Have you been told you need to be “more strategic” in your current job? Is your organization faltering when it comes to connecting its vision and mission with the daily demands of the work? Do you struggle to balance short-term and long-term pressures?
Much is made of the importance of strategy in today’s organizations. A well-crafted, well-implemented strategy and the best strategic thinkers are seen as essential to an organization’s long-term success. Even so, managers and executives often struggle to move strategy beyond setting direction or goals and toward an on-going process of transforming and sustaining the organization.
“The missing piece is what we call strategic leadership,” says Katherine Beatty, a faculty member of the Center for Creative Leadership. “The focus of strategic leadership is the enduring success of the organization, and the work of strategic leadership is to drive the organization so that it will thrive in the long term.”
In their book Becoming a Strategic Leader, Beatty and Center for Creative Leadership faculty member Richard Hughes explain that effective strategic leadership requires different skills and perspectives than those required by day-to-day operational leadership. Strategic leadership stands out in three ways:
- First, strategic leadership is broad in scope. Strategic decisions impact areas outside your own functional area, business unit or even the organization. An effective strategic leader sees the organization as interdependent and interconnected so that actions and decisions in one part of the organization are undertaken with their impact on other parts of the organization in mind. Operational leadership does not necessarily extend this far.
- Second, strategic leadership is future focused. Strategic work takes place over long periods of time. The strategic leader operates with a far-reaching timetable, integrating short-term results and a long-term focus. Not all leadership requires a forward view to be effective. Very good operational leaders manage day-to-day functions effectively and are skilled at working with people to ensure that short-term objectives are met.
- Third, strategic leadership is change oriented. The strategic leader is often a driver of organizational change. The impact of his or her work cascades or ripples throughout the organization. Effective operational leadership does not necessarily institute significant organizational change. For example, achieving the quarter’s targets may require that your team works well together — an important leadership task — but it does not necessarily require change.
Beatty and Hughes also emphasize that strategic leaders may come from all functions and work at any level in the organization — it is not just the job of top executives. For example, a purchasing manager can anticipate the impact on engineering and manufacturing, of switching a supplier. Or a human resource director can develop systems to encourage cooperation across business units. Even those who are on the front line, interacting with the customer, are in a unique position to scan the environment, spot trends or concerns and make sense of that information.
If you think strategic leadership isn’t in your job description, think again. You may have been misled by one of the following three common myths about leadership and strategy:
- Myth No. 1: “Strategic leadership is the CEO’s job.” True, the CEO is ultimately responsible for deciding upon a path for the organization. Yes, the senior management team is usually involved. But this does not mean that these people are the only strategic leaders in an organization. Strategic leadership is best exerted when information from the top of the organization is combined with information from the bottom ranks. And middle managers are in a unique position to do this.
- Myth No. 2: “I need to be strategic; my people don’t.” It’s not enough to be a good strategic leader yourself. You have to foster strategic leadership in others as well. In fact, you should focus on others as much as — if not more than — on yourself. Why? The process of creating and sustaining competitive advantage is too complex for any one person to develop and carry out.
- Myth No. 3: “Leading strategically is about making the right choice at the right time.” Crafting strategy is more of a discovery process than a matter of choosing among a set of options at a given time. It involves discovering the few key things that the organization needs to do well and can do well in order to differentiate itself from other competitors in the industry. Discovery takes discipline and a commitment to continuous learning throughout the organization.
By recognizing opportunities for strategic leadership and finding ways to enact it, you can play a critical role in supporting your organization’s long-term success.