It sounds obvious — if you want to build organizational strategic leadership capability (SLC), simply hire and promote capable, strategic thinkers. Few would dispute that logic.
Yet, the essence of what SLC truly represents is hard to define. Phrases like strategic thinking, strategic intent, strategic planning, strategic leadership, etc. are interchanged so often, it’s hard to know exactly what SLC is and (more importantly) how to build it.
We’ve coached hundreds of individual executives and their teams about how they might best approach their most pressing and perplexing strategic decisions, and some kernels of insight emerged. We’d like to highlight a few observations gleaned over that time and share what we’ve seen others do to effectively build SLC.
Strategic leadership capability — lots of room for improvement
Strategic leadership capability is the ability to make strategic decisions that lead to superior organizational performance over time. There are two components:
- The strategic problem-solving capability of individuals.
- Their ability to marshal organizational resources (people, processes, etc.) to build and implement winning strategies.
Over 95% of executives say ‘thinking strategically’ is the most important factor in their organization’s success.
However, there’s evidence much more can/must be done to improve. For instance, only 2% of leaders believe their organization will deliver on 80 to 100% of its strategic objectives. Only about 35% of executives believe their organizations are good at developing and implementing strategy. Finally, less than 20% of executives feel their organization does enough to recruit for strategic leadership capability and even less feel they do enough to develop it internally.
Clearly, more can be done to build SLC, but what yields the greatest results?
Collective versus individual strategic capability — both are important
We can’t really talk about strategic capability without talking about teams. After all, strategy is a plan we build to solve a problem and most really significant business problems are much too complex for one person to solve on their own. Additionally, the CEO relies on the experience, breadth, individual strategic thinking acumen, collective problem-solving capability, diversity of perspective, technical and functional expertise (and much more) inherent in their senior teams to develop and implement strategy.
As a result, a backbone of sound organizational strategy is collective strategic-thinking capability. Having said that, take two very effective teams and put all your strongest, individual strategic thinkers on one of them and they should regularly outperform the other group – individual strategic thinking capability also matters a lot. From our perspective, building organizational SLC requires a focus on both group and individual capability development, i.e. building SLC in individuals then helping them learn how to leverage that capability through effective collective action – ideally, the sum becomes greater than the parts.
What makes some teams and individuals better than others at building and implementing strategy? In our experience, attention to three things:
- Clear purpose and process combined with the individual discipline for clear observation and deep reflection in the moment.
- Collaborative decision-making through genuine connection with others.
- Strategic time and practice.
Purpose and process combined with observation & reflection
Many senior teams can go years – with new members regularly joining and others leaving – without reflecting on the purpose of their group and their meetings. The purpose of a senior team encompasses three primary responsibilities:
- Identify the organization’s ‘future state’ – high-level goals and objectives.
- Build the organizational plan (strategy) for getting there.
- Oversee implementation of the plan.
Sure, the CEO’s accountable for ensuring all this happens, but it can’t be effectively accomplished without collective engagement and alignment from senior team members. Despite that, many CEOs find team members so mired in departmental and/or functional oversight they’re left grappling with organization-wide concerns alone while their team members are ‘in the weeds’, mired in departmental concerns. As a team, they’re only focused on a small part of their primary purpose/role.
Inevitably, when purpose and roles are vague and/or unenforced, processes deteriorate. For instance, ask 5 members of a senior team, ‘what is your process for’… a) development of organization-wide goals and strategies; b) keeping the strategy current; and c) making senior team decisions that significantly impact strategy… and don’t be surprised if you get many different answers. We know because we’ve asked many times. As a result, we strongly suggest a CEO consistently:
- Clarifies the senior team’s primary purpose and key strategic processes with the full group (at least once per year, ideally more often).
- Makes them visible, perhaps as part of a ‘team charter’ or regular communications.
- Re-clarifies purpose/roles whenever a new senior team member joins.
We do not use the word ‘clarify’ lightly. Clarity of purpose cannot be achieved without the high level of awareness that’s only possible through observation and reflection about what is happening in the environment. As Louis Pasteur famously said, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors the prepared mind”. The corporate graveyard is littered with examples of organizations that have been blissfully unaware of a threat until it was too late to change strategic direction. Ask any military commander about the importance of maintaining the capacity for observation and reflection, especially in the “fog of war” – when disruption is most rampant. Being a reflective observer is a multifaceted skill, but in the interest of simplicity, we’ll boil it down to three habits that, cultivated regularly, can build a leader’s powers for observation and reflection.
