4 Ways to Develop Your Employees’ Strategic Thinking
Many people are confused by the term “strategic thinking,” mistakenly believing that it means thinking big thoughts or reading about others’ — or having your own — big ideas. To put it simply, strategic thinking is about creating a line of sight from your job to the most important things your organization is working on in terms of how it makes money and differentiates itself from competitors. Employees at any level can — and should — take the initiative to make the connections between their company’s strategy and their own work to make sure they’re prioritizing their work, time, and skills accordingly.
For example, someone who works as a social media manager may think their job is about posting content on social media. And yes, their daily work probably involves sharing articles, photos, etc., but what they’re really doing is helping their company build a strong reputation for being, for example, socially responsible, which is one of the ways they’re differentiated from their competition. This would, of course, influence the kinds of stories and posts this social media manager chose. It’s important to make that connection between what someone does on an individual basis and what their company has said it cares about.
There are a number of reasons why this is so critical. Research by Gallup has found that only 34% of US employees are engaged in their work. Companies with higher engagement enjoy greater profits, better customer engagement, higher productivity, and increased retention. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) also makes a connection between meaning in work and employee engagement, recommending companies look for opportunities to help employees see how their work is connected to the company’s larger purpose.
In my course, Being Strategic: Thinking and Acting with Impact, I offer a number of approaches and tools to help employees at all levels develop their strategic thinking skills. Here, I’ll share an overview of a few of the concepts that I cover in greater detail in the course.
Last Updated November 2019
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1. Realize everyone can be strategic
It’s a common misconception that strategic thinking is an activity that’s reserved for senior leaders. And it is true that senior leaders tend to spend more of their time thinking about the future. Generally, the more senior a role is, the further into the future they’re focusing. Being strategic doesn’t simply mean thinking long-term, but it does mean touching long-term issues and opportunities. It also means touching competitive things, things that make you different, things that make customers choose you over other people. Being strategic is as much about helping your company distinguish itself in the marketplace and continue to build and secure its future as it is about thinking several years out. And all of us need to have a line of sight to how we make our contributions that way. As an L&D professional, you can help your employees develop their strategic thinking skills by following the steps I outline below.
2. Know your company’s strategy
For anyone who’d like to develop their strategic thinking skills, it’s important to develop a strong grasp on your company’s strategy. Winning and competing are the fundamentals of strategy. Employees who want to familiarize themselves with their company’s strategy should know the following: What things has the company said are important? How has the company said it’s different from competitors? Why do customers choose your company and why do they believe your service or product is better than others?
If you or your employees don’t know those things, the first step is to understand the nature of your company’s strategy. Remember, it’s not just your mission statement or values statement — it’s how your company competes and makes money. Being more strategic is contextual — it’s about your company’s strategy, not just any strategy.
I also recommend that you and your employees learn how your organization is set up to compete and win in whatever field you’re competing in. Learn about your competitors, learn about the people who also do what your company does and why companies would choose them over you. See if you can identify why you’re losing customers to somebody you should be winning. Then you can dig in deeper to find out if your company is telling them the wrong story or if you are somehow deficient in your service or quality. Is there some feature that they really want that your competitor offers and you don’t?
A great place to start with this is anywhere your company has published a strategy or a strategic plan, which will likely include a set of objectives and goals for the year. Let employees know that if they can’t find it, their manager should be able to point them in the right direction. Then take the time to dive in deeper to learn more about what the work is. For example, if your company has said they’re going to invest in a new technology platform, go learn about it.
For the competitive analysis, you probably already have a number of subject matter experts on your sales, marketing, and customer success teams. Encourage your employees to seek out time with these people to get an overview of your company’s biggest competition and the most frequent complaints or requests they hear. If you want to be a more effective strategic thinker, knowing what to focus your thinking on is the first step.
3. Connect your work to the strategy
Understanding your company’s strategy is a great basis of knowledge. Once you or your employees have developed that, you can start to ask where you and your work fit. For anyone who’d like to do this, I recommend thinking not just about your specific role, but about your team and department. How do everyone’s capabilities and contributions work together?
Another tactic that helps with this is having one-on-one conversations with strategic people in your organization. You and your employees can offer to take people out for coffee and let them know that you’re interested in the company’s future and its work. Not only will these informational interviews help your team members better understand their roles, but they’ll help build their network within your company and learn what matters most to your organization. L&D teams can also facilitate this by inviting leaders to present on aspects of company strategy to smaller groups or holding lunch and learn sessions that encourage employees to ask questions and expand their understanding of strategic initiatives.
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4. Voice your ideas
Once you and your team have an understanding and a basis of how your company competes and wins — or at least wants to compete and win — the next thing is deciding how you can voice ideas that matter. Find ways to offer your ideas, and encourage your employees to do the same.
If these opportunities don’t arise in someone’s current role, I recommend looking for ways to have closer visibility to the people who are more at the core of that work and getting involved. Be on the lookout for new assignments, projects, committees, task forces, or other opportunities to contribute.
The more strategically relevant someone is, the more important they’re seen to be. And that’s ultimately what we all want.
Your employees may find it’s hard to share their opinions when they’re getting involved in new areas, but sometimes the solutions to the toughest problems in the company come from the unlikeliest of places. I’ve heard countless stories where somebody on the periphery had a brilliant idea to solve a customer problem. Don’t ever assume that you or your role are so insignificant that you couldn’t offer a helpful idea. Develop your strategic thinking skills, and you could very easily have a suggestion that might lead to a really important solution or breakthrough. As an L&D leader, you can also help employees develop their public speaking and presentation skills to give them more confidence when speaking up.
And remember that strategic thinking has the power to help the organization on the whole, but it also helps the employees who engage in it. Better understanding your company’s strategy helps you more effectively prioritize your work and tasks so you can focus on the things that have the potential to make the greatest impact. Which will lead to you feeling the greatest satisfaction about your work. Check out my course, Being Strategic: Thinking and Acting with Impact, for a deep dive into developing strategic thinking skills in the workplace.
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