Put the ‘Strategic’ Back in Strategic Leadership

You must remain focussed on your journey to greatness       ~Les Brown

Leaders by definition are people who guide or direct, who influence people and provide strategic direction and purpose to people or businesses. Every manager today is expected to be a leader and every company today is seeking ‘strategic leaders’ at the CXO level.  Yet studies have shown that most leaders spend less than 20% of their time making strategic decisions or providing direction. A large number of leaders today spend more time dodging the hurdles than charting the course. The answers I get from the CXOs in my leadership coaching and development programs have brought forth some valuable insights and common traps that pull us into the day-to-day.

To share an interesting example, Mr X was the business head for a particular channel in his organization.  He often shared how he was always planning innovative ways to achieve his targets – from promotions to incentives. Well, one particular year he was particularly excited because his MD had put targets for 4 new solutions in his KRA, something he saw as a vote of confidence.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t!! The MD had got tired of waiting for him to take the initiative and think of new solutions and ended up doing the thinking for him. I can actually hear some of you saying “well, his MD should have clearly told him he expected him to think of new products and solutions” in response to which I’d remind you that Mr. X was the ‘business head’ for this particular channel. Many of us have been conditioned to keep our heads down, waiting for the right direction and authority to come our way but the rewards go to the one who spots and seizes the opportunity to make a difference using whatever formal and informal power and influence (s)he has. A leader, to me, is one who can balance driving the excellence in execution with the all important strategic thinking to take his function/department/team/business to the next level. So here are some thoughts to help us put the ‘strategic’ back in your leadership style.

What are you planning? Many of us feel proud of our planning when we speak about being strategic. More than 60% of us are just planning the best way to achieve our KRAs and targets for the next year.  Great I say, but the answer is in WHAT we are planning. Are we just planning tasks, activities, the next quarter, next year OR are we also looking at the larger business landscape and working to make our organizations even better. Are we looking for the next great thing beyond our portfolio or are we going to wait for someone else to do the thinking for us, like Mr. X mentioned above?

Take off those blinkers. It is normal to focus on that which is right in front of us but it is the leaders’ peripheral vision that provides them the break-through information that will transform the landscape. Most business strategists have similar mental maps but we need to search beyond our current boundaries since the best strategic opportunities are often hard to spot and even harder to execute. We have to Question conventional wisdom, the safe opinions and common beliefs, even our own.  The most profitable opportunities might need a mental leap because they may be difficult to explain and justify, may need us to change the way we work and would definitely need for us to battle a natural resistance to change within ourselves and in the people that we work with. But we can either be the Game Changer or Mr. X above :)

Break the vicious fire-fighting cycle. You may not be surprised to know that this has been identified as one of the major factors pulling down the leadership quotient of organizations.  We focus all our energies and processes towards the urgent and important tasks often ignoring other important items on our agenda till they become urgent and thus get into the vicious cycle where nothing gets our attention till it’s urgent!! In fact, we often feel a sense of accomplishment after having ‘doused the fire’, often subconsciously seeking the high and the praise that comes with it. Know that if you need to spend too much time fire-fighting, something is off track and you should put in efforts to fix that. Consciously divide your time and energy between the urgent immediate tasks and the important ones that are not urgent yet.  Foster the planning and pro-activity required to break this cycle and prevent the new fires before they alight.

Be decisive and stop wasting precious hours on unfocussed discussion at the cost of timely decision making. While it is important to foster open dialogue, as leaders we need to:

  •  Be aware of what drives other people’s agenda and what biases may influence the decision making process
  • Speak about the tough issues
  • Keep Operational and Strategic Discussions separate
  • Ask questions that take you to the crux of the matter and avoid endless discussion
  • Put real choices on the table
  • Be prepared to take a well informed stand in face of divergent views

In your journey to greatness as a strategic leader, I think nothing sums it up better that Leonardo Da Vinci’s words “…people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Looking forward to each of you actively setting aside time for the thinking and strategizing that can transform your work and life even while you keep an eye and delegate effectively to ensure the tactical doesn’t suffer for the strategic :)




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