- Begin by simply noticing your regular response to your environment. What values, preferences and/or perspectives guide your thoughts and behaviors? This will help you become aware of triggers, biases, assumptions and potential blind spots.
- Operate above the fray by getting ‘onto the balcony’. Develop the habit of regularly stepping back and asking,”What’s really going on here?”.
- Cultivate a daily practice of mindfulness; it can be 5, 10 or 20 minutes each day. The key is regularly taking time to be truly present with your surroundings.
When teams and individuals are unclear of their purpose and/or unable to focus, collective effort crumbles.
Collaborative decision-making through connection
When it comes to strategic leadership capability, there’s lots of research extolling the benefits of collaborative or collective decision-making. To name a few:
- Groups tend to make better decisions than individuals when problems are complex.
- Diverse thinking styles and points of view typically expand the range of variables under consideration and generation of alternative solutions.
- Working to a solution/decision as a group can increase engagement and alignment.
Done well, collaborative decision-making has a ‘network effect’ – in computing, as more people share the same platform, more value is derived by everyone. Similarly, working collaboratively with others on a strategic problem theoretically increases everyone’s strategic capability.
However, executives are not computers — as humans, many of those attractive benefits come with some debilitating side-effects. For instance, groups typically contain coalitions and pockets of mutual self-interest that can impede sound decision-making. Diverse thinking and points of view increase the possibility of conflict and disagreement, hardening positions and/or generating so many alternatives that consensus and alignment can’t be reached. Done poorly, collaborative decision-making can actually impair individual contribution – it’s the ‘network effect’ in reverse.
How do senior team leaders extract the benefits of collaborative decision-making and limit the risks? We suggest three things:
- Ensure dialogue is evidence-based to help manage the distortion created by coalitions and political allegiance.
- Have the group align on a clear ‘problem statement’ (it’s often the longest part of the decision-making process) – when too little time/attention is spent on clear problem definition, everyone can wind up focused on slightly different problems and the ‘network effect’ is lost.
- Distinguish between the ‘underlying problem’ and symptoms that tell us there’s a problem. If the problem you’re trying to solve doesn’t address all the serious symptoms the group’s experiencing, you’re probably solving the wrong problem.
Psychologically, physiologically and neurologically, we are wired for connection. From our mirror neurons to language, we’re socially built to attract and interact with others. Individual strengths are greatly enhanced through our ability to work well together – survival of organizations, species, etc. depends on interdependence balancing with independence. We know collaboration is important, yet the workplace can be rampant with disconnection, e.g., perceived threats to our ego from criticism (a.k.a advice), judgments and interpretations that color problem-solving, and interactions that lead to defensiveness. As such, leaders can inadvertently find themselves in a state of ‘perpetual disconnection’ that damages the conditions conducive to collaborative decision-making. In order to overcome this we suggest the following:
- Stay curious and ‘lean into’ people. Stay in the “messy middle” with people and problems. Hold the tension, suspend the itch to give advice, judge, defend and/or interrupt. Continuously frame and shape the problem. Fuel your curiosity through a dynamic process of inquiry, questioning and investigating.
- Build trust through small moments and actions of care and connection. Trust is a slow and iterative process that accumulates layer upon layer over time. Recognize the four horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt and their tendency to erode trust and destroy connection.
- Listen with the same joy and passion you bring to being heard. Serve the strategic work of your group, not your ego.
Left to their own devices, human interactions like collaboration and connection have a tendency to ‘spiral down’, so consistent attention and effort is needed to raise them up.
Strategic time and practice
Once you’ve clarified a senior team’s primary purpose, processes and approach to collaborative decision-making, you’re bound to come face-to-face with a huge challenge — finding the time to do something about them.
