6 Ways to Grow into a Strategic Leader

There’s a point in time of our careers that we transition from people leadership to business leadership.  Many don’t understand the significance of this shift (aside from more money and greater responsibility) and are perplexed as to why they just don’t seem to be excelling in their new role like they did in the past.   Others are building extended roots in their people leadership role seemingly FOREVER, and while they are hungry for growth and opportunity,  experience the glass-ceiling effect and can’t break through.   What’s the secret sauce?  Strategic Thinking.  True strategic business leaders have elevated their leadership brand from one of supervisory excellence to that of a business thinker/guru/expert.

So whether you are already in a strategic role, or are looking to move your career that direction, here are 6 shifts to make this year in your efforts to grow your strategic abilities.

1. Know how your company makes money.  

Whether you are in a business operations role, sales, or behind the scenes, if someone asked you to write or draw on a whiteboard how your company makes money, could you?  Would you understand the roles that each department plays in that money making equation?  If you cannot do this, start here. Who can you sit down with to understand all of this?  Is there a department/function that is an enigma to you?  Make it your mission this year to truly and deeply understand how your company makes money and how to read and understand the key financial metrics. Do not move forward, do not pass go, until you can do this.

2. Link your personal work to the company objectives.  

There’s a lot of work to be done, and a true business leader will understand how to prioritize and focus on the work that truly matters to the business.  Understand your company’s business objectives, both short- and long-term.  This includes the tangible written objectives and the longer term strategic plan.  Now, with everything you do and say, link your work, decision making, and priorities to supporting those objectives.  For some, it’s a very easy and direct link.  For other more behind the scenes roles, you have to assertively make those connections so others understand you GET IT and in turn, they will get it to.

3. Practice the 5 Whys. And Why Not.

Never accept anything at face value.  Be the one to discover root causes and hidden truths.  In any problem solving discussion, begin with the question “why” and as each layer unfolds, ask another “why” until you have gone 5 layers deep. From there you are likely facing the true problem or issue at hand and creating business solutions that are smarter and less obvious.  At the same time, “why not” questions allow you to lead the group to create space for innovation, risk taking, and experimentation.  Be the leader that challenges the status quo and pushes the team to be ahead of the curve.  As Apple has been known to say, “think differently.”

4. Weigh decisions and implications now, 1 year from now, 5 years from now, for all key stakeholders.

The strategic leader tends to think of implications that others haven’t thought of.  With ideas and decisions, consider potential implications to all key stakeholders (e.g. customers, shareholders, employees) in the short and long-term.  Pulling yourself up to see the 30,000 foot view and out of just the here and now is a key mindset shift that will position you as a critical business leader in the company.  Again, you can’t effectively do this if you can’t do #1 (know how your business makes money) and don’t understand the needs and challenges of all of your key stakeholders.  Raise the implications issue, and better yet, have solutions.

5. Get outside your bubble.

The longer you’ve been working for the same organization, the more likely you are to be trapped in a bubble of like-minded thinking, approaches, language, and priorities.  It’s critical that you stay on top of trends in the workplace and marketplace, understand what your competitors and even those in completely different industries are doing.  And just as important, understand what they aren’t doing.  Take the time to stay connected outside of your company. Be a student of industry trends.  Understand the next generation of talent and customer (e.g. Millennials) so that you can lead your company outside of group think.

6. Proactively differentiate yourself by tapping into unmet needs of your key stakeholders.

Thinking strategically means understanding how your company is uniquely suited to tap into needs of your customers that they didn’t even know they had.  Stay close to your competition, not so you can mimic them  but so you know what’s been done and what gaps remain.  Build on your competitor’s success by tapping into their unmet need and solving it differently, proactively, and simply.

Becoming More Strategic...

If you aren’t doing any of the above recommendations yet, you might be overwhelmed.  The key is to take it one step at a time, starting with #1.  By building relationships with key business leaders in the organization, you will find strategic role models. As how many of us learned our people leadership skills, we learn a lot through watching others and making mental notes of best practices.  You want to grow your leadership career?  Be a student of strategic thinking.  To have a bigger impact, you have to start thinking…differently.