your business or mission as the environment changes; ensure your team is achieving the desired results and necessary impact on the organization; confidently determine and adjust as needed.
Finding extra time to just think seems impossible for busy executives with already too-full plates. But this is something that sets apart the most successful leaders; like my former CEO, they make the time to reflect and strategically think.
With the right mentoring and coaching, leaders can learn to incorporate behaviors that significantly improve their ability to be strategic. So now that you know what that looks like, perhaps you should look in the mirror and consider whether your leadership approach could use a bit of a makeover in this area.
Diana Thomas is an executive coach and advisor and former vice president of learning and development for McDonald’s Corporation USA. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.