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Six Steps that Lead to Strategic Excellence
 

By Samantha Howland  8/1/2013

 

It is no secret that strategic leadership is critically important for today’s executives, and even more so for HR professionals charged with delivering HR services effectively and developing adaptive leaders who drive the business forward.

Despite this broad consensus, the concept of strategic leadership is clouded with ambiguity, leaving in the lurch those top execs who are looking to improve their strategic approach. Much has been written about how to do that. In a recent article by McKinsey & Company, “Becoming More Strategic: Three Tips for Any Executive,” executives were encouraged to understand what strategy means in their respective industries and to become experts in communicating and at identifying potential disruptors.

Research shows that most executives don’t consider themselves strategic and that they believe they haven’t been adequately trained to be strategic thinkers. Likewise, more than 70 percent of senior leaders recently polled by leadership development consultancy Decision Strategies International (DSI) reported that they struggle to develop strategic leaders in their organizations.

The result? A leadership gap that continues to widen, in part, because of an absence of a common methodology for identifying and developing strategic thinkers.

Based on its own in-depth research, DSI has developed a strategic-thinking model that focuses on the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn.

Anticipate: Most leaders focus on what’s directly ahead, but research shows that the future never follows a straight line. Strategic leaders proactively monitor the environment—including threats and opportunities at the periphery—to foresee industry shifts before competitors do.

Challenge: It is easy for leaders to take solace in the status quo, especially when changing conditions push them to the boundaries of their comfort zone. Rather than subscribe to the old way of doing things, strategic leaders repeatedly challenge beliefs and assumptions, and encourage different — even contrarian — points of view.

Interpret: Through the process of anticipating and challenging, strategic leaders get data from multiple sources (customers, competitors, partners, etc.) that must be carefully pieced together to yield actionable insights. These execs continually push themselves to connect indicators in different ways as they test hypotheses and explore various explanations for identified patterns of market or customer activity.

Decide: Analysis paralysis is not uncommon among leaders, and it can be crippling. To make sage decisions, even with incomplete information, strategic leaders must follow a disciplined process that combines speed, rigor, quality and agility; the process must also enable leaders to consider the trade-offs, as well as short- and long-term goals, associated with each decision.

Align: Different opinions and viewpoints should be welcomed, but there comes a time when leaders must align divergent agendas. Strategic leaders actively engage stakeholders and encourage open dialogue to address misalignment, build trust and reach consensus.

Learn: Lessons in business come as much from past successes as from failures. Strategic leaders study both and communicate key lessons that can improve future performance. They encourage transparent, rigorous debriefs and adjust their sails when necessary; they foster an environment in which the right kinds of failure can be celebrated.

As McKinsey pointed out, “Involving more senior leaders in strategic dialogue makes it easier to stay ahead of emerging opportunities, [to] respond quickly to unexpected threats and [to] make timely decisions.”

Samantha Howland is a senior managing partner at Decision Strategies International, a Pennsylvania-based leadership development consultancy.

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