Developing Strategists at All Levels

May 9, 2019

Developing Strategists at All Levels

As senior leaders in HR, you know how corporate-level strategy drives alignment and focus on the set of choices to be made to compete and win. You also know how crucial it is to have leaders who have the abilities and resolve to make the right strategic plays. A crucial accountability you have as HR leaders is to continuously build internal capacity to create and execute winning strategies. Given the pace of change we are all experiencing, the need to develop strategic capabilities at all levels of leadership is greater than ever. From my experience, it is essential to begin developing strategic capabilities earlier in careers. 

What Are the Needed Strategic Capabilities?
Making the right strategic plays in business requires leaders who are deeply curious and have skills in developing insight, honing intuition, and operating with agility.

  • Curiosity: fostered through creativity, innovation, excellence
  • Insight: built from critical thinking, experience, and knowledge
  • Intuition: developed from peripheral vision and perspective
  • Agility: driven through rapid learning, adaptive plays, and nimble systems

Curiosity can be fostered by challenging leaders to search for new ways to do things and new things to do. For example, a multi-billion dollar healthcare leader is deeply committed to quality. It’s one of their strategic differentiators. All leaders, from the supervisors on up, are expected to identify opportunities to make process and performance improvements to continuously deliver quality. It’s part of their vision, strategy, and goals—it’s what they talk about and it’s how they are assessed. By creating an environment where leaders are incentivized to innovate and think differently about old and new problems, the organization is able to mobilize a large workforce to focus on executing its strategic commitment to quality. Being curious is what allows leaders to pose “what if?” scenarios, to examine “what is the problem we are trying to solve?”, and to wonder “how can we make this better?” By adopting a questioning and curious mindset in your culture, you are building the foundation for a strategic workforce.

Insight is the ability to think critically about and draw conclusions from data and observations. Developing leaders to be able to make insights from what they see, know, and understand is more difficult than fostering a curious workforce. It takes discipline and deliberate thought and action to pause, divine understanding of a set of circumstances, and then make a call on how to proceed. For a successful U.S.-based retailer, this is challenging. As is typical in retail, leaders at all levels are focused on very short planning horizons and are expected to execute consistently across the organization. While it is a metric-driven environment where compliance with company programs and goals are expected, they also want their mid-level leaders to develop more adaptive strategies for their markets. They want them to understand what is driving the performance in each part of their zones or regions and to use those insights to work with their partners to make the appropriate shifts in inventory, operations, and payroll. One leader with a high performing team at this retailer considered her potential vulnerabilities in her zone and is putting an aggressive talent plan in place. She knows she is dependent upon the experienced leaders in her zone and wants to make sure she has a pool of leaders being developed to rise up. Part of that work is deepening her relationships across the organization to expand her network and partnerships so she can help her top leaders advance and she can tap into other talent pools in other zones. She is playing the long game. The more that can be done to encourage critical thinking, formulation of, and sharing of insights, the more likely an organization will be able to adapt and win.
Intuition is in the gut and it can be underdeveloped in leaders. I recently had a conversation with a senior leader about his direct report’s development. He insisted she make decisions on data, on evidence, and nothing more. That’s not possible. Human beings use more than logic to make decisions. We exercise judgment (good and poor) in making decisions. 

We humans interpret facts and evidence to make decisions. In HR, that’s what you want—leaders who, given the right information, will make the best decisions for the business. Those decisions first come from logic. But after logic, decisions should be made by tapping into empathy and intuition. Empathy is necessary for developing understanding into others’ needs and preferences. We use empathy in negotiations, influencing, persuading, and supporting others. We reach into our deepest intuition when empathy and logic are insufficient in guiding us to a choice. Intuition offers us the ability to broaden our perspective, to see what’s coming around the corners (peripheral vision), and feel in our core what is the most optimal decision. 

It is clear that most leaders are not as in tune with their intuition. Encourage your leaders to look at situation from a different angle. Invite them to share what their gut is telling them is the right move. Challenge them to watch for trends in the market place, even those in their infancy. Expect them to poke holes in their own plans and then showcase efforts to mitigate risk. Strong intuition is what allows leaders to make strategic plays. They see what others may not and are confident enough in their gut to make a call, quickly. Speed matters in our world and leaders with developed intuition are more apt to read the data, draw insights, and make decisions swiftly. 

Developing leaders who are agile is fundamental to building the strategic muscle of the organization. Agility is about enabling and expecting leaders to learn quickly and to adapt to the new and different. Despite all the work HR has led over the past decades to help leaders manage change and transition, leaders at all levels struggle with agility. They intellectually understand change and the need to be agile, and yet many struggle to make the personal shifts necessary to succeed. Their challenge is in finding ways to adapt behavior when employees believe the ground beneath them is unstable. How do you break through? Structure and systems. Organize the team in a less siloed, fluid organization, so talent can be deployed more easily against the needs. Align workers with the work and set performance goals around agility, speed of learning, execution of key deliverables, and overall contribution to the work and to the broader organization. For example, a client from a global consulting services firm aligns talent against projects, customers, and firm partners. Success is measured by contribution to the project but also to the overall firm goals. Advancement is achieved through a formal process of review amongst partners. It is insufficient to do a good job on one project with one set of stakeholders. Leaders have to build a track record of execution and contribution across multiple projects, customers, and stakeholders. This is an agile structure that holds leaders accountable for being agile players and demonstrating the ability to adapt to the many styles and needs across the organization. Slow learners and change-resistant, rigid individuals don’t survive. As HR leaders, you can help to build this strategic capability by creating agile structures that demand and drive agile behavior.

By focusing on developing the curiosity, insight, intuition, and agility in your organization, you can make a significant impact on your strategic muscle. By having greater strategic capabilities at all levels, you will be more adept at seeing threats to your business and opportunities for growth and innovation. Most importantly, you will have an organization of leaders who can act with speed and confidence in making the right plays at the right time.

The Authors: 

Sharon Margules is a Leadership Development Consultant and Executive Coach at Margules Leadership Consulting.