By: Edward T. Reilly, the 17th President and CEO of the American Management Association International, a Special to Overdrive
One of the key characteristics of a strategic thinker is the ability to think concurrently along dual tracks. A strategic thinker must consider and incorporate data that may include short- and long-term challenges, systems and people, and innovation and imitation. This can be challenging to an operational manager since these factors often appear to be in conflict with one another. An effective strategic thinker/manager makes decisions and takes actions, having constantly explored and considered these dualities.
To do this well, a strategic frame of reference needs to be defined and applied to the organization and its business environment. The frame of reference will guide you through the maze of options that can occur. The strategic frame of reference is a planning tool. As effective as it is in planning, though, it is also an implementation tool, to help your work unit and entire organization to:
Clarify roles and relationships.
As such, the frame of reference should be dynamic, not static. It is not simply a long-range plan, drawn up every few years and placed on a shelf. Instead, it is an evolving tool that requires periodic review.
Operational managers are familiar with operational plans, budgets, and objectives—these resources are the foundation of managerial work. Managers may also be aware of the company’s long-range goals and even some of the key strategies it plans to initiate to meet its goals. They are usually stated at a high level and in a conceptual manner, lacking specific quantifiable measures or time frames.
Often these statements by the company are published, promoted, and incorporated as evidence of the culture or “spirit” of the company. Seldom, however, do these high-level statements connect directly to the actions operational managers must execute on a day-to-day basis. The strategic frame of reference creates the framework that strategic thinkers can/should use to move their organizations into the future. It provides the working context for carrying out operational initiatives (the “what is”) and creates a framework for strategically envisioning the future (the “what if ” ).
Understanding The Operational Mission
The essential elements of your operational mission are your team, your customers, and your competitors. Strategic thinking necessitates the ability to zoom out and get a big-picture view of how your team, customers, and competitors interrelate and what changes need to occur in those relationships in order to bring the vision to life and execute the mission.
Mission and vision statements are often confused. A mission describes what you do, but a vision describes a desired future state. If no change is needed or desired, then a clear mission statement will suffice. To drive change, however, you need both a clear mission and a compelling vision.
In dealing with these concepts, it is critical to realize that having a clear mission and shared vision is not limited to the company as a whole. Every team must clarify its existing purpose and innovate its future as part of the whole. Strategic thinkers, at all levels, seek to define these concepts for themselves and their immediate work environment.
Making the Vision a Reality
Thinking strategically is important, but strategic thinking by itself won’t result in implementation of the vision unless your skill set includes persuasive communication. The challenge that will persist throughout your service as a manager is engaging key stakeholders in actions necessary to bring the vision to life. Your role as a strategic thinker, then, is to begin the strategic conversations that will allow people to see the value they bring cross-functionally to your department, work unit, or team. As a strategic thinker, your ability to see and to discuss the connections in the system, from various viewpoints, is critical.
To a great extent, your success in persuasive communication simply involves taking advantage of the opportunities that ongoing interactions provide. By understanding these opportunities, you can engage in strategic conversations and increase their value to you and your team. By leveraging communication opportunities, you demonstrate a key attribute of a strategic thinker—encouraging innovation.
By listening to your customers, clients, suppliers, vendors, and workers at all levels, you can begin to build on their best ideas, thus creating greater value in the products and services you provide. Strategic thinkers stimulate innovation in others when they are open to new concepts, ideas, or approaches to their current work environment.
Your willingness to have these well-planned, strategic discussions can help accelerate the innovation process. These strategic conversations can help your department, work unit, or team gain a competitive advantage.
Three factors drive your ability to have these discussions: preparation, practice, and problem solving.
Prepare. Anticipate issues, questions, and concerns that others may have. Collect relevant information about the company’s business strategies, competitors, market trends, customers, and resources.
Practice. Prepare an agenda or script for the meeting. Role-play the conversation with a trusted colleague.
Problem Solve. Focus on finding creative solutions. Use probing, listening, and clarifying skills to encourage conversation. Share your knowledge and expertise. Encourage ownership through collaboration. Reinforce participation by recognizing good ideas.
Consider the various reasons why you need to cultivate and employ persuasive abilities in trying to implement your vision. You may need others to do one or more of the following:
Approve your plan.
Take part in it.
Review its results.
Simply learn from it.
As you craft your strategic frame of reference, once again keep these elements and their definitions in mind:
Vision What we will be
Mission Why we exist
Goals What will get us there
Objectives Major steps we will take
Strategies How we will go about achieving our objectives
Tactics Who will do what, by when
Roles Ownership of tasks
Relationships People working toward a common goal
As long as these meaningful concepts shape your strategic frame of reference—and it isn’t just composed of provocative and clever words—you will have a compelling reason to be persuasive with your stakeholders.
About the Editor
EDWARD T. REILLY is the 17th President and CEO of the American Management Association International. Prior to joining AMA in 2001, he was President and CEO of Big Flower Holdings, Inc., a leading provider of integrated marketing and advertising services. He also served as President of The McGraw-Hill Broadcasting Company, among various executive positions during his more than 25 years with The McGraw-Hill Companies. He lives in Westport, Connecticut.