Think Like a Strategist

January 17, 2023
By Mandy Flint, Elisabet Vinberg Hearn

Are you strategic? Are you strategic enough?

Many leaders we meet are focused on the tactical, day-to-day realities of work. That’s OK, but there needs to be a balance of tactical and strategic — everyone, regardless of role, needs to weave strategy into what they do. And to be a positive disruptor, it’s crucial to focus on and develop strategic ability.

What is strategy? According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, it’s “a plan that is intended to achieve a particular purpose.” Leading strategist Michael Porter, professor, Institute of Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School, says, “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”

Strategic ability is being able to create and carry out a successful strategy. In a fast-changing world, a strategy, from the onset, may be emerging rather than fully developed, and it may be subject to change and updates as it is carried out — an agile approach.

Five skills are crucial in building strategic ability:

1) Systems thinking. Be curious about the world around you — observe, listen and explore it — to understand the system you’re in. In systems thinking, there are usually two main systems to consider: the organization’s internal and external systems. An external system is everything outside the organization that touches it in some way, for example, the market, competitors, and social, political and financial environments.

The more you know about your systems, the more likely you are to spot or create relevant opportunities as well as understand the organization’s impact.

2) Purpose and vision focus. Begin with the end in mind. Be relentlessly purpose-driven. Become super-focused on the organizational vision and reason for being. This kind of passion can have a big impact on others, igniting their passion for the vision and purpose as well. Show the way — and give enough direction while still allowing people as much autonomy as possible.

Also, show that everything is done for a reason. Keep explaining and linking actions:  why they are being done and what they will lead to. Doing something for a reason is engaging — and it’s an opportunity to everyone to know that they truly make a difference.

3) Long-term thinking. Plan for the future, set long-term goals as well as short-term goals. Focus on the relationships that are crucial for long-term success, such as those with clients, suppliers, potential clients and colleagues. By being respectful and collaborative, you can create a respectful and collaborative relationship over time. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it will also make it easier to get other to want to work with you in the future. With great relationships come recommendations — clients and stakeholders that seek you out because they have seen your consistent approach over time.

4) Taking responsibility for the whole. Remind yourself of the big picture, take a step back to see beyond your own responsibility today. Recognize that success requires shared responsibility. Look for linkages and interactions between tasks and people, such as dependencies and handoffs. Think through the effects of decisions and actions, extrapolating into the future. Keep in mind this can be hard to do alone, so find others to help you. Assess the impact of strategies, plans, actions and behaviors so that you don’t act in a potentially blinkered, here-and-now way.

5) Asking strategic questions. Provide strategic focus to dialogues. Influence others to take a strategic view and build their strategic ability. Among the examples:

  • What are we trying to achieve? Where do we want to be?
  • Why are we doing what we are doing?
  • How will this differentiate us from our competitors?
  • How will it benefit us? Could we reach that benefit some other way?
  • Where are we now?
  • How will we get there?
  • What will be the impact of our actions, now and later?
  • What are the dependencies?

Additionally, take a moment for reflection and action. Which of these skills do you already have? Which would you like to develop further? How will you do it? Who could you partner with in that learning? What other strategic skills are important to you?

Developing strategic-thinking skills will enable you to become a positive disruptor in your organization and drive change and value.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Jeff Bergen)

About the Author

Mandy Flint

About the Author

Mandy Flint is CEO of Excellence In Leadership in the United Kingdom (U.K.).

About the Author

Elisabet Vinberg Hearn

About the Author

Elisabet Vinberg Hearn is CEO of London-based Katapult Partners. Both are cultural and leadership behavioral change strategists and have authored several award-winning books, including The Leader’s Guide to Impact, published by Financial Times Publishing.