Being Strategic – The “It” Factor

I have often worked with professionals who are on their way, climbing the corporate ladder.   They’ve done everything right – taken the right jobs, worked harder than the people around them, developed good relationships with their leaders, and so on.   And then…they hit a wall. 

“You need to be more strategic,” they’re told. 

“But what does that mean?!” they cry.  And, often, they get very few specific answers. 

Being Strategic seems to be like the It factor for a performer.  People know it when they see it, but it is hard to pin down and put into words. 

If you are struggling with this, consider:

Strategy – deals with  the longer term,  asks “where are we going and why?” and perhaps most importantly “where should we be going?”

Tactics – deal with the details of how to get there

To use another analogy. think of driving a car.  

You can drive a car and reach a specific destination, even if you don’t know what that destination is, as long as someone navigates for you.  You make tactical decisions and take action to brake, turn, and accelerate in the right places.   Your ‘strategic partner’ is your navigator.  They know where are you are going – literally ‘seeing the bigger picture’.  If you do not know where you are are going, are you going to be able to add anything of value to a discussion about what route to take?  No.

But, if you do know the destination, and have a broader knowledge of the world around you, you can say, “It would be better to take the 108 because there’s construction on the beltway.”  Or, “There’s a better place that’s closer.  Let’s go there instead.”

So, in the business world, if a key factor is having a broader view, how do you gain it?  Here are some tips:

#1:   Get to know more about the business world outside your company. 

You have no excuse for not doing this.  There are innumerable free or cheap resources.  You have instant, online access to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the BBC.  A  forward-thinking periodical I absolutely love is Fast Company, and they have online access as well.   There are a bazillion blogs and websites out there.  Do you have an iPod?  Go to iTunesU.  You can download presentations from pre-eminent business leaders – for free.

#2:   Pay attention to what is going on in your business community.

Again, there are many free or low-cost, easy-to-access resources.  BizJournals operates Business Journals in 40 cities in the US, and have online resources, some free.  I get a daily email blast of headlines and selected stories for my local area.  It takes me probably less than 10 minutes a day to stay on top of what’s happening.   If you have an Economic Development Commission or similar entity, they are usually excellent sources of information on what’s growing and changing in the area.

#3:  Keep up with leading research in your field.   

I’m not talking about the re-hashed stuff you see in most professional association journals. (Sorry, but it’s true, unless you’re in a medical/research/academic field.  I do think they have their use, but it’s not in this arena.)  Subscribe to a peer-reviewed academic journal or just search them online and buy copies of only the articles that interest you.  Or, see the note above about iTunesU.  Researchers from leading schools, including MIT, Stanford and Cambridge openly discuss their research – for free!

#4:  Talk to others in your company outside of your department.

It sounds simplistic, but it’s astonishing how narrow most people’s views are!  You know what I’m talking about – the silo effect.  You’ve probably complained about it before.   But, if you take the initiative to learn how your actions affect other departments, or what they are working on that might affect you, how do you think that will affect your decisions? Your actions?

When you implement the above practices, you are in a much better position to be a ‘navigator’, to get your head out of the day-to-day ‘how do we get there’, to speak up and influence the direction of your team or your company.  Then, you are on your way to being Strategic. 

Coming next…Strategic Self-Presentation

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