Learning Strategic Leadership

A leader’s capacity to steer the company’s strategy is a lifelong learning: it does not pop up all of a sudden in the life of a manager.

Strategic leadership is a daily exercise, a back and forth exchange between everyday reality, thinking, discussions within the company, interactions outside the company. It is not only intended for teams; an important part of leadership is guiding the executive team to build and share the company’s projects and vision.

This strategic ability is built on three levels:

  • On a strategic level, particularly as an Executive Committee member, to animate the group dynamics and share a vision of the future
  • On an operational level, to maintain performance commitments and business success
  • On a political level, to create conditions apt to ensure successful projects

Whether you are a new manager or an experienced professional, as a strategic leader you have to face the challenges of power and influence.

Being right is not enough to succeed.

Strategic leadership requires a thorough understanding of the business environment, a profound knowledge of the company – both official and informal – , political savvy and at the same time a deep sense of integrity, so as to be able to face complex and sensitive issues and thus be a role model for colleagues and co-workers.

It’s quite a lot for a single person…!

Luckily there are attitudes, techniques, good practices that enable us to develop strategic leadership. In the long term it is possible to develop as a leader through sheer practice, by interacting with one’s manager, colleagues, consultants, coaches and by pondering over past experiences…

In a complex environment strategic leadership is even more crucial.  It is essential to know oneself, to find the right balance between taking into account one’s intuitions and listening to the opinions of others.  Furthermore, one must be clear-headed when facing power games and at the same time remain optimistic and honest.

How can we develop strategic leadership?

Coaching is a powerful tool to help us step back and develop our image of the company, of our environment, of our analyses of different situations.  The purpose of coaching is to provide a space to think which will enable us to use all our resources to abandon our one-sided view of the situation and open up other possibilities.

The coaching of executives who reach a level entailing strategic responsibilities often deals with four types of difficulties:

  • Failing to understand the difference between an operational and a strategic position
  • Underestimating the importance of political ability
  • Continuing to reason with “or” rather than with “and”
  • Failing to create the conditions favoring the sharing of vision, ambition and strategy

Let’s see them in detail.

1. Adopting a leader’s attitude

Understanding the necessary change of attitude of an operational manager as opposed to the attitude of a member of the Executive Committee is of the utmost importance to succeed in C-Suites.

In order to move from operational management to strategic leadership, it is necessary to understand that the quality of one’s dossiers and the performances attained are not sufficient to convince the other managers.

The real strength of strategic leadership lies in the capacity to understand the stakes of each actor, to meet them and to have the means to impose one’s vision.  It is also the capacity to sustain both the vision of one’s goal and, at the same time, the capacity to adapt, the agility required to adjust to the permanent evolution of the different situations one has to face.

It often happens in an executive committee that numerous issues are not really decided upon.  A real handicap would be failing to understand that this is a way of leaving some options open so as to better adapt, or to maintain an advantage in the power game.  Demanding greater clarity may even be a mistake.

A young woman executive who had just been named to the Executive Committee wondered why her CEO had not explained more clearly the need to negotiate for support, to form coalitions, to get involved in decisions that did not seem to have operational necessities or, on the contrary, to hold back on a decision concerning certain issues …

She finally understood that she was expected to guess.  If she required an explanation, it meant that she was not ready to discover on her own the subtleties of the art of being a member of the company’s executive committee.

She had to doff her successful operational manager’s reflexes in order to don the executive suit.

2. Developing political savvy

A strategic leader understands the need to take his colleagues’ positions into account, as well as their reasons for supporting or opposing a decision.

He does his best to understand his colleagues’ behaviour and attitudes, by refraining from making judgments, by trying to grasp each person’s logic and by acting accordingly.  He adapts his way of communicating and his behaviour to attain the desired result, instead of imposing his point of view by deluding himself into thinking that he is convincing.

He shows sincerity, integrity, authenticity to build trusting relationships.  He develops and fosters bonds in his network.

3. An ambidextrous leadership: knowing how to deal with contradictory situations

When climbing to an executive position one often has the opportunity of confronting contradictory injunctions, such as performing over the short term while working towards the sustainability of the company, being close to one’s co-workers and yet maintaining the necessary distance,  being ambitious and still showing humility, having a well-defined project and yet being ready to adapt to circumstances….

An example: operational managers often show a penchant for a binary conception of exchanges among colleagues: if I am right, it means that there is only one truth and that they are wrong.

The ability to reach a quick decision and a clear vision of a situation are essential skills to attain success at this level.  In order to adjust to the complexity of a strategic level, it is essential to be firm and to be able to take rapid decisions, while at the same time showing patience, letting things take their course and taking the necessary time.

In other words, one must learn to accept contradictions, without trying to find an immediate solution, to bear the questioning looks of one’s co-workers without feeling the need to constantly reassure them, to reach a clear decision so as to steer their actions.

4. Working on different levels to bring about a harmonization of the executive group: Mission, Vision, Strategy

An executive group’s capacity to function properly depends upon several factors. One of them is agreeing on a common project that will create benchmarks for important decisions. Such a common project reflects the group’s wishes for the future.  It comes before the strategy which is its operational application.  It is usually built on the definition of the company’s mission, i.e. the reason for its existence, and on a shared vision as well as on the subsequent steps that the company envisions for its development.

A young Marketing Manager in a large international company realized that the difficulties he found when submitting his projects were due to a lack of alignment within the Executive Committee. Every member had different ideas on the future of the company.

Besides, the company’s good results did not lead to reflection.  Why bother to question a vision or a mission when the results are satisfactory?

He then suggested to the CEO that they undertake a review of the ambition that should animate the Executive Committee for the sake of the Company. He realized that that was exactly what his colleagues were waiting for and that his role was to animate the strategic thinking…but certainly not to define it on his own.

He then suggested an approach that would enable each one of them to provide an input and, together with his CEO, he reached a conclusion that was the best possible combination of each member’s position and a medium to long term vision for the company.

Strategic leadership is a patient thinking process, an exchange of views, a building of coalitions, an adaptation to different situations rather than a sudden revelation imposed on everybody.

It is important for a strategic leader to surround himself with a network of skills and advice, not only in order to find the right solutions, but also in order to ask the right questions!

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