Since 97% of executives say thinking strategically is the behavior most important to their organization’s success, you’d think most make it a priority. However, almost that same number say finding the time to think strategically – what we call ‘strategic time’ – is among their biggest challenges. Strategic time is time set aside for deep, focused thinking on highest-value, long-term career and organizational goals/strategies and the inevitable learning needed to achieve them. It’s about maintaining ‘executive’ focus and discipline – staying ‘out of the weeds’. It’s an individual and collective pursuit, finding time for thinking alone and for collaborative dialogue and exploration with others, especially key stakeholders and other senior team members.
How much time should an executive spend thinking strategically? It depends on your role and the nature of the problems you’re trying to solve. However, most executives we’ve surveyed spend about 3% of their time/month in focused strategic thought – the door is shut and they’re solely focused for an hour or two on a specific issue – and about 1% of their time/month in strategic dialogue with senior team members. While we can’t tell you how much time to spend, 85% of those surveyed say the time they’re currently spending isn’t nearly what’s needed.
To help teams make and maintain strategic time, we encourage three things:
- Focus on meetings — executives spend about 60% of their time in meetings and there are literally dozens of relatively simple ways to capture time through better meeting management.
- Delegate as much as you can — prepare a list of your activities, meet with your direct reports and ask, ‘who wants to/is able to take over items from this list?’.
- With the time you initially create through better meeting management and delegation, identify the 4-5 most valuable things you can work on, allocate some time there and dive into the first of those things first thing tomorrow morning.
Having cultivated more time, you need to use that time to practice thinking strategically. Not all strong strategists are naturally gifted, most get that way through experience – for the majority of us, little experience tackling strategic problems means undeveloped strategic capability. Having smarts may get you a seat at the table – it might even make you the smartest person there – but it doesn’t magically bestow strategic capability either. Strategy is a practice. It’s about solving real life problems, not navel-gazing. It’s through application that strategic leaders learn to rethink the meaning of classic business concepts such as competition, value creation, competitive advantage, etc. It’s through rapid experimentation they learn what does and doesn’t work and innovation becomes a regular, incremental process. It’s through continuous internal and external observation they can see how their organization’s current value proposition is holding up and anticipate future opportunities and threats. The good news — given the increasing levels of disruption in today’s business environment, there’s loads of opportunity for practice! To help with that, consider the following reframes:
- Reframe choices so they are not viewed as unattractive trade-offs or either-or solutions. Strong strategic thinkers form a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea by asking, ’Is there a way to combine both?’.
- Avoid ‘shiny new-idea’ syndrome. This may seem counter-intuitive, after all quickly adopting the latest/greatest idea seems like a logical reaction to rapid disruption – it’s how you stay ahead. Adopting a new idea isn’t just about reacting fast, it’s about investigating sooner. Focus on new ideas earlier than your competitors, test them thoroughly to ensure they add value to your customers and then react. The idea will still look brand new, except to you.
- Challenge your team to rethink the rules instead of recycling strategic plans from one year to the next. For instance, can we partner with a major competitor? Can we rethink existing products/services and pivot or adapt them to brand new industries?
Time and practice are the basis for every worthwhile endeavor — without adding them to your strategic arsenal, your SLC is bound to suffer regardless of individual and collective capability.
There are lots of ideas here – probably too many to incorporate at once and some may not work for you in your context (remember, avoid ‘shiny new idea’ syndrome). As a result, please consider one or both of the following:
- Try just one idea. When it’s successfully adopted, try another. The key is to get one of these ideas into practice as soon as possible, otherwise they just remain ideas.
- Write us directly through email, provide a comment or question at the end of the article if you want to explore any concept further or discuss how you might implement it. If you’ve got another idea in addition to what we’ve written, please share it so others can benefit.
Strategic leadership capability has always been a critical skill set, its importance is growing and it takes time to accumulate the experience necessary to its development. We sincerely hope there’s an idea here that will give a boost to the leaders in your organization.
Marisa Paterson is a chartered psychologist and professionally certified coach. She works with leaders and teams leveraging psychology and neuroscience, on how the mind works, to help clients solve complex leadership challenges. Contact Marisa at email@example.com
Vince Marsh is a tenured consultant and executive coach. He works with executives and their teams to support development of individual and collective strategic leadership capability. He is also the author of the recently published leadership book, Get Out of the Weeds: How Effective Executives Make Strategic Time. Contact Vince at firstname.lastname@example.org