How to develop a team of strategic thinkers

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Strategic thinking is one of the most important skills that a business leader can possess. In fact, studies show that strategic thinking is, on average, 10 times more important to the perception of leadership effectiveness than other traits like communication and persuasion.

But is it a skill that can be passed onto other employees?

While some experts argue that strategic thinking can’t be taught, others believe that disciplined development and facilitated experiences can help to teach strategic thinking skills. In our experience, we’ve found that neither mindset is particularly useful for most growing businesses—you can’t expect to hire only naturally talented strategic thinkers, nor can you invest a lot of time and resources into structured training programs that teach these skills.

The more practical approach is developing a leadership practice that exemplifies the skills required for strategic thinking, and setting in place processes that will help nurture a work culture where those skills are celebrated. Some tips for developing a team of strategic thinkers:

Always explain the why. For many managers, the focus is on training employees on what to do or how to do it. Oftentimes the why is forgotten, even though it’s absolutely crucial to strategic thinking. The explanation of why helps remind employees of the big picture and aligns your decision making with your strategic plan and vision.

Challenge assumptions, and encourage others to do the same. Good strategic thinking requires good critical thinking: constantly asking questions, defining the problem, and exploring ideas and solutions. If you’ve been good at explaining the why to your employees, chance are you’ll get some employees responding back, but what if? These are the moments that can often spark creativity and innovation.

Regularly bring different teams together to share diverse perspectives. Your front-line employees have the best knowledge of on-the-ground issues, whereas middle management may have the best insights on process efficiencies. Marketing may bring great research about industry competitors, while your service team may bring great feedback about customer satisfaction. Great strategic thinking doesn’t happen by keeping this information siloed. The more opportunities for sharing knowledge internally, the better the chance for creative ideas and solutions to emerge.

Prioritize and learn to say no. The ability to prioritize is what separates creative thinking from strategic thinking. Strategic leaders know how to evaluate ideas to determine which ones will have the most potential positive impact, and they also understand that knowing when to say “no” is just as important as knowing when to say “yes.” Making this process as transparent as possible to your team will help better align them to your overall vision and plan.

Integrate strategic thinking into your company values. If you want to make strategic thinking a part of your work culture, then you’ll need to make it a part of your values. That means recruiting for and rewarding the traits that one needs to be a good strategic thinker, such as curiosity, the ability to quickly learn and adapt, creative problem solving, and strong emotional intelligence. Publicly praise the employees who used strategic thinking to solve a particular problem or achieve a company goal, and promote your best strategic leaders to management positions.

The more you can instill a strategic mindset within your employees, the easier it will be to execute on strategic plans and keep everyone aligned on the company vision. Companies that cultivate strategic thinkers within their teams are able to grow sustainably and weather changes that may impact the business in the future.

Jeanne Hardy