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How to Be a Strategic Thinker

Most of us tend to focus on our immediate day-to-day tasks. However, you can make a more valuable contribution to your organization—and boost your career—by learning to be a strategic thinker, a leadership consultant told HR professionals on Monday.

In fact, "there's probably no one more qualified to do that than you, than HR. You are uniquely qualified to lead the organization across silos," said Valerie Grubb, founder of Val Grubb & Associates Ltd. in New Orleans, during a mega session at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

To start, learn how to read financial statements and how HR connects to financial performance. Understand the business and how each department works. Keep up with industry trends such as technological advances. Track what your competitors are doing. Know what your executives are reading to better understand what matters to them the most, Grubb said.

Understand strategic HR metrics that can quantify your work, such as turnover, organizational revenue compared to the number of full-time employees and compared to operating expenses, and compensation compared to revenue and operating expenses, she said.

To be a strategic thinker, you need to:

  • Be forward-thinking. "You anticipate and look for opportunities that arise," Grubb said. What needs to change for your business to survive? What people will you need four to five years out?
  • Seek input from others throughout the organization.
  • Have a long-term focus. Find creative ways to say "yes" when leaders come to you for help.
  • Be hands-off. "If you're a micro-manager, you're tactical, not strategic," she said. While it can be scary to give up control, you need to guide employees to make decisions and let them learn from their mistakes.
  • Be willing to take risks. Carve out time to think about the future with your staff, if you have one. If you had unlimited money, what would you do? Encourage new ideas, and support those who propose them. Recognize and reward risk-taking.
  • Prioritize your time. Don't equate being busy with being effective. "Focus on those high-visibility projects that help you get promoted," she said.
  • Be nimble. Be a person who leads change and helps others overcome their fear of change.
  • Be a life-long learner. Seek out knowledge and new skills. Be open to learning from others as well as teaching others.
  • Be creative. Creativity isn't just coming up with big ideas, but also being innovative in daily activities and long-term thinking, she said. Don't be afraid to speak up in meetings, raising questions and alternative views. "If you don't speak up in meetings, you do your company a disservice," she said.

In the short term, you can be more strategic by looking for ways to make production and processes more efficient, she said. Simplify or reduce HR policies and procedures. Start by talking with your own employees. What do they think can be improved?

Grubb also offered some long-term strategic ideas: Give priority to the needs of revenue-generating business units, jobs and employees. Ask how you can help them. What are their challenges?

Find ways to develop and retain revenue-producers. Identify barriers and opportunities to productivity and future growth. Improve your onboarding process to reduce the time that it takes for new employees to get up to full speed.

Partner with finance to tie expenses and revenue to people, products and sales.

"Your goal should be to figure out how you can impact revenue," she said. Make it part of your HR team's goals, and include it in your own performance evaluation.

One HR professional in the audience said the session helped her refocus on long-term goals.

"This is where I struggle because the day-to-day work is so busy," said Denise Esselborn, SHRM-CP, who is the sole HR professional for Mobile Integration Workgroup, a technology and communications consulting company in Redmond, Wash. "This is why I come to SHRM every year—to refocus and remind me why I love what I do."


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