I remember going on an important job interview decades ago. The person interviewing me asked, “In this company, we like to hire strategic thinkers. How much time per week do you spend on strategic thinking?” I had been on a number of different job interviews by that point in my life. However, this question stunned me. I wasn’t sure exactly what the interviewer was asking. As a result, I wasn’t sure how to answer either.
By the way, I did get a nice job offer from that company. So, I must have answered the question fairly effectively. However, after managing my own company for over 20 years, I now better understand what the interviewer was getting at. Strategic thinking skills are one of the most sought-after skills in the business world.
According to Harvard Business Review, “[Because] organizations face unprecedented challenges, fostering the creativity necessary to develop truly breakthrough ideas has become more important than ever.”
Anyone can follow a pre-established recipe. It takes expert strategic thinkers, though, to know when that recipe is no longer working. In this post, we are going to cover how great strategic thinkers give companies a competitive advantage in the marketplace. If you develop this critical skill, you will create new opportunities for yourself and be elevated to higher-level positions in your organization.
What Is Strategic Thinking and How Does It Help You Become a Better Leader?
In order to understand the importance of this skill, let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is strategic thinking? And why are strategic thinking skills so important to business success?
Definition of Strategic Thinking.
Strategic Thinking (Critical Thinking) is a process of identifying ways to move a person, team, or organization toward a long-term goal. When you think strategically, you have to anticipate setbacks and challenges and have a plan to deal with them. You also have to measure your progress toward the goal.
A good way to explain this is to think about playing Chess. A good strategy will anticipate how your opponent will move and plan your own moves well in advance. So, strategic thinking is planning combined with adapting to changes in order to reach the ultimate goal.
Personally, I believe that the absolute most-effective strategic thinkers are those who are also adjusting the long-term goal consistently as well. At times, you may find that your goal isn’t big enough. In those cases, you want to increase the goal. In others, the marketplace may change or we may uncover competitive intelligence where we change the goal altogether.
Going back to the Chess example, in some cases, a good leader may realize, “Whoa, we aren’t playing Chess at all. This is a brand new game.”
How Does Thinking this Way Help You Be a Better Leader?
My team went through this with the Covid-19 pandemic. At the very start of the spread, our strategy was to reschedule meetings postponed due to meeting restrictions. Next, we had to adapt when the restrictions increased and the weeks of delay turned to months.
Eventually, we realized that our customers were being forced to transform their in-person meetings to virtual. Many of these customers had little or no experience organizing big virtual meetings. Since we had that expertise, we were able to quickly adapt to the new needs of the market. Good leaders are able to do this.
Poor leaders tend to be more reactionary. When challenges develop, the poor leader is always playing catch-up. This type of leadership is like playing baseball and just watching the ball go by you. The more times that you do this, the more strikes are against you. Eventually, you have to swing out of desperation. A better strategy is to study the pitcher. If he throws his fastball high in the strike zone 80% of the time on the first pitch, I can anticipate that. When I see that action, I can capitalize on it. If he doesn’t, I make an adjustment on the second pitch.
For additional information about How to Build Strong Leaders within Your Organization, click the link to that article.
How to Think Strategically So that Others See You as a Great Leader.
Below are a few tips that will help you think in a more strategic way as a leader.
Anticipate Challenges that May Develop Before They Appear.
Don’t wait for challenges. Anticipate possible challenges and identify ways to deal with them before they occur. By the way, this is the easiest way to determine if a potential leader is a strategic thinker or a reactive thinker. You can tell by the way they respond to strategic analysis. Reactive thinkers see this analysis as criticism.
For example, let’s say we are rolling out new software for a sales team to submit their sales reports. A strategic leader would ask, “Are my more seasoned sales reps going to resist this new process? If so, how do get them to be more enthused about the change?”
The software creator may react by saying, “This process is much easier than the current process, and we are requiring them to use it.” That reaction is dismissive of the concern. It is as though the creator is taking the concern personally as criticism.
A strategic response would sound more like, “We anticipate that the older sales reps are more likely to resist the change. The good news is that there are only three that we anticipate will react this way. So, my team has already scheduled one-on-one training sessions with them before the rollout. We feel like if they are enthused about the change, the rest of the sales team will be as well.”
Brainstorm Multiple Options/Solutions, so You Create Built-In Backup Plans.
If you only have a Plan ”A,” you have no way to strategically adjust to an unanticipated challenge. You want to have multiple good ideas on the table. In fact, multiple new ideas for every challenge are critical to success. Every outdated idea today was once a unique business strategy that set the world on fire.
Senior leaders often hire teams of individual contributors to help with strategic problem-solving. Different people with different backgrounds are each going to bring a different perspective to the process. They also each have different problem-solving skills.
Spend the early part of the strategic planning process identifying multiple possible solutions to each challenge. Don’t just stop with the first good idea. Instead, come up with many great ideas. This process takes a lot of discipline. However, there are two big advantages to this. First, if you only have two possible solutions, there is a high likelihood that neither solution will work perfectly. However, if you have 10 potential solutions, the team can eliminate solutions that are less viable.
The second advantage is that if you try a solution and it doesn’t work, you have multiple backup plans at your disposal.
In World War II, the company Textron made a fortune selling parachutes to the US military. Two decades later, in the Vietnam War, parachutes were not a great option. So, they acquired Bell Helicopter. As a result, they made another fortune selling the US military helicopters.
For additional information about The Five-Step Problem-Solving Process, click the link to that article.
Create Milestones (Goals) to Move Toward.
So if you are using strategic thinking, how do you know if you need to make an adjustment. The easy answer is to make sure that you are measuring your progress. A good leader sets personal (and team) milestones that move toward the strategic goal. For instance, it is very difficult to run a marathon. It is a little easier to run one mile per day, though. Then, once that becomes a habit, it is fairly easy to run one-and-a-half-miles per day — then two miles. As long as you are progressing toward the overall goal, you are moving in the right direction.
If however, you set the goal to run a marathon and just start running, the moment you get tired, you will likely quit.
I will give you a good personal example. When I first left my secure salary job to become a commissioned salesperson, it was pretty scary. I struggled for the first year or so. That is until I figured out the value of strategic thinking. My first attempt was very simple. I printed, “How can I make $1,000 in commission this week?” onto a single sheet of paper. Then, I posted copies of that printout at my desk, my car audio console, and my bathroom mirror. I saw the words dozens of times every day.
Within a couple of months, I was consistently bringing in over that amount every week. Then, I increased the number to $3,000. It took a little longer, but eventually, I consistently hit that milestone as well. Next was $10,000. Basically, every time that I reached the new goal, I just increased the goal. It worked like a charm.
Measure Your Progress to Determine If You Are Moving Forward or Backward.
Obviously, if you have good milestones, it is easier to measure the results. If you don’t have milestones, it is hard to know what to measure.
For instance, years ago, I had about a dozen trainers on my staff. With the types of training that we do, our positive feedback after our programs is off-the-charts high. One instructor, though, was getting five-star results on the exit surveys, but also had a few oddities. For instance, one of his students contacted us wanting a partial refund because the class ended an hour early. It was odd because no one had ever made a request like that before.
I had one of my newer instructors go train with him. The new instructor let me know that he was actually coaching the students to give him positive exit surveys. He would say things like, “Just so you know, my boss gets a copy of all these exit surveys…” Turns out he wasn’t a great instructor, but his students really liked him.
I realized that we were measuring the wrong thing. We were measuring satisfaction. We should have been measuring the results that the students receive from the training. Once we realized this, we were able to improve the quality of our training sessions and our instructors exponentially.
Identify Ways to Constantly Improve Personnel and Processes.
The final step in strategic thinking is to create a system of continuous improvement. We often think of continuous improvement as being with processes. However, if we want our team to be better than our competition, our team has to continuously improve as well.
James Clear wrote a fantastic book about this subject called Atomic Habits. The way he explains it is that a big change is hard to create. However, a tiny, microscopic, “atomic” change is much easier. As you make the small changes, you create new habits. These new habits move you toward the big change.
For instance, if you want to double revenue for your organization, that is pretty hard. Unless you have huge success, right away, you will quickly get discouraged. Instead, though, if you just try to improve by 1% this week, that is much easier. Then, if you improve the improvement by 1%, your success increases exponentially.
For instance, let’s say that you make $100 per week in income and you focus on increasing that income by just 1% per week. In week number one, your annual income is just $5,200 ($100 X 52 Weeks.) However, in week #52, exactly one year later, you’d make $200 that week. You will have doubled your weekly income. The interesting thing is, though, that 26 weeks later, you will double your income again. Then, 16 weeks later, you’d double another time. 10 weeks later, at the end of the second year, you’d double your income again. You would go from making $5,200 per year to $177,817 per year.
That is making just a minor, 1% improvement every week for two years. So focus on making Atomic changes to your personal habits and to your processes. Continuously improve them both.
What Happens If you Get Asked About Thinking Strategically in a Job Interview?
So if you get blindsided with the “tell me how you are a strategic thinker” question, here is a way to respond. Think about a situation in your past where you were working on a project or putting together a plan. Identify a few of the contingencies that you created prior to implementation. Finally, identify some of the challenges that popped up and how the contingencies were used to overcome the challenges.
Once you have these details just tell the story of what happened to the interviewer. The example will prove you are a strategic thinker!