Early in my career, a leader I admired demonstrated amazing savviness in her ability to build alignment across business segments with grit and grace. I watched how she prepared for meetings, facilitated the conversations, identified points of alignment, and ultimately moved the needle forward to lead a 7.8 million dollar cross-organizational development initiative. She operated as a strategic leader – collaborating with stakeholders to think about the future growth of talent, executing a multi-faceted and multi-year plan resulting in organic talent mobility, and influencing critical stakeholders across business lines to reduce recruiting and turnover costs.
Does your role call on you to operate as a strategic leader? Have you struggled with what this means and how you achieve it? If you are like me, finding a practical roadmap has been a journey all its own. In this article, I share practical ways to demonstrate strategic leadership amid uncertain and complex environments.
Leaders demonstrate "strategic leadership when they create the direction, alignment and commitment needed to achieve the enduring performance potential of the organization" (Hughes, Beatty, and Dinwoodie, 11). For many, strategic leadership occurs at the intersection of how you think, act and influence. Strategic leaders must think through a kaleidoscope of information, relentlessly reprioritize plans of action, and continuously influence critical stakeholders.
Consider the suggestions below to sharpen your skills:
Strategic thinking is like playing chess; there are multiple things to consider to make the best decisions. It requires a systems-thinking approach that builds a broad perspective of overall structures, patterns, and cycles within a system vs. only viewing your silo. It requires you to collaborate and scan the environment, reframe situations and information to create a shared understanding, and provide vision.
To demonstrate your strategic thinking consider the steps below:
Scan the Environment. First, identify and engage critical stakeholders to partner with and, together, look at your business's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).
Reframe Information. With your critical stakeholders, and your SWOT information in mind, discuss:
How does everyone see the organization's strategic challenges and capabilities similarly or differently?
How does the team interpret the SWOT information considering political, economic, socioeconomic, and technology trends?
What implicit beliefs or assumptions are at play?
Through this discussion, how would you reframe the value the organization delivers, core capabilities, and strategic opportunities or challenges?
Provide Vision: Now that the team has shared insights and understanding, what kairos moments – moments of collective wisdom and decision – are clear to fuel a future vision? Align with critical stakeholders on how to cascade a vision that includes (Hughes et al. 85):
The vision for the future
An understanding of challenges facing the organization
Guidance from higher authorities
How the team will work with other individuals and groups
Obstacles to group or team success and ways to overcome them
Time invested to think with critical stakeholders is essential to your ability to act strategically. When done well, you can act decisively in the face of uncertainty, foster agility amongst your teammates, and perpetually create alignment by setting clear strategic priorities. To act strategically, Hughes et al. recommends keeping in mind (105):
Only some actions are strategic
Always consider long-term and short-term needs
Recognize the ongoing opportunity for learning
Know that there will always be uncertainty
Acting as a strategic leader requires you to revisit regularly:
Strategic priorities and milestones
Progress against those milestones
Capabilities to deliver on the priorities
Changes in the kaleidoscope – insight from your SWOT and changing political, economic, socioeconomic, and technology trends
I recommend that all leaders and their critical stakeholders revisit and refresh plans quarterly so that the momentum forward remains headed in the right direction.
Many misunderstand how to strategically influence, shortchanging it for persuasion tactics that do not consider the long-range approach for success. To strategically influence, Hughes et al. notes that you must (149):
Manage the political landscape
Span the boundaries of your department, division, or industry
Build sustaining momentum
Influence is quite different from persuasion. It does not happen in one interaction but builds overtime on a solid platform of credibility and relationship. Questions to consider as you work towards strategically influencing include:
Who are your key stakeholders within the ecosystem of your business or industry?
What are your motivations to influence, and what is important to you, yourself, and the organization?
What boundaries – vertical, horizontal, geographic, or demographic do you need to cross?
What level of trust and relationship have you built with them?
How open are you to be influenced by them, considering you want to influence them?
As you navigate how to operate as a strategic leader, recognize it is an ongoing development process. Give yourself grace and space to grow, navigate the complexities, and lead. Find a way to reflect on how you partner with critical stakeholders to think, act and influence the organization, and its outcomes in a way that continuously draws out the best version of the organization.
Please share your tips, comments, and questions below!
Kristy L. Farewell is the CEO and founder of Kairos Insights, a consultancy with expertise in strategy, coaching, onboarding, team development, and change management. Kristy's consulting and coaching approach integrates 20+ years of experience with a laser focus on service to the individu
al and organization. She has experience working with national and global leaders across the financial services, healthcare, academic, and government sectors.