Most companies have leaders with the strong operational skills needed to maintain the status quo. But they face a critical deficit: They lack people in positions of power with the know-how, experience, and confidence required to tackle what management scientists call “wicked problems.” Such problems can’t be solved by a single command, they have causes that seem incomprehensible and solutions that seem uncertain, and they often require companies to transform the way they do business. Every enterprise faces these kinds of challenges today.
Fortunately, companies can build the capacity for strategic leadership. It starts with recognizing that your organization undoubtedly already has emerging strategic leaders within it whose skills are being overlooked or even stifled. The problem can be traced back to how organizations traditionally promote and develop their leaders. In many companies, the individuals who make their way to the top of the hierarchy do so by demonstrating superlative performance, persistent ambition, and the ability to solve the problems of the moment. These are valuable traits, but they are not the skills of a strategic leader.
Here are the 10 tips to help unlock the potential strategic leadership in your company.
1. Distribute responsibility. Strategic leaders gain their skill through practice, and practice requires a fair amount of autonomy. Top leaders should push power downward, across the organization, empowering people at all levels to make decisions. Distribution of responsibility gives potential strategic leaders the opportunity to see what happens when they take risks. It also increases the collective intelligence, adaptability, and resilience of the organization over time, by harnessing the wisdom of those outside the traditional decision-making hierarchy.
2. Be honest and open about information. The management structure traditionally adopted by large organizations evolved from the military, and was specifically designed to limit the flow of information. In this model, information truly equals power. The trouble is, when information is released to specific individuals only on a need-to-know basis, people have to make decisions in the dark. They do not know what factors are significant to the strategy of the enterprise; they have to guess. And it can be hard to guess right when you are not encouraged to understand the bigger picture or to question information that comes your way. Moreover, when people lack information, it undermines their confidence in challenging a leader or proposing an idea that differs from that of their leader.
3. Create multiple paths for raising and testing ideas. Developing and presenting ideas is a key skill for strategic leaders. Even more important is the ability to connect their ideas to the way the enterprise creates value. By setting up ways for people to bring their innovative thinking to the surface, you can help them learn to make the most of their own creativity.
4. Make it safe to fail. A company’s espoused statement of values may encourage employees to “fail fast” and learn from their errors. That works well until there is an actual failure, leading to a genuine loss. The most dreaded phone call in the corporate world soon follows; it’s the one that begins: “Who authorized this decision?” Big failures are simply unacceptable within most organizations. Those who fail often suffer in terms of promotion and reward, if not worse.
5. Provide access to other strategists. Give potential strategic leaders the opportunity to meet and work with their peers across the organization. Otherwise, they remain hidden from one another, and may feel isolated or alone. Once they know that there are others in the company with a similar predisposition, they can be more open, and adept in raising the strategic value of what they do.
6. Develop opportunities for experience-based learning. The vast majority of professional leadership development is informative as opposed to experiential. Classroom-based training is, after all, typically easier and less expensive to implement; it’s evidence of short-term thinking, rather than long-term investment in the leadership pipeline. Although traditional leadership training can develop good managerial skills, strategists need experience to live up to their potential.
7. Hire for transformation. Hiring decisions should be based on careful considerations of capabilities and experiences, and should aim for diversity to overcome the natural tendency of managers to select people much like themselves. Test how applicants react to specific, real-life situations; do substantive research into how they performed in previous organizations; and conduct interviews that delve deeper than usual into their psyche and abilities, to test their empathy, their skill in reframing problems, and their agility in considering big-picture questions as well as analytical data. In all these cases, you’re looking for their ability to see the forest and the trees: their ability to manage the minutiae of specific skills and practices, while also being visionary about strategic goals. The better they are at keeping near and far points of view simultaneously available, the better their potential to be strategic leaders.
8. Bring your whole self to work. Strategic leaders understand that to tackle the most demanding situations and problems, they need to draw on everything they have learned in their lives. They want to tap into their full set of capabilities, interests, experiences, and passions to come up with innovative solutions. And they don’t want to waste their time in situations (or with organizations) that don’t align with their values.
9. Find time to reflect. Strategic leaders are skilled in what organizational theorists Chris Argyris and Donald Schön call “double-loop learning.” Single-loop learning involves thinking in depth about a situation and the problems inherent in it. Double-loop learning involves studying your own thinking about the situation — the biases and assumptions you have, and the “undiscussables” that are too difficult to raise.
Your goal in reflection is to raise your game in double-loop learning. Question the way in which you question things. Solve the problems inherent in the way you problem-solve. Start with single-loop learning, and then move to double-loop learning by taking the time to think: Why did I make that decision? What are the implications? What would I do differently next time? How am I going to apply this learning going forward?
10. Recognize leadership development as an ongoing practice. Strategists have the humility and intelligence to realize that their learning and development is never done, however experienced they may be. They admit that they are vulnerable and don’t have all the answers. This characteristic has the added benefit of allowing other people to be the expert in some circumstances. In that way, strategic leaders make it easy for others to share ideas by encouraging new ways of thinking and explicitly asking for advice.
But if you can come to terms with reality, as uncomfortable as it may be, then you’re in a position to help change it. By practicing continuous change, you will give yourself the skill and influence to pave the way for others who follow. That’s fortunate, because the ability to transform amid societal and business challenges and disruptions is essential to your company’s success — and perhaps even to its survival.
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