Lewis Carroll once said, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." Therein lies the challenge for leaders in being truly strategic. After all, there's a great deal of pressure on all of us to be in action. The pressure to do more with less seems like a perpetual mandate. In the face of that pressure, it takes tremendous discipline to stop the action and get clear about where you are going first. But this is the essence of what it means to be strategic.
Get clear before you plan and act
It's important to stop and think about why our work matters and what success looks like. Defining clear and simple outcomes requires effort, but it's essential to your success as a leader.
Ultimately, success is defined by outcomes achieved and results delivered, not by actions taken and tasks completed.
Simply put, being strategic means always getting clear about why and what before considering how. More specifically, the three key elements of a strategy are:
- Get clear about the why: The reasons what you are doing matters.
- Define the what: The results and outcomes that define success.
- Establish the how: Detail the steps involved to achieve success.
Strategic conversations are hard, but essential
It can be incredibly challenging to stay in a strategic conversation. People who get things done are revered in our culture. And rightly so. Anyone sitting at a leadership table is likely one of those people who knows how to make things happen. Leaders are accustomed to working hard and moving fast. They get immense satisfaction from getting things done with and through others. It is both a source of personal satisfaction, as well as a source of organizational reward and recognition.
Strategic conversations, on the other hand, force us to operate in a different mode. Strategic thinking requires that we slow way down to do the hard work of getting clear and thinking through what we really want to accomplish and why. They force us to quell the urge to take action.
The challenge for leaders when it comes to being strategic is that slowing down isn't natural or comfortable. But it's essential if you're committed to achieving anything beyond the status quo.
Signs you're not thinking strategically
Since strategic thinking is not natural for most, and goes against the naturally rapid pace of every day work, it can be helpful to know the signs that you are not thinking strategically. These include:
- Your team is struggling to prioritize their work.
- People are engaged in never-ending arguments about what comes next.
- You're assigning more work to people to compensate for missed deadlines.
- Roles and responsibilities repeatedly need to be redefined.
- People are complaining that "they" are not accountable.
It may seem easier and feel more productive to take more, better or different action, but consider the cost.
Leaders often feel they can't make the time for strategy because there's too much to do. But consider that taking the time to think and act strategically is actually the way to transform the complaints about excess workload into a sense of confidence that you're doing the right things to achieve your goals.
While it may not be easy, the good news is that being strategic truly is simple. In fact, being strategic is as simple as remembering to get clear about why and what before you consider how. After all, when everyone knows where you're going, that's when the exciting work of getting there together can begin.