Stephen Covey describes the difference between management and leadership beautifully:
“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” Are you just a great ladder climber or do you think strategically about the wall you’re climbing?
It’s hard to make time for these strategic questions when there’s so much day-to-day thinking to do. But like many other skills strategic thinking becomes easier with practice. You just need to know how. To help you do that, we asked three women leading innovative companies how they have mastered the art of strategic thinking.
Kate Vale, who was the first employee of Google in Australia, launched YouTube here and now heads up Spotify, says it’s a mindset. “Strategic thinking to me is challenging the conventional way things are done, whilst also thinking about the long term implications of how you do things,” Vale explains.
For Linda Brown, the CEO of Think Education, it means finding innovative ways to meet your organisation’s priorities and “unearthing opportunities that create value”.
Creating future value for your customers or clients involves a lot of educated guesswork; you have to speculate about change, trends and outcomes in an unclear future.
“Strategy requires you to be willing to sit with your feelings of uncertainty,” Kathy Rodwell, who has been running her executive coaching business for 13 years, says. Statistics and graphs can partially predict the future but ” intuition” helps us manage the remaining uncertainty.
“Have the courage to follow your gut, because often the best decisions are the ones that intuitively feel right,” Linda Brown says.
One of the best ways to get a feel for great ideas is to seek role models and mentors.
Vale says that spending time with strategic people has contributed the most to her thinking skills. “Surround yourself with highly strategic people. Get involved in as many conversations and meetings in your business as you can,” she says. “Sometimes it is hard to think strategically if you don’t fully understand every function of your business.”
Even asking someone to pass on their skills is an opportunity to show your focus on the big picture. Rodwell says you’ll impress them by specifying what you want, and asking them what they want from the relationship in return.
If you’re intimidated by approaching an accomplished strategic thinker, don’t be, says Rodwell. “Overcome your resistance of asking for help and start believing that people who are great at strategy will feel good about helping you. Start asking!”
One way mentors can help is by linking you up with opportunities to test your strategic skills. Brown urges you to value volunteer and committee work and use safer situations like these to build skills and confidence. Actually putting forward your ideas is a key part of being strategic. When you do, “Be loud and proud,” says Brown. You’ll inevitably make some mistakes but according Vale says it’s a great way to learn.
Perhaps the most critical step towards becoming a more strategic thinker is to get started. “The tactical day-to-day stuff always seems more important and strategy is usually last on the list,” Rodwell says. “Strategic thinking needs to be scheduled so that it becomes a priority and a habit.”
So to reach the next step in your career more quickly, take a moment to stop climbing the ladder and start thinking about exactly where your ladder needs to be positioned.