Early Career Transitions: Expanding your Strategic Thinking Skills
A common challenge I see with new managers (and aspiring leaders) is their struggle to get beyond thinking small. Often, they've been rewarded and praised for their tactical, "roll up their sleeves" approach. And over time, their action-oriented style and strong follow-through has benefited them and their organizations.
These behaviors are, without a doubt, valued by organizations and managers alike and can often lead to promotion, new assignments, and career advancement.
However, after a promotion, individuals are expected to quickly expand their mindset beyond execution and action to include strategic planning and bigger picture thinking. Some make the shift more easily than others, but many struggle to get it right. And, importantly, many managers don't feel adequately prepared to make the transition.
Let me illustrate through a story. I recently worked with a high performing leader who enjoyed great satisfaction from achieving results -- gathering a team together, setting goals, and then diving in to take a project from inception to completion. Not only did she feel accomplished, she was also consistently recognized for her ability to get things done. In a 360 review (i.e., collecting feedback from her team, peers, and boss), she was described as "a reliable, steady do-er"; a "trustworthy, valued member of the team", and a "strong project manager."
She aspired to be promoted to the next level and thought that, given her positive reputation, reliability, and consistent praise from her boss and colleagues she'd be a shoe-in.
She was wrong.
The role went to a peer who spent less time doing and more time thinking ahead, planning, and anticipating opportunities, roadblocks, and challenges. He was still considered a strong performer who delivered; however, he didn't have nearly as many projects under his belt and he consistently challenged himself and others to think bigger.
In meetings, for example, while she provided updates on progress toward tactical goals and laid out next steps, he asked questions such as: "what are we trying to accomplish?" and "where will this get us in 1, 2, or 3 years?"
He was demonstrating a future-orientation and a strategic vision through his broad questions.
The hiring manager for the role she was interested in felt she "wasn't ready" for the promotion because she was still operating as an individual contributor -- a strong performer, yes, but he needed to see evidence that she could set and drive strategy and keep the team moving forward in the right direction as well.
Fairness and perceptions aside, this highlights the importance of operating in the role you WANT versus the one you're in.
The capacity for strategic thinking is often highly desired and viewed as critical for advancement into manager roles; yet it can be hard to develop, particularly in earlier career stages. In his book The Leadership Pipeline, Ram Charan describes the shift from individual contributor to first-line manager as Passage One -- in this portion of a career journey, people may de-rail because they're unwilling to stop doing the activities that made them successful. The allure and immediate satisfaction from ticking that box and executing on that to-do item are hard to ignore.
Moreover, Management Research Group's study on gender and leadership practices found that women tend to be rated higher on leadership behaviors oriented toward results whereas men tend to score higher on behaviors relating to having a strategic orientation.
This is not to say that men and women's skills differ in this regard, but rather they tend to focus on (and be rewarded for) different sets of organizational behaviors, which lead to differential career outcomes.
There are, of course, individual differences that drive our personal choices as well.
Personally, if I don't spend time to plan ahead, I can quickly get wrapped up in my own results-driven world — creating and completing to-do lists, focusing on the day-to-day, and often juggling multiple priorities, roles, and responsibilities. I have the best of intentions to be strategic, thoughtful, and future-oriented, but the tyranny of the urgent (and deadlines, so many deadlines) get in the way.
Sometimes, a couple of weeks will go by and I’ll realize that I haven’t stopped to reflect, learn, question myself, or grow. During these periods, I essentially stop paying attention. Sure, I go through the motions and get things done, but I'm certainly not being intentional -- my behavior is taken over by my automatic brain and my habits and knee-jerk reactions take over.
For example, I may not notice the leaves changing for fall in the Midwest or I may forget to stop and pause before sending an email or responding to a text.
This is compounded by the constantly connected, always plugged-in world that we live in. It's hard to stop, pause, and reflect when you have multiple alerts, messages, and communications coming at you from various media.
Still, though the context can make it difficult, it is critical to build in time to think ahead and develop a future-oriented mindset (especially if you're hoping to be promoted and continue to advance your career).
If this resonates with you and you see some of these habits or behaviors in yourself, consider the following:
(1) Challenge yourself to think bigger. Think beyond the here and the now — think about tomorrow, next month, next year and the year after that. I see so many people thinking small and playing small (myself included) and I want to be deliberate in stopping and asking yourself: Am I thinking big enough?
(2) Identify your triggers. When do you find your automatic habits taking over? When you're over capacity? Not sleeping enough? Not honoring your self-care? Identifying these triggers for yourself facilitates self-awareness and can help promote behavior change.
(3) Consider the longer-term perspective when preparing for meetings or determining how you can contribute to a discussion or decision. Don't just report out on goals and tactical priorities -- ask the bigger questions. Challenge your colleagues to think bigger, too.