Several years ago, I had the privilege of working with a company that started in the mid 19th century. The company at the time was led by a 5th generation family member (now the 6th generation is in place). Our work consisted of training and implementation of high-performance teams and quality principles, but I soon realized I was about to get a lesson in leadership and strategic thinking from the current owner and his family who went before him.
Let me explain a bit more. This privately held company is now 170+ years old. To put this in perspective, there are only 13 companies in the Fortune 500 over 200 years old. This longevity in itself was a remarkable achievement. During this company’s existence, they have endured many challenges including the depression, multiple recessions, property loss (fire and flood) only to remain a dominant player in their market today. Strategic thinking and re-invention of products and structures have occurred multiple times to meet market demands.
In my interactions with the owner, I watched first hand several characteristics that made him a visionary and strategic thinker. One example was every morning that he was in town he would be in this office surrounded by a stack of current newspapers and periodicals. I remember asking how many he read on a regular basis. He calmly answered that he normally spent until about noon reading everything he could. When I looked a bit dumbfounded, he responded “I couldn’t be here today or tomorrow if I don’t keep up with the trends that are shaping our country, our world and our industry. It’s a big part of what has kept us going for 5 generations.”
This leader illustrates the essence of strategic thinking and the power it brings to sustain an organization for literally centuries. But what is strategic thinking?
In simple terms, it is the ability of a person to envision, assess, and create a desired future for an organization. While there isn’t one single list of skills for strategic thinking, let me share a few actions and habits that will improve your daily strategic thinking and ultimately your strategic and operational planning and execution.
- Be proactive regarding change. There is always a fire in your business. Something that needs improvement or overhaul. The keys to effective fire-fighting is assessing which fires need your attention now. Strategic thinkers don’t wait until you have to react. They are constantly scanning the internal and external environments using various observations methods. They then put in motion actions to correct the root causes of problems before the house is burned to the ground.
- Reflect and take time away. Strategic thinkers value silence and solitude, which is often a lost art in our 24/7 plugged in world. Strategic thinkers purposely make time to get away from the daily grind to read, reflect, plan and refresh. It could be in the form of a retreat, sitting at a coffee shop, taking a walk or sitting in their favorite park bench with a pen and paper. This reflection time is about looking around with a 360-degree perspective versus staring down or straight ahead. The latter two stares will get you run over when the train of change arrives.
- Utilize both sides of your brain. Strategic thinkers value the left side (analytical) and the right side (emotions) of our brain and seek to use both in assessment and decision making. This allows them to be more open minded to all ideas.
- Develop and communicate a clear vision. In business, nothing frustrates employees more than not understanding where we are going. There is no way to align efforts or measure success without a clear vision. Strategic thinkers possess the ability to formulate a vision and lead in word and deed to achieve it. They also can recognize when the vision needs adjustment due to environmental changes.
- Be a lifelong learner. Not only do they constantly read and study, but they also seek out others for advice and counsel. As the Proverbs tell us, “without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
- Focus on 5W and 1H (who, what, where, when, why, how). Strategic thinkers are excellent problem solvers and concerned with business processes. They understand vision is carried out by developing products and services that deliver a great customer experience. They value methodology such as Six Sigma that improve business processes to deliver defect-free products and services.
- Become an operational planner. Strategic thinkers understand that the planning process is the critical value add element for a company. In other words, strategic thinking must be integrated into the operational planning and execution process. As we say that is where the rubber meets the road. Otherwise, the vision is a dream without any wings or legs.
- Remain realistic. While strategic thinkers can be very creative, they also understand the value of being pragmatic when it comes to the pace of change and progress needed in the short and long-term horizon.
- Work on your emotional intelligence. EI or EQ as it is often called is “refers to the ability to identify and manage one's own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Strategic thinkers are masters of EI and use it in daily interactions and coaching of others. If you haven’t read the book by Daniel Goleman on EI, you need to add this one to your list.
Strategic thinkers are in great demand today. They are leaders who can see the forest and trees, then act as our guide you through the maze. They can develop a preferred future for organizations and individuals and rally the team based on “the why” behind a shared vision or needed change. Strategic thinkers also know “the how” of building processes and systems to make decisions to reach our vision. This skill puts feet to the vision enabling organizations to realize their vision.
What about you?
- How do you personally stack up on strategic thinking skills?
- Would others see you as a person who can develop a preferred future that meets current and upcoming market challenges and opportunities?
- Can you put forth the operational plan needed to move forward?
- Are you recruiting and selecting key leadership roles based on their proven ability in strategic thinking skills?
- Is this one of the competencies you seek out?
With strategic thinking, you can build an adaptable organization that has the ability to reach short term goals and sustainable growth into the next century. Now, that’s a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) worth sharing and striving for.
Need help improving your strategic thinking? Connect with us and learn how we’ve helped others through regular coaching or a strategic planning session.