Looking for a promotion? Want to be paid more? Tired of hearing that you’re “not leadership material?” One of the things you might need to work on is becoming more strategic.

Unfortunately, “strategic” can be a bit of a nebulous term, and someone telling you that you need to be more strategic can feel as helpful as if they told you to be more groovy, or more purple, or more now.

Why Do People Think I’m Not Strategic? 

One reason that people might say that you’re not strategic is that you behave in ways that are un-strategic, non-strategic, or anti-strategic.

And what do people consider the opposite of strategic? The opposite of strategic is tactical. Now, I would argue that you can be both strategic AND tactical. In fact, you need to be both strategic and tactical. You need high-level insight about where to play, how to win, AND the wherewithal to select the actions that will best advance your cause. But I suspect that when someone says that you’re not strategic, it’s because you contribute significantly more on the tactical side than on the strategic side.

Start there. Before you start trying to be more strategic, try to be less un-strategic by dialing back your tactical contributions.

Signs of Tactical Thinking

  • Talking about how the world is, rather than how it could be
  • Responding to a teammate’s future-focused ideas with “but…”
  • Driving to closure before exploring options
  • Sticking to a near-term time horizon
  • Focusing on what to do next (or right now)
  • Converging, reducing options, narrowing the possibilities
  • Struggling to tweak an existing approach rather than looking for new approaches
  • Talking about internal strengths and weaknesses rather than external opportunities and threats

Once you’ve become more aware of the behaviors that might give the impression that you’re a tactical thinker, you can work on adding more strategic contributions.

Team meeting in person with a woman presenting about the futureBeing More Strategic

It’s not enough to just be less unstrategic (the grammar police are really hating on me for this phrase). Being less tactical will not win you any kudos if you stop saying anything at all. Instead, you need to shift your contributions to adding more strategic value. Here are a few ways you can do that.

Lengthen Your Time Horizon

Strategic thinking requires that you look beyond the world as it is today and anticipate what might be coming. How far out you need to go depends on your role and level in the organization. For many, contributing something beyond the current week or month will seem strategic relative to the myopic focus on the present that dominates most discussions. The more senior your role, the more you’ll have to be thinking out three, five, or ten years to stand out from the crowd.

Focus on Factors Outside Your Organization

I love the line “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” which I first read in Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book Made to Stick. Tactical people come up with intricate, elegant plans—works of art, really—they just don’t consider whether their beautiful plans will meet customers’ needs or survive the competition. Minor detail! Being strategic means injecting data and insight about what’s going on outside your organization, not always navel-gazing or even continuously improving.

Understand the Macro Trends

Tactical thinkers see activity in the world; they just don’t see how activities in different domains are connected. Strategic thinkers see the order in the chaos and patterns among the points. They don’t just read a story about the emergence of a couch-surfing company (Airbnb); they think about what that means for the hotel industry, what it says about crowd-sourcing trust, how it will increase passive-income, how passive-income will drive the gig economy, how the gig economy will create full-time employee shortages, how full time…. well… you get it. The tactical thinker notices what has happened, the strategic thinker notices what’s happened and asks, “So what?” and “Now what?”

Understand How Your Business (and Your Competitors) Make Money

One of the most disruptive forces in business is when a company changes the business model of an industry. To capitalize on these opportunities (or defend against your competitors disrupting you), you need to be keenly aware of how organizations make money. For example, in an industry that gives a service for free by selling customer data, how might an ad-free paid membership create an opportunity? In a software product company, how might a SaaS model be more effective? And in the Airbnb example, how could we become the largest accommodation company in the world with no capital in real estate? No matter what role you’re in, understanding how your company makes money will give you insights that others might not have.

Make Connections

Strategic thinking is connected thinking. Companies are stuffed full of people who can analyze the crap out of things. They tear everything apart and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. But too few people are putting things together. That’s your opportunity. Connect trends—how will growing nationalism impact the preferred path to decarbonization? Connect activities—how could the work we’re doing in our Audit practice be more synergistic with our Advisory practice? Connect people—what if I brokered an introduction between two of our most important customers?

Answer Why and Who Questions (Not How)

If you want to be viewed as a strategic thinker, focus on answering the why and the who questions. You can answer a few what questions here and there (your tactical colleagues will probably have asked and answered most of them). What you want to avoid, like the plague, is answering the how questions. Focusing on how questions will get you branded as a tactical thinker faster than you can say “KPIs.”

Abandon Ideas in the Face of Evidence

It’s important to call out one form of imposter masquerading as a strategic thinker—the pipe dreamer. A truly strategic thinker is not afraid of evidence that their plan won’t work; they’re happy to hear it. So be vocal about your willingness to change your point of view based on new or contrary evidence.

The Moral of the Story

In an era where most of us have the attention span of fleas, finding someone who can lift our eyes to the horizon is so important. For the next month, pay attention to what you’re paying attention to (Woah…so meta). Make your contributions stand out by thinking about what could be, not what is. (With apologies to your tactical colleagues who were quite happy thinking about nothing beyond their afternoon of back-to-back internal meetings.)

(Click to download the poster.)

Further Reading

How to Sell Your Strategic Idea